Deacons are especially known for their commitment to social concerns and works of charity
by Leon Suprenant
As ministers of charity, deacons are leaders in identifying the needs of others, then marshaling the church’s material and spiritual resources to meet those needs.
The deacon’s identity is expressed in his three-fold ministry of proclaiming the word of God, celebrating the sacraments, and exercising the ministry of charity (diakonia). These duties presuppose each other and are inseparable. His charitable outreach is not some kind of welfare activity that could equally well be left to others, but rather is at the core of who he is.
It’s also at the core of who all of us are as Christians. “They’ll know we are Christians by our love” is not merely a song, but an apt description of how the world should perceive us.
Let’s look briefly at the social dimension of diaconal ministry, realizing that all of us are called to love others as Christ loved us. We are not all deacons with the grace and responsibility of ordination, but we are all “diaconal” in our loving service of those around us.
Charitable activity on behalf of the poor and suffering was naturally an essential part of the church from its earliest days. The church is the family of God. In this family no one should ever have to go without the necessities of life.
At the same time, Christian love must be extended beyond the frontiers of the church. The parable of the good Samaritan remains the standard for all Catholics: We must always reach out in love to those whom we encounter “by chance” (cf. Lk. 10:31), whoever they may be.
And it’s always been the special role of the deacon to make these noble sentiments a reality in the nitty-gritty experiences of human misery and suffering.
As Catholics we promote justice, especially through our political activity. Still, as Pope Benedict affirmed, charity will always prove necessary, even in the most just society. Love is always needed. There will always be suffering which cries out for consolation and mercy. There will always be loneliness. There will always be heart-wrenching situations where help in the form of concrete love of neighbor is indispensable.
The deacon — and all of us — are called to be ministers of God’s merciful love to those in need. We attend to those who are hurting materially through the corporal works of mercy. Not stopping there, we offer Our Lord’s healing grace to those who are spiritually in need through the spiritual works of mercy. Both forms of mercy are absolutely necessary, and Pope Francis exhorts all of us to get off our sofas and be the church to our hurting world.