Diaconal Lessons for Priestly Ministry
How God equips and prepares a deacon for the priesthood
After 12 years as a deacon, on May 2, 2020, the feast of St. Athanasius, I knelt before the Holy Table of St. Stephen’s Byzantine Catholic Cathedral in Phoenix and was made a priest of the Catholic Church.
As I knelt, I consciously offered my life to God on this Holy Table, asking him for the grace to make my priesthood a true and faithful diakonia in the Church. Then I heard the bishop’s voice: “Divine grace, which always heals what is infirm and supplies what is lacking, ordains the pious Deacon Daniel to be a presbyter, therefore let us pray for him that the grace of the all-Holy Spirit may come upon him, and let us all say, ‘Lord have mercy!’”
Experientially, all I can say is, at that moment, I truly sensed that a new outpouring of divine grace was being given in the prayer of the bishop, but I also somehow felt that it was also being released from within me. As a man who already had the grace of the hierarchical priesthood, albeit in a lower rank, I was being given a new power in the Spirit to act in a commission that, in a real sense, I had already previously received when I was ordained a deacon.
Now, this experience certainly comports with what the Church has defined dogmatically concerning the unity of holy orders. As Dr. Ludwig Ott, summarizing this tradition in his “Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma” (Baronius Press, $64.95), observed: “Diaconate, presbyterate and episcopate are sacramental grades of Order. However, they are not three distinct sacraments, but conjointly form the one Sacrament of Order. The priestly power is found in its whole fullness in the episcopate, in a lower grade of perfection in the presbyterate; the lowest grade of the participation in the priestly power as found in the diaconate.”
It is worthy of note that this power referenced by Ott is fundamentally a power in service to the life and mission of the whole Church generally, especially to the priesthood of all the baptized who participate in the one priesthood of Christ (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, Nos. 1546-1547). It should also be noted that, while the diaconate is listed as the lowest grade of participation in holy orders, it is not only chronologically the entry point into this ministerial priesthood, it is ontologically and experientially foundational to the character of the whole of apostolic ministry, which is itself defined as diakonia.
In other words, one could say that the experience of the diaconate indelibly marks the character of the presbyterate and the episcopate.
As someone who then spent 12 years as a permanent deacon, I would like to share what I believe are four lessons that I learned in my extended time of ministry as a deacon that helped to prepare me for the priesthood. My hope is that seminaries and dioceses will both value the wisdom of the diaconate and see also the potential benefits of extending the time in this Ordo for those in preparation for the presbyterate.
Lesson 1: Ambition Is Not Vocation
The desire to serve the Church can come from a number of sources: some good and virtuous, some natural, and some others, unfortunately, less than noble. One common struggle is personal ambition, which can be cloaked in a desire to advance into the leadership ranks in any organization. One may be tempted to see one’s influence over others, over a church, over the celebration of the liturgy, etc.
God can certainly utilize even imperfect motives, but an extended period in the diaconate in a parochial setting has the ability to further refine one’s motivation to serve in ordained ministry since it tests through experience and exposes the difficulties, struggles and the less than glorious moments that come from serving others. To be ordained is to become immersed in the challenges and needs of people one may not commonly encounter in a seminary environment.
A vocation is, therefore, an invitation to radical cruciformity, and this becomes clearer the more one spends time in ordained parochial service. An extended period of the diaconate in a parish, therefore, helps a man to mitigate the effects of ambition and refine his intention by experiencing the highs, the lows and the often banal in-betweens.
Lesson 2: All Ministry Is Fraternal
Although most seminarians understand the benefits of fraternity in seminary life, it is only in parochial life that a true fraternity of service is realized. In fact, I would argue that all ministry is itself fraternal, as seen in the fact that Jesus had Twelve Apostles and 70 disciples, and the apostles themselves ordained seven deacons.
