a radical diaconate

There’s a persistent knowledge that lives somewhere in me, it is not rational or logical, but I know it, would put my life on it — am trying to do just that: I know the Holy Spirit is wanting to do a thing. Is going to renew the Church in a million ways, because the world needs its renewal. 

I think one of the ways, is through (restoring women to) the diaconate.

But the diaconate I dream of is not your retired-granddaddy diaconate.

(though I love Deacon Larry, our retired granddaddy retired deacon, who did jail ministry for a million years and now joins our staff meetings each week to be a calming presence, I swear he just prays over us the whole time because he’s worried we are going to all lose our shit. Which we often come right up to the edge of doing, when something seems to keep us together.) 

Here are some sketches of a theology ofthe diaconate I’ve been churning over. Incomplete, in need of your eyes & hearts and & spirits to help fill out what it is I cannot see.

the diaconate I dream of…

Imagine if deacons were the community organizers of the Catholic Church, animating a living body (not deputized sheriffs, policing the boundaries of a dead tradition) .

Constantly running internal listening campaigns to help the church do its synodal work, live into its synodal identity & messy graces. Helping to lift up the lived concerns within a local parish and its geographic-political boundaries — knitting together the relational fabric of the place, calling out gifts and helping people blast through whatever demons they have so they can find a way to share those gifts in community. Identifying the needs, so they can be met in the life of the those who gather around the altar. Inviting leaders to step up and take responsibility — to be alive in their discipleship. To be alive in their LIVES. To breathe fresh life into the social teachings of the Church by not fearing the political implications of ministry at the margins.

Reporting to the Bishop: THESE are the needs of the people, Bishop. This is what is on their hearts and minds. This is where we need to direct the funds for this year’s appeal. This is the public witness that our brother priests need to be trained and organized to offer leadership for. 

There’s the ordinary work: marriage preparation, preaching, baptizing, officiating weddings, celebrating at funerals. The preaching — quarterly, to keep it fresh and salty. There’s the work of the heart of the church: dragging the ambo to the streets and the streets to the ambo. 

A deacon: the conscience of the church. Constantly pressing the body of believers into the presence of a suffering, homeless, incarcerated, sick, marginalized Christ — when they risk becoming comfortable. Constantly drawing up the healing, consoling, nourishing, resurrecting power of Christ when the people of God risk becoming defeated and forlorn. 

The deacon — salty, light.  Not someone only buried under unpaid labor. 

The deacon — going between the front of the house and the back of the house. 

It is the diakonos who first witness Jesus’ miracle at Cana. Before the chief steward has tasted the wine, they have carried out Mary and Jesus’ bidding, they have been instruments within this miraculous sign. 

Their work is anointed and blessed. 

It’s not that we put aside the real issues of structural patriarchy, homophobia, misogyny, racism.

It’s that we say — where’s a way through? Where’s a path of witnessing and carving out space for renewal? For the dream of the alternative that so many of us share? 

Why does being ordained matter? It’s about being seen. Being recognized by the body and institution in which you long to give your life. It’s about being invested in. Having the corporal body care about your formation for the ministry you’ve been called to.
It’s about being anointed to anoint.  (note: deacons do not actually have the “power” of anointing. I think the Holy Spirit held it back, and that when women are restored we will see anointing flow again more freely, offering less policing of the sacraments and a freedom to pour them out… as it is always the women in the New Testament who mark out the path of anointing as worship)

It’s about those who deacons minister to — it’s about them knowing that the church came, officially, That those who often feel most unseen and invisible, were seen and known and touched by the church. That they are always within the reach of Christ’s mercy and love and liberation.

And if you haven’t listened to this yet – I’m re-posting here: “I believe I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living”

10 thoughts on “a radical diaconate

  1. I love your vision for renewal Casey – deacons as the parish community organizers, the ones running the listening campaigns. Yes! I imagine this church honoring the deep work of listening and then sifting through all that listening to prayerfully discern key priorities. One obstacle is that with a growing shortage of priests, it’s possible the ordinary parish work takes up more and more of a deacon’s time. What will it take for this intentional renewal of the diaconate as community organizing to have a chance to flourish?

