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The following is the key-note address of Cardinal Leo Suenena, Archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels, Primate of Belgium, presented before the International Congress on the Diaconate, meeting in Kortrijk, Belgium on 1 September, 1979.

 The co-responsibility of Deacons

The Doctrinal Basis of the Diaconate

Pope Pius XII had already opened the way for the restoration of a permanent diaconate in the Latin church by declaring that “the question is not yet sufficiently mature.”  This was a discreet invitation to continue research. The council considered the problem and resolved it, as we know, by restoring a permanent diaconate for both married and unmarried men. Undoubtedly this decision was made for pastoral reasons, but these were not the only factors operative. The restoration of a permanent diaconate finds its fundamental clarification and justification in the sacramental character of the diaconate itself.

At the council, we attempted to present the doctrinal basis of this return to tradition. Allow us to present here the essentials of that intervention:

Those who are opposed to the establishment of a permanent diaconate forget, it seems that this question concerns the very structure of the church.
It is not pragmatic realism which governs this choice of a permanent diaconate, but rather supernatural realism, based on faith and concerned with the sacramental nature of the diaconate. I do not wish to enter here into questions which are still discussed, such as the correct interpretation of the pericope which relates the choice of Stephen and the six other deacons (Acts 6, 1-6).

There are, however, some facts clearly established by a study of the New Testament, the early apostolic fathers (especially Clement of Rome and Ignatius of Antioch), the constant tradition which follows, and the liturgical books of both East and West. In the apostolic and sub-apostolic church, certain charisms of the sacred ministry were attributed in a particular and stable way, to a well-defined level of the priesthood. This level seems to have been established with a view toward providing the bishop with direct aid. It appeared
especially in regard to taking care of the poor, the maintenance of good order in the community, the fraternal preparation for the liturgy of the breaking of bread (Acts 2, 42; 4, 32-35; Heb. 13, 16), and the forming of groups of the faithful in the church (as we would say, authentic religious communities).

There are those who do not understand, or seem to understand but poorly, the sacred and liturgical nature of this activity by which a community is
formed in order to gather a church. Perhaps their perspective is coloured by an imprecise understanding of the nature of the church. The church is
founded on the sacraments and thus also on the charisms that derive from the sacrament of orders.

It has been said that the duties proposed for deacons could be confided equally well to laymen, but the question is not one of confiding certain responsibilities (presiding at prayer, catechetical teaching, responsibility for social work) in any way at all to no matter whom. Such responsibilities should only be entrusted to those who, in an objective and adequate way, are endowed with the graces necessary to fulfil them. This guarantees that supernatural efficacy will not be lacking in the development of a true community. Otherwise the church cannot be a truly supernatural society, the true mystical body of Christ, built up in its structure on its ministers and on the graces given to them by God.

The gifts and graces given to the laity in baptism and confirmation do not suffice for the building up of the body of Christ, even when these laymen are deeply animated by an authentic supernatural spirit. Since God has provided other gifts to be used at the service of the community as such, we do not have the right to ignore them, or to refuse to actualise those elements which form a part of the church’s patrimony.

According to the divine plan, the bishop receives from God the fullness of the sacred ministry. He receives at the same time the task of building all
the supernatural communities that are necessary for his people. That is why the bishop has the capacity to confer upon his “ministers,” his “helpers,”
that kind of share in his powers which is adapted to the needs of his people and to the local and temporal circumstances of his activities.

In the practical order, there are two situations which seem particularly to argue for the necessity of the diaconate. “First, when there is question of a very small community obliged to live in the diaspora, cut off from any other group of Christians because of differences in religion, geographical distances or political circumstances. Second, when there is question of vast concentrations of people, especially in and around our cities, who must be aided in rediscovering the intimate and family
dimension of the church.

Thus we would base the re-establishment of the diaconate not on the appearance of new needs, but on the need for a sacramental character corresponding to functions recognised as diaconal, and deriving from the very nature of the church’s hierarchical structure. Since the council accepted the principle of a diaconate which is considered a permanent
rank in the church and not merely a step on the way to the priesthood, Pope Paul VI defined its manner of existing in his motu proprio, Sacrum Diaaonatus ordinem.

Before going on to treat of the field of action now open to diaconal co-responsibility, let us first briefly consider the nature of the diaconate itself.

The Specific Place of the Diaconate

The Sacramental Diaconate

At the very outset we should present the permanent diaconate in its true light. We should state that, in restoring the diaconate, we are not trying to supply for the lack of priests. We must avoid at all costs committing once again the error so prevalent at the beginning of the formation of Catholic Action groups. Very often Catholic Action was presented as a means, as “the” means, of making up for the lack of priests. The diaconate is a specific ministry distinct from the priestly ministry. The fact that the number of priests may be equal to fulfilling their role does not at all diminish the duty for lay people to be apostolic, since this duty derives from their baptism. In the same way, the diaconate could not be phased out even if tomorrow the crisis of priestly vocations were resolved. A deacon should not appear to be a “second-class” priest, a means of supplying for a priest. The diaconate should be presented for what it
is: a distinct sacramental function.