Serving as a deacon in a parish for an extended period helps to emphasize the fraternal character of all ministry with the priest and the deacon acting as the two hands of the bishop — their one head — in the vineyard of the Lord. This fraternity should be experienced liturgically, pastorally and personally, laying a foundation for understanding that leadership is never intended to be a solo exercise.
It also quite frankly prepares a man for some of the weaknesses found in his future fraternity of priests. This too can help teach him about what to imitate and what to avoid as a future priest. He can then enter into that fraternity with eyes wide open. Additionally, he should also work to be integrated into the whole fraternity of deacons. What better way to develop a sense of fraternity during his diaconate than by learning from the many wonderful experienced deacons of his diocese?
Lesson 3: The Diaconate Is a Gift
An extended period in the diaconate helps one to appreciate the nature of ministry as a gift for others. To be called to the ordained ministry of Christ generally means to be conformed as a gift from the Father to his people. As a deacon, one is made a gift to “both” the sacerdotal priesthood and the baptismal priesthood of all the faithful.
In service to the ministerial priesthood, the deacon should strive to become a gift to help the priest to pray and to exercise pastoral care over the bishop’s flock.
In service to the lay faithful, the deacon performs a kind of ministerial triage as needed, providing immediate care and bringing the important needs of the faithful to the attention of the pastor. We see this represented liturgically in the petitions the deacon is supposed to offer in the liturgy. He also needs to help identify and animate the charisms of the lay faithful in service to the Church, as mirrored in his liturgical role calling the faithful to participation in worship.
On the front lines of pastoral work, he should help the laity become more active and effective in using their gifts in service to the life and mission of the Church. In other words, the deacon exercises his leadership primarily by presence, by his teaching and by building leadership in others. One learns, therefore, to measure success in ministry by one’s ability to help others to be faithful and successful ministers themselves. This is an important lesson for future priests, which can and should most certainly be learned in an extended time as a deacon.
Lesson 4: Authentic Leadership Is Based Primarily on Influence, Not Power
Finally, one of the challenges in exercising formal leadership is knowing when to utilize organizational power. But, ironically, an overreliance on positional power — the power of office — in leading a parish can have a tendency to backfire. One may have the canonical authority as an administrator or pastor to make certain decisions, for instance, but that does not always guarantee influence, buy in or compliance with those decisions.
The real skill is learning how to influence without direct reference to positional authority. The diaconate, in that sense, is the proper training ground for such a skill, which is so necessary for priests. His leadership, as alluded to earlier, is primarily that of forming, animating and coordinating the exercise of the charisms of others, most especially in the areas of word, worship and charity.
Unless these efforts involve an employment situation, the majority of those whom he is leading are volunteers. And while they may have great respect for the office of the priest, the reality is that this does not always translate into personal respect for the wishes, desires or even edicts of a particular priest!
Learning how to exercise the influence muscles of leadership is proper to the diaconate and is a skill that will serve him well should he become a priest at some point in the future. An extended period in the diaconate, then, gives a man time to develop this mindset, skill set and even style, learning through experience as well as through the mentoring of other priests and deacons.
Preparation for the Moment
As I knelt at the Holy Table and prayed that the Lord would give my presbyterate a truly diaconal character, my mind stretched back to my 12 years as a deacon, realizing that by time and divine grace God was equipping me and preparing me for this moment.
More can certainly be said about the invaluable ministerial and leadership lessons one encounters in service as a deacon. As most leadership development professionals will tell you, it generally takes 18-24 months for an individual to gain any sense of mastery over a role, no matter what the organizational context. A 6-12 month transitional diaconate barely scratches the surface of what proves to be a time of real personal and ministerial growth, integration and refinement as a minister of the Church. I believe that extending the time as a deacon to as long as 2-3 years will help reinforce some of these important lessons which can affect the character of how one exercises the priesthood.
FATHER DANIEL DOZIER was ordained a Byzantine Catholic priest after serving for 12 years as a deacon. He is a husband, father and grandfather, and the chief learning officer for The Center for InMinistry Development. He and his family live in the Pacific Northwest.