  2. YESSSSSSSSS

    I was on a different Zoom call recently when someone said — What if we do not solve problems (patriarchy, racism, etc.)? What if we simply out grow them? It seems this is what you are suggesting. it seems as though it is a matter of shifting focus from all the things that are wrong to the needs of God’s precious people. Maybe it has always been as simple as responding to the needs in front of us.

    Deacons as community organizers informing the bishops about the needs of the people TICKLED me.

    Thank you for your vision and your roll in convening these conversations

  3. Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes!

    As I read your post, Casey, all I could say was “yes!” I LOVE the image of deacons as community organizers. The image that kept recurring in my mind was one of waves – full of energy, constantly renewing, salty, capturing light, able to carry, no mind of manmade barriers.

    I think, in many ways, the “ordinary” people in the pews can’t imagine another deaconate, including one with women, because they don’t know what they don’t know. I believe ordination is important. It does matter. But what if we just started living and organizing church in this way?

    Side bar: I was a delegate (barf) at the USCCB’s convocation for catholic leaders. I truly believe that the organizers truly wanted to talk about taking the church on the margins. However, as the weekend went on, those margins shrunk and came closer to home. A deacon in my group said that the most marginalized group of people in the church were its deacons. Your description of retired granddaddy deacons brought that store up. I still think of that poor man.

  4. I am 1000% in on this!

    I’ve tried as an outsize Faith-based organizer, but it doesn’t give the opportunity for the fullness of ministry that I desire and see laid out so plainly in your vision.

    I have tried to do some of this as a volunteer but I haven’t had the means to be trained, haven’t had the position of being ordained, or accountable to parish or Bishop in the way that I think is required to live this out.

    Thank you for your clarity of leadership and vocation!

  5. “Constantly running internal listening campaigns to help the church do its synodal work, live into its synodal identity & messy graces. Helping to lift up the lived concerns within a local parish and its geographic-political boundaries — knitting together the relational fabric of the place, calling out gifts ”

    This is my dream too!! Thanks for summing it all up.

    “It’s about being anointed to anoint.”

    And the church says “AMEN” !!
    Thanks so much Casey for letting the Spirit bless your heart.

  6. When we say in the midst of the hot and holy mess in which we find ourselves, “We need to to do church differently,” your theology of diaconate is insightful and prescient. At no other time in the church’s history, would we have had any notion of what you have described. All I can say, is “You have saved the best wine until now.”

    What if we were to imagine a diaconate that is not competitive with priestly ministry, not an adjunct, not a wannabe, not a second-best clerical alternative? What if we conceive of it as something completely new, (“See I am doing a new thing.”) as a vocation with a strong and worthy purpose of its own? I’m not at all saying don’t ordain, but I am asking “ordained to what, for what?” As long as diaconate is perceived as a step in the clerical pecking order, church leadership will have its underwear in a knot over admitting women and will continue to impose on potential young deacons and the widowed the burden of clerical celibacy.

    What if we were to see deacons as first responders in a model of church-as-field hospital? Who ought to be called to this ministry? How would they be screened? Could spouses together become deacon couples offering an understanding reach into family ministry? What different gifts, aptitudes and temperament, gender, and yes, age, would be called for (all due respect to grandpa)? What would formation look like and what theology would be emphasized? What is skill sets are needed? Surely skill in discernment and a different kind of preaching from what we usually experience. (What? Training in homiletics?) What kind of practicum and/or mentoring would be appropriate? (What? Mentoring?) God help us, what kind of bishops would we need to receive such a vision and see it not as a threat, but as necessity and gift?

