The Deacon's Bench

The Deacon's Bench

Homily for May 16, 2010: Seventh Sunday of Easter


“The Stoning of St. Stephen” by James Michaels

As I was looking over the readings for this weekend, I thought they sounded very familiar, and then it dawned on me: these were the same readings at my Mass of Thanksgiving, celebrated three years ago just after I was ordained.


As I approach the anniversary of my ordination, this reading from the Acts of the Apostles seems to have even more resonance. The account of the death of St. Stephen – the first martyr of the Church, and a deacon – reminds us of how this vocation began, with an extraordinary sacrifice. One man, giving his life for the gospel.

And remembering how it all began is to realize something humbling, and beautiful: to be a deacon of the church is to stand on the shoulders of giants. St. Stephen. St. Lawrence. St. Francis of Assisi. Deacons who left an enduring mark on our church.

This Sunday, deacons are preaching in every corner of the world – there are 17-thousand of them in the United States alone, from every walk of life. And the diaconate continues to grow at an astonishing rate. It is truly one of the great success stories of Vatican II. But there are still a lot of misconceptions about this ministry.


One of the most common is that permanent deacons are here because of the shortage of priests that started in the ’70s.

The real genesis came much earlier, during World War II, in the German concentration camp at Dachau.

During the Third Reich over 2,000 Catholic priests were held at Dachau. One out of every 25 deaths there, in fact, was a priest.

The priest prisoners were kept in cellblock 26, known as “Der Priesterblock.” For the imprisoned priests, this experience was transformative. While in Der Priesterblock, many of them began talking about how to renew the Church when the war was over. How could the Church better serve the world? One answer, they felt, would include bringing back an ancient order of service, the diaconate.


After the camp was liberated, the priests who survived returned to a Europe in ruins – a world desperately in need of evangelization, just as in the first century. Some of the priests formed what they called Deacon Circles of clergy and laity – circles of prayer, and service and charity. By the early 1960s, some of those priests from Dachau had become bishops. They attended the Second Vatican Council. And the rest, of course, is history.

And so it was that the modern diaconate took root and grew – from seeds watered with the blood of martyrs of the 20th century, the martyrs of Dachau.

It’s one more reminder that I stand on the shoulders of giants.

Just before I was ordained, I attended a retreat given by Deacon Bill Ditewig, who told an amazing story of the sacrifice men are making in our own day to become deacons, and serve the church.


In 2000, Bill attended a meeting in Rome where deacons from around the world gave presentations about their countries. Bill spoke about the thousands of deacons in the United States and how the vocation was thriving in this country. This was greeted with some polite applause. But a few minutes later, a deacon from Hungary got up to speak. He announced, with little fanfare, that his country had 46 deacons. And the room erupted into cheers.

Bill was taken aback. He figured there must be more to the story. He tracked down a translator and sought out the deacon from Hungary.

The Hungarian deacon explained that under communism, it was illegal to hold any religious assemblies, including classes for deacons. But in the early 1980s, there were nine men who wanted to try. Nine men who wanted to be deacons. What could they do? Well, behind the scenes, an arrangement was worked out. Every month, the men secretly – and illegally — crossed the border to Austria to study for a few days, and then come back. This went on for years. Back and forth, back and forth, risking arrest and even imprisonment. Finally, these nine men were ordained in Austria, to serve back home in Hungary. Once the Iron Curtain fell, the diaconate blossomed and grew.


And it happened, in large part, because of those nine men – each, risking everything for the gospel. Each in his way, a successor to Stephen, following in the footsteps of the first martyr.

Another reminder that I stand on the shoulders of giants.

This church, of course, is dedicated to the Queen of Martyrs, and if you look around, you will see images and statues of them all over. But to your right, there is a rose window that has special significance. It depicts this moment from the Acts of the Apostles – the stoning of St. Stephen.

Every time I climb into this pulpit, I see him and am reminded of how this ministry began, and what I am here to do, to proclaim God’s word — the very act for which Stephen was killed.


