May we never underestimate importance of deacons

NOTE: The following letter was published in the January 10, 2019 edition of The Catholic Spirit, the official newspaper of the Diocese of Metuchen.

The restoration of the diaconate as a permanent order of ministry in the Church occurred as a result of the Second Vatican Council in the mid 1960's. Then, Pope, now St. Paul VI, published new norms for the Diaconate in his Apostolic Letter, Ad Pascendum. Then 50 years ago, the Vatican approved the United States Bishops’ request for the establishment of the diaconate order in our country.

To commemorate the 50th anniversary, in this issue of The Catholic Spirit, there is a special supplement on our deacons whom Pope Paul VI described as “the interpreter of the needs and the desires of the Christian communities, and the sign or sacrament or sign of Christ the Lord Himself who came not to be served but to serve.”

I always enjoy visiting our parishes, and one of the joys is seeing all of our deacons who come to assist at Mass. Their faithfulness in our parishes is evident, and I know our people are grateful for that. They give beautiful witness to Christ the Servant, and ensure that He is always present through their prayer lives, the witness they give as men in Holy Orders and their service at the altar, to the poor especially, and in so many ministries that otherwise might not take place.  

In our world today that so values efficiency and utilitarianism, our deacons give witness to all of the importance of service….how many “services” today are being taken over by machines….robotics to take over human functions – machines serve us at banks, checkout counters, at customer service centers and on the phone….But Christ puts a human face on service and the diaconate is the sacramental embodiment of His example and mandate to serve.  

At ordination, deacons are configured to Christ the Servant. As Pope, now St. John Paul II said in his 1987 visit to the United States: “This is at the very heart of the diaconate to which you have been called: to be a servant of the mysteries of Christ and, at one and the same time, to be a servant of your brothers and sisters. That these two dimensions are inseparably joined together in one reality shows the important nature of the ministry which is yours by ordination.”  

As a sacramental sign of the Church’s mission, our deacons also have the responsibility to “enable” others; that is, by their example and encouragement, they show others how to be effective ministers and evangelizers. In addition, through their secular employment, they bear witness to the Gospel in the marketplace and show all around them how their life as committed disciples and ordained ministers is not something they “do” for a couple of hours a week, but rather is integrated into every facet of their life. This is why their commitment to be men of prayer is so important. 

We never know the benefit of our prayer, and we won’t until we get to heaven, but we believe it is effective. Then, too, their quiet prayer each day, sharpens their identity as Christ the Servant as they spend time with Him deepening their friendship, and their prayer empowers them for the work they do, so they are much more than social workers. That is why the prayers they say by themselves, and with their wives and families as well as with our parishioners are so very important.

While we celebrate and honor our deacons on this 50th anniversary, we should never forget the role of their wives in their ministry. To quote again from St. John Paul II – whose pontificate was so intently focused on the importance of sacramental marriage: “…the deacon and his wife must be a living example of fidelity and indissolubility of Christian marriage before a world which is in dire need of such signs. By facing in a spirit of faith the challenges of married life and the demands of daily living, they strengthen the family life not only of the Church community but of the whole of society. They also show how the obligations of family, work and ministry can be harmonized in the service of the Church’s mission.” 

I am deeply grateful to all our deacons’ wives for sharing their marriage graces with the Church and for sharing so much of their husbands with the Church. Their support for their husband’s ministry is crucial to its effectiveness. The love they share is a visible sign of Christ’s love for all of us. Indeed, the Church will not allow a man to become a deacon without the positive support of his wife. Likewise, their family members share in their ministry through their support and by giving an example of a healthy family life in our Church. It is a blessing!

As you read the stories in this edition’s supplement celebrating the 50th anniversary of the restoration of the permanent diaconate, you will learn more about the history of this vocation, and how our deacons serve our diocese through the three pillars of the diaconate: Liturgy, Word and Charity. 

In the Diocese of Metuchen, we are blessed with 150 active deacons and 27 retired deacons. There are also 15 deacons of our diocese who minister outside of the diocese. This year, we are beginning to train a new class of Latino candidates who will be taught in Spanish. The need for Spanish speaking deacons is growing in our diocese, so please remember this class in your prayers.

Four of our deacons have served us for 40 years or longer, ordained even before we were a diocese: Timothy Lawless, St. Joseph Parish, Hillsborough, ordained in 1976; John McGuire, retired, Immaculate Conception Parish, Spotswood, ordained in 1977; and Frank Cammarano, retired, Cathedral of St. Francis of Assisi, and Patrick Cline, St. Bernard of Clairvaux Parish, Bridgewater, both ordained in 1978. Their perseverance is inspiring. 

I ask all of you to join me as we celebrate this 50th anniversary of the diaconate in expressing our diocese’s love, gratitude and prayers for all our deacons. We are a richer Church because of their sacrificial love and service. That is certainly something worth celebrating!  

The Most Reverend James F. Checchio, JCD, MBA
Bishop of Metuchen