ODAY I complete the sixth month of my diaconate. I am still new enough to be able to count the formal things.
Thus far I have baptised four children and presided at one marriage and one funeral. I have preached at Mass on eight Sundays and at three ecumenical services (including as a highlight preaching from the auctioneer's box at Tattersall's horse sale ring on Remembrance Day!) But that is the visible tip of the ministerial iceberg. Far more, I have been invited into people's homes and hearts, asked to enter into their sadness and joy, their celebration and their fears. And I have tried to facilitate things, to mobilise the energies of others.
Nothing in my formation had prepared me for the demand of this ministry. And nothing has proved as real and actual as the "grace of orders".
I can give no rational account of how it was I felt the call to this ministry. I have an over-full life as a university don and as a husband and father.
It was and is impractical to take on more. When I blurted out to my parish priest that I felt an irrational need to talk to him about the diaconate, I knew next to nothing about it. All I could say is that I wanted to bring together two aspects of my life that seemed artificially separated: first my life as a tutor who counselled students and found myself increasingly frustrated by the requirement to leave the dimension of faith behind the sherry bottle on the mantle piece, and second the privilege of taking the Blessed Sacrament to the housebound, the sick and the dying.
Quite how they could be combined and why that needed the grace of orders I had absolutely no idea.
CERTAE•ILY I had no awareness of the history of the permanent diaconate. I was vaguely aware of the biblical institution of deacon, mainly because my middle name is Stephen and I knew that he
was not only the first martyr but one of the seven men appointed by the apostles to look after widowed refugees from the Hellenic Jewish community who had arrived in Jerusalem and were not being adequately eared for. I was only hazily aware that elsewhere in the New Testament, Paul distinguished between epi scopoi bishops and diakonoi deacons (I Timothy 3:1-13) and that there is no sign of a presbyter (priest) anywhere! I certainly had little idea of how the permanent diaconate as a separate ordained order prospered in the early centuries yielding so many of the early martyrs of the Church, and how it finally withered at the beginning of the second millennium as it crumbled before the development of a parish-based priesthood and before the dominance of monastic houses (which had no scope for permanent deacons) in founding and staffing those parish churches. Nor was I aware that it was the regular intention of the Church (as at the Council of Trent) to reinstate it, an intention not actually realised until the clarion call of the Second Vatican Council. In the words of the Council's great constitution of the Church, Lumen Gentium (Nov 1904, art 29) "strengthened by sacramental grace, deacons are dedicated to the People of God... in the service of the liturgy, of the Gospel and of works of charity".
Study of the history came to afford one sort on insight into the ministry, and to a recognition that if the ministry of the priest is rooted in celebration, that of the diaconate is rooted in service.
What that meant required a sometimes painful process of discovery in a three-year formation programme of study dates and weekends, small group tutorials and retreats, as well as individual direction.
What emerged from that was that a ministry of service meant a willingness to lay one's particular gifts at the disposal of the Christian community.
ALL THOSE IN the formation programme had utterly different and distinct gifts in prayer, in counselling, in teachings, in works of practical charity.
I learnt that ministry meant not the fulfilment of a prescribed list of specific tasks, but a process of discerning what I had particularly to offer and how I needed to bring God into the acts of sharing.
But it also involved a recognition that I needed to be a bridge across the divide that has too often limited the release of energies within the Church, that has often produced an active clergy and a passive laity.
Visible at some times alongside my wife and children and sometimes in alb and dalmatic as an assistant in the liturgy, I represent a challenge to those stereotypes. It is both an opportunity and a source of stress.
The ambiguity of the ministry was both to seize the opportunity to encourage and empower the people of God and to avoid becoming the sponge that soaks up the tasks Father is too busy to accomplish. It is a challenge I have by no means yet mastered.
As the Bishop handed me the Book of the Gospels he said: "John, believe what you read, teach what you believe, and practise what you teach." Indeed; and let me not forget to buy my round of drinks on race night.