And so it is that what started with St. Stephen has led us here: to this church dedicated to the Queen of Martyrs, the mother who holds in her heart all who have suffered and bled and died for what they believe.

Martyrs made our faith.

All of us who are here this day — all who hear the word of God, who worship within these walls and who welcome the sacrament we are about to receive — all of us are able to do this because of great men and women who came before us, and who gave their lives so that we could share in this banquet.

We are here because of them.

Let us pray that we always remember that.

Because, in one way or another, we all stand on the shoulders of giants.

[Anyone curious to learn more about the history and development of the diaconate should read Bill Ditewig’s definitive book on the subject, “The Emerging Diaconate.”  A hard copy is available through Amazon or Paulist Press.]

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posted May 15, 2010 at 1:52 pm

Of course no one would say the diaconate was restored because of the priest shortage, because at the time of the council there was no priest shortage in the US or Europe. As the priest shortage became more a problem in the US, then more and more diaconate programs started to help meet the sacramental need in parishes. The case is Europe evolved differently and the countries that did have a priest crisis at the time of the council (Africa, etc) have seen such a growth in priestly vocations that the diaconate has not really taken off in those countries. Even in the US there is a diocese in Nebraska that does not have a diaconate, but has many priestly vocations.
The information available concerning the priests’ discussions in Dachau during the war, shows they were talking about a very different type of diaconate than what has grown in the US. In the US the diaconate is mostly a liturgical/sacramental ministry. In the early “German deacon circles” it was seen mostly as a social ministry which would be a tremendous challenge to the German church to help rebuild their country and church after the war and one that Priests would not be able to meet alone.
Also before the council there was almost no idea of lay ministry, as we understand it now. The development of lay ministry and lay apostolate that is rooted in the baptismal consecration did not really start to grow until the Church really faced the challenge of post war Europe. It started with the international meetings set up by Pius Xll, then the great impetus of the council, the growth of the movements and lay ecclesial communities, and it has been developing all the way during the pontificates of Paul Vl, John Paul ll, and was most recently given a beautiful “push” in a talk this week by Pope Benedict at Fatima.
I am just saying the facts are not so black and white and one can also see that the prayers of the priests in Dachau are also being answered by the incredible growth and development of lay ministry that was not even a possibility back in the 1940’s.
[Good points, anthony. But those are nuances lost on many of the people in the pews, who generally seem to see deacons as fill-ins for priests, because of the shortage. Some have even wondered if we wouldn’t need deacons if we had enough priests! It’s interesting, meantime, to read Pope Paul VI’s Motu Proprio restoring the diaconate as a separate order. There are 11 duties assigned to deacons. The first eight are entirely liturgical. Dcn. G.]

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Deacon Norb

posted May 16, 2010 at 12:41 pm

where do I start?
–Dcn Greg’s homily suggests that the ideas behind the “RESTORATION” of the ancient ministry of the Permanently Ordained Deacon IN THE WESTERN CHURCH started with the horrors of Dachau. Actually, the initial theological discussions about this possibility (and a whole bunch of other issues that were eventually part of the agenda of Vatican II) actually started in the aftermath of Vatican I. There is a rather interesting theological trail of those “inter-Vatican” theological studies in one of the histories of the diaconate now published by Paulist Press (I just cannot remember which book, however).
–The EASTERN CHURCH (whether Byzantine or Orthodox) never lost that ministry (like they never lost the ministry of the married presbyterate either).
–I would suggest that here in the United States, the diaconate is also a Social Justice Ministry and that the “Caritas” charism so prevalent in the diaconate in Western Europe is also hugely prevalent here — it’s just that it is rather invisible. In my midwest diocese alone, I know and have met “Professor-Deacons” on college campuses; deacons who are Prison Chaplain, Port Chaplains, “Carny” Chaplains, some are involved with Catholic Radio, some who are UAW “line-Chaplains” within the auto-industry, some who work within the Focolare Movement/ the Charismatic Renewal Movement/ the Cursillo Movement. I also know several of our deacons who have direct connections with our military — working mostly with families at home.
I know one that organized a picket-line that shut-down a XXX rated theater, another who ministered to “ex-catholic/anti-catholic fundamentalists,” and a third who worked tirelessly for the undocumented refugees of the Sandinista Revolt in the 1980’s.
Perhaps this motto is the best descriptor I have seen: A deacon is a “fully-indigenous-minister-in-the-marketplace” first. Using a phrase I learned from the Cursillo movement, a Deacon “has to baptize his own jungle” first. His liturgical roles are all subservient to — and flow from — that mandate.
[Dcn. Norb…thank you for the added details. An early draft of my homily had actually mentioned the Eastern Church, and the theological discussions about restoring the diaconate in the 19th century. But it was making the homily too long and academic :-). And my point wasn’t to outline the entire history of the vocation, but to offer a few details and underscore, along the way, the larger theme of martyrdom. As you know, you can’t do everything in seven minutes! Dcn. G.]

