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How can deacons do justice to both of their vocations?

Leon Suprenant is the co-director of the Office of the Permanent Diaconate. He may be reached at

by Leon Suprenant

In my last column, I looked at how we might form an understanding of permanent deacons as “married clergy” that does justice to both marriage and holy orders.

One key principle is the fact that “being precedes doing.” All that means is that our identity (“who we are”) is more fundamental than our activity (“what we do”).

Our actions flow from our identity. In the animal world, dogs do “doggy” things and cats do “catty” things. As men and women, we do “human” things, and as children of God redeemed through the blood of Christ, we do holy or “Christ-like” things.

As Jesus says, “Every sound tree produces good fruit, but the bad tree bears evil fruit” (Mt 7:17).

There is obviously a close connection between the tree and its fruit, between being and doing. After all, “You will know them by their fruits” (Mt 7:20). Still, the tree comes before the fruit.

We sometimes confuse this natural order of things. This can have devastating effects when it comes to concern for the unborn and other vulnerable populations. Our identity and value come from who we are — not what we do or are able to do. Our identity as human persons traces back to our conception as persons created in the image of God.

Similarly, our identity as Christians stems from our baptism, when we are reborn as children of God. It’s not so much that we love God and do all sorts of “religious” acts, but rather that God first loved us (1 Jn 4:19).

The identity of married persons is rooted in their mutual consent to give completely of themselves to each other as husband and wife, just as Christ loves his church (Eph 5:22-33). This surely entails many “actions,” but these actions do not define the relationship.

Also, the marriage is ordered to fruitfulness, but the couple is just as “married” regardless of whether the Lord blesses their union with children.

Now we come to the diaconate, and sometimes we get ahead of ourselves. We think about the distinctive actions of the deacon and miss the crucial aspect of the deacon’s identity, the indelible “sacramental character” (CCC 1570) from which the actions come.

When we emphasize what the deacon does, we tend to place a disproportionate emphasis on the liturgical or parochial dimension of the deacon’s service. His identity then becomes that of a “priest lite” — an official-looking cleric who cannot celebrate Mass or hear confessions.

Responding to that caricature, the deacon may feel pressured to spend more time away from his family in “ministry.”

In the next installment of this series, we will examine how the married deacon actually brings the grace of the sacrament home with him.

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Leon Suprenant

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