by Leon Suprenant
The pilot episode of “Everybody Loves Raymond” had one of the funniest sitcom scenes I’ve ever seen.
Ray bought his mother Marie a membership in a “fruit of the month club” for her birthday. Marie and her husband Frank’s reaction was priceless. They considered the basket of fruit a downright imposition, not a gift for their benefit. In an exasperated tone, Marie asked, “What are we going to do with all this fruit?” And Frank chimed in, “Like we don’t have enough problems.”
Every so often, I recall that episode when thinking about how the Lord is blessing our archdiocese with more deacons. When I tell people that we not only ordained our first class of 17 deacons in 2011, but now have 38 men in formation, I sometimes hear the question, “What are we going to do with all those deacons?”
Granted, our archdiocese and our parishes survived many years without any permanent deacons, so as we respond to the church’s call to restore the permanent diaconate, it is fair to ask questions about the nature, purpose and functions of deacons.
Still, the questions sometimes run deeper. Do we really need deacons? Don’t we have enough deacons?
If I told you we had 38 men in the seminary, or 38 women entering religious life, or 38 couples getting married in the church, or 38 young adults preparing for missionary work, we would all rejoice. The details will be worked out. The important thing would be that God is blessing the church with more laborers in the vineyard.
Sometimes, I find that the issue is really a concern about who does what, especially when it comes to the Mass. Some are concerned that deacons somehow diminish the priest’s role, while others see deacons as setting back the cause of lay participation. Deacons are said to have one foot in the church hierarchy and one foot in the secular world, and this “in-between” status as reflected on the altar sometimes causes discomfort.
I think the answer is to understand and appreciate deacons for who they are, and not for the things they do or the liturgical functions they perform. They are ordained ministers who are uniquely called to image Christ the servant, who gave himself so that everyone may experience the fullness of life. A deacon’s presence in the parish should be, in the deepest sense, life-giving for everyone, especially for those who are hurting or are living on the margins.
As Christian men living in the world, deacons bring the needs of the people to the church. As ministers of the church, deacons bring the healing balm of Christ’s merciful love to the world. Their presence in our midst is surely a gift of the Holy Spirit for our times.