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posted May 16, 2010 at 7:24 pm

Deacons Norb and Gregg
Just to fine tune what I meant:
Actually I think the restoration of the diaconate first started rumbling after the council of Trent, but with all the challenges of the Counter Reformation it never took off. But it has a long history of being ignored, shelved and returned for second look. As mentioned before, one thread that helped to get it back on the stove was the “Caritas Circles” that were partly the results of the Dachau discussion. But just as important was the biblical and ecclesial renewal that came from the “resourcement” of catholic theology leading up to the Vatican 2 council. As with any historical movement, nothing is black and white or just a direct cause/effect. It has to grow in many layers, organically over time.
The motu proprio of Paul Vl brings up another stream for diaconate restoration that was strong in the 50’s and 60’s. As he mentions is the start of the propio, many bishops of missionary territories were seeking to have the diaconate restored because of the shortage of priests, and they were already having layman do most of the duties of the deacon. So it would make sense to ordain them to diaconate to give more official status to them and to help them receive the graces of the order in their ministries they were already performing. Of course within 20 years the exact opposite happened, the missionary countries started to receive so many priestly vocations that the diaconate is present in some dioceses but not really thriving.
But it is very important to keep the motu proprio in its historical context. This was a time when any lay involvement in the liturgy was just starting. The missionary impulse was very strong (which is mentioned at the start of the document) and the killer statement is that the Pope says the restoration of the diaconate in not important for all dioceses to embrace, which some have interpreted to mean it is not essential to ecclesial life of the diocese but is an option the bishops can look into. Also as a side it is interesting to see how he envisioned the ages for applicants to be between 25 to 35 for the most part. So it may have been introduced for certain reasons but it still seems to finding its place and function in the local and universal church during these past 40 years.
Again all is not so black and white, just quoting a document does not help if it is not in context. The whole church is in a process of discernment to hear what the spirit is saying to the church on how to minister. Just read the talks by PB16 this past week at Fatima. They are so deep and perceptive and it is such a blessing for the church to have such a Pope at this time to guide and lead us in listening to the spirit.
It is very unfortunate that the catholic media did not really go into what the pope was saying at Fatima, the man is inspired!

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posted May 18, 2010 at 12:28 am

Also before the council there was almost no idea of lay ministry, as we understand it now.

I would vigorously dispute that — the Liturgical Movement started after Vatican I and really took off in the 30’s and 40’s. This saw the founding of Catholic Action and all of its outgrowths, from CFM to the Cana Conference to Racial Justice Ministries. The “cell” structures of these groups were essentially Marxist, and especially after the war they were accused of being communists. And it is certainly true that Liberation Theology was communism. They all had in common the structure of lay leadership with priests who served as spiritual directors to those laypeople.
It is one of the Great Myths of the traditionalists that Vatican II appeared out of nothingness when a few rogue theologians hoodwinked the bishops and hijacked the Council. In fact, most of the product of the Council were incremental changes that furthered stuff that had been going on for decades.

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