Q. Often, I have been at a Mass where the deacon reads the Gospel, which is fine. But then, sometimes, the deacon goes on to give the homily while the priest watches. This disappoints me and makes me feel that the deacon is overstepping his bounds. Why should a deacon, rather than the priest, comment on church teachings? Is this a new function in the church today? (Missouri)
Q. Our parish recently had a baptism at a Mass, with both a priest and a deacon on the altar. When it came time for the baptism, the deacon went to the (baptismal) font and performed the ceremony. I was under the impression that a deacon could baptize only if a priest were not available. Has this been changed? (Richmond, Virginia)
A. Although the permanent diaconate was restored by Pope Paul VI in 1967, the questions above would seem to indicate that even today, nearly half a century later, there is still some confusion about a deacon’s role. Deacons can baptize, witness marriages, perform funeral and burial services (outside of Mass), distribute holy Communion and preach a homily. They cannot celebrate Mass, hear confessions or administer the sacrament of the anointing of the sick. They are obligated each day to pray the Liturgy of the Hours. Deacons were first appointed in the earliest days of the church with the special ministry of serving the poor.
There are two kinds of deacons: transitional deacons, who are seminarians in the final stage of their training for the priesthood, and permanent deacons. Permanent deacons, ordained after several years of theological preparation, may be single or married. They often have secular jobs but also assist parish communities at liturgies and in service ministries such as visiting the sick or counseling families.
When joining the priest at Mass, a deacon normally introduces the penitential rite, reads the Gospel and the prayers of intercession (petitions), helps in distributing Communion and proclaims the dismissal rite.
When a deacon baptizes or preaches, there is no requirement that a priest be unavailable. The church’s Code of Canon Law, in No. 861, for example, says simply that “the ordinary minister of baptism is a bishop, a presbyter or deacon.” Sometimes when a deacon baptizes or accepts wedding vows, it is because he has a particular relationship with those receiving the sacrament but that is not necessary.
Often in parishes that have a deacon, the deacon preaches the homily on a regular rotation (perhaps once a month, perhaps at one Mass each weekend). Parishioners have often commented that a deacon, especially if he has a family, can share a different perspective.
Pastorally, when a deacon is scheduled to do a baptism, wedding or funeral service, it is best for the priest to advise the family in advance — since many still expect that a priest will officiate.
Q. Over the past few years, my faith has deepened, and I feel Jesus present with me. I want to know him better and so I have begun to pray and to read the Scriptures more, in addition to attending Mass and praying the rosary. I am not old or sick, but I have become more focused on passing on. The more I consider the promise of Christ, the less I want to live in this world. I assure you that I am not suicidal, but my eyes are already set on the final prize.
I know that the Gospel calls us to love and serve others after the example of Jesus, but why should I aspire to living a long time when I am just waiting for God to call me home? What spiritual message must I be missing? Can you share some wisdom on rekindling joy for this life? (Prospect, Kentucky)
A. I really can’t find fault with anything that you are doing or thinking. Like you, I look forward to heaven and believe with all my heart in that which “eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, and what has not entered the human heart, what God has prepared for those who love him,” (1 Cor 2:9). Not long ago, a woman told me on her deathbed what she thought it was going to be like to be with God in heaven: “Like a mother’s love — times ten thousand.”
It is certainly right to aspire to that and even to hope that it comes sooner rather than later. The timing, though, is all in God’s good hands, and meanwhile we accept this earthly existence as God’s gift, if only because it offers us the chance to share with others our view of God’s love and what lies beyond.
The Hebrews sang in Psalm 126:2-3, “Our mouths were filled with laughter, our tongues sang for joy. … The Lord had done great things for us.” On the night of the Last Supper, Jesus encouraged the apostles to keep his commandments and then said in John 15:11: “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete.”