    “Dream big, love large,” said my long-time spiritual director of blessed memory. In my dream, Casey, I see you meeting with Pope Francis to share your vision of a re-imagined diaconal ministry for our time, one that would speak to his heart of possibilities beyond our present categories. Since Jesus sent no disciple out alone, I see you strategically choosing companions in this encounter, perhaps even some bishops, whose integrity, stature, and identification with the poor and oppressed would make a compelling case for what is most urgent in our day. Speaking of urgent, Francis isn’t getting any younger. No pressure, of course.

  7. Casey – I am delighted and invigorated and zestified (made zesty – made up word, but you know what I mean) by this vision, by your clarity, your passion, your heart, your desire to make it happen. I heard this vision bubbling and brewing in you when we were together on the discernment circle calls two and half years ago and rejoice in the ripening of the vision since that time.

    As I read this, I think, yes, in many ways this vision you describe is already happening – except without women being given the official recognition and naming of ordination as deacons. It is not so much creating something that doesn’t exist, but to name with greater clarity that which IS happening now but is not named and recognized.

    I’m with Suzanne – bring it to Pope Francis. How do we make that happen?

    Some other stirrings:
    What does community among these deacons look like? How does their accompaniment and mutual support of one another take shape?

    How are these deacons public listeners – of those in the congregation and beyond the congregation?

    Who particularly in our cloud of witnesses (thinking of those Claire sang in our first prayer together) is an intercessor and cheerleader for this vision? (I think of Martha (of Martha and Mary) – a deacon of a house church, for one.)

    How does this vision you have spun so beautifully connect with the diaconate (both temporary and permanent) as it now exists?

    I am so with you in this, Casey. Grateful for your faithful and powerful stewarding of this vision of life for all in the land of the living.

  8. Yes, Casey. YES! There is still a boatload of dreams and beauty to behold in this passage. Just to say in solidarity, and am also echoning Suzanne’s notion of church as field hospital. That image also came to the fore for me.

    As a religious sister once said to me after she met with Pope Francis — yes, Pope Francis met with me. Not I met with him. 🙂 What ways is the papa ready to meet YOU?

  9. Dear Casey,
    I think your vision for the dioconate is powerful because you are bringing the “animator,” the Spirit-filled “conscience of the Church” that most of us are accustomed to finding in specific social justice ministries into the heart of the parish. The role of the deacon works for this because the Church seems to conceptualize the deacon as someone with one foot in the institutional Church and the other foot in, well, not the institutional Church (the working world, broader community)—-the deacon a bridge-person; but bridging what? In your vision, the deacon bridges from the very inner core (being ordained, they are on the inside!) to the margins for the reason of bringing the Church to the margins! Also, what an incredible way to fight clericalism by visioning a crucial role which allows us to see the parish priest as a valued servant who is nonetheless limited because of a job which by definition puts you in the center of everything church-y.

    By the way, I think one way you could describe the vision is “deacon as animator” (I just learned that Salesian sisters call their superior the Animator now, which is so cool.) Does the deacon in your vision have a particular connection with the Holy Spirit? Is the deacon-as-listener also a deacon-as-discerner, listening to the signs of the times and our Creator’s voice? Is the deacon also fleet-footed and spontaneous like the “wind which blows where it wills”?

    On a personal note, your vision gave me a nudge to realize that the vocation I dream of (which I thought could be the diaconate) might be its own thing! I have been taken for a long time with the Anchoress: the listener of the parish church who does a ministry of presence, spiritual counsel, intercessory prayer, and love. Maybe a consecrated virgin could do this…but the name of that vocation is a little difficult to take. 🙂

  10. Casey,

    Thank you for this clear articulation of the call God has placed on your heart. It is inspiring and gives me hope for the future of the church. I struggled with speaking to the call I feel that God has given me. Your vocational dream has helped me see a possiblility for my own.

    I feel the Holy Spirit speaking whenever you speak about the diaconate. I pray for your continued perseverance of this dream and the continual hope that you bring to others.

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