Canon J. Huard has written,

The diaconate has always pertained to the hierarchical order of the church. From New Testament times, deacons have appeared at the side of bishops and presbyters, and according to both Eastern and Western tradition they receive solemn ordination by the imposition of hands. They are no longer laymen because they have now been admitted to the first level of the sacrament of orders. Thus it makes no sense to speak of a lay diaconate. Even if the diaconate is conferred upon married men, it loses nothing of its sacramental character, and it
effects a definitive consecration of him who receives it, making him a member of the ordained hierarchy. The diaconate has always pertained to the hierarchical order of episcopacy, not of the presbyterate. The Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus (3rd century) states that the deacon is not ordained to the
priesthood but to the ministry of the bishop. (“Des diacres in Belgique?”, in Revue diacesaine de Tournai, 22 (1967), p. 34.

 An Integrated Diaconate

The diaconate, then, is a sacramental function distinct from that of the priesthood, and must have a function integrated within the profound unity of the whole of the church’s ministry.

There is but one ecclesiastical ministry, one priesthood, possessed in its fullness by the apostolic college, and in relation to this, in a subordinate way, by the members of the presbyterate and the diaconate. Both of these are essentially collaborators with the bishop, and their participation in the ecclesiastical ministry is determined by the church. This participation can vary according to circumstances and situations, and can evolve in the future…But it is most important to understand well that close association and essential cooperation which creates a whole, bishops, priests and deacons, who are consecrated under diverse but coordinated forms to the same ministry. They must represent Christ the Lord, assembling and building up his church with a view to its eschatalogical fulfilment. The diverse tasks proper to each ministry assume their correlative  place and their meaning within this one vast perspective. (J. Giblet, L’Egliae de Vatican II, Paris, 1966, III, p. 926.)

 A Full Diaconate

It is most important that we place the restored diaconate within the full vision of the ministry opened up to us by Vatican II.

We could summarise the teaching of Vatican II on the ministry by saying that there has been a transition from a narrow concept of cult function to a much wider notion which is also more in keeping with the Gospel. In other words, the bishops, priests and deacons are not defined first and foremost by their exercise of sacramental cult (though this, of course, is in no way neglected), but rather in terms of their various responsibilities in regard to the evangelisation of the world. This implies no opposition, it is rather a development. No one is saying that the sacramental ministry should be considered secondary or arbitrary; rather, this new view gives to the ministry its full extension and takes its point of origin from the preaching of the gospel. In this same line of thinking, we can understand that the diaconal ministry cannot be reduced to this or that sacramental function, but must include all of ecclesial activity from the announcing of the good news to the celebration of the eucharist.

Since it might be possible to conclude from this that the hierarchical ministry is restricted to the interior life of the church that it assembles,
we should further note that Vatican II did not only unify once again word and cult, at the heart of the ecclesial community; it also bound together hierarchical pastorate and specifically missionary activity directed toward unbelievers, at the heart of the world. The hierarchical ministry is thus as necessary for the church scattered in the diaspora, as it is for the church
assembled to hear the Word. This means that every ministry in the church of Christ receives a direct missionary responsibility. Many times the Council
reminded bishops that their first duty was to announce Christ’s salvation to those who do not know it, and many times the same Council told
priests that their task includes a mission to unbelievers. We are permitted to think that the diaconate is no less free of this responsibility. It would be as false to deny to a deacon the exercise of an authentic mission to unbelievers as it would be to refuse him access to the sanctuary under the pretext that he should live in the world.
(H. Denis and R. Schaller, Diacres dans le monde d ‘ aujouvd’kui. Textes conciliaires et postconciliaires avec commentaire et point de la recherche, Lyon, 1967, pp. 61-63.)

 Diaconal Responsibility

We have thus defined and located the diaconal ministry. Tomorrow’s deacon, whether married or not, sees opening up before him a field of action much greater than that known in the early church, but which is faithful to the same inspiration. Deacons will assume functions to be exercised at a
parochial level or at less extensive levels – for example, responsibility tor a group of families, or for a section of the parish. But there is nothing to prohibit him from exercising these functions at levels more extensive than that of a parish, whether it be a diocese, a nation or even the world. At all of these levels the potentials for his activity are varied: they could be missionary, catechetical, familial, social and so on.

It seems to us that the factor which pleads most strongly for a permanent diaconate to be established soon and over wide areas is the unique possibility that it offers us of giving to our Christian communities a truly human dimension. Priests rightfully complain that they are confronted with parishes that are no longer communities, even when these are not transient parishes, parishes where people do no more than “hang their hat,” so to speak. To confide to one or even to many men a care of thousands of souls is to commit the ministry to a task exceeding human capabilities, and to open the door to discouragement. The concentration of population in the cities is a growing fact. One need not have read Harvey Cox’s The Secular City to be able to see buildings and skyscrapers changing the face of our urban areas.

Decentralization is imperative. It will take the form of a multiplication of places of ,cult and of meeting. Groups must be more numerous and smaller if they wish to remain human; but this means that there must be more people able to take charge of these groups. It is easy to see in such a situation what the role of the deacons would be: collaborators with the bishops and priests they can restore a family atmosphere, a fraternal warmth to groups suffering from overgrowth. It will require imagination, research and real effort to succeed in creating this kind of pastoral activity of manageable proportions, but the benefits of such an achievement in terms of human communication are inestimable.

What we have just said of the vast city parishes is valid also, though for the opposite reason, in regard to scattered rural parishes. It would be easy to confide to a deacon a good proportion of those tasks which now pertain to the priestly ministry. It is difficult not to be pained when we think of priests isolated, living far away from one another, and suffering from the fact that they do not have a ministry equal to their capacities or their zeal. And it is easy to envisage these priests as leaders of a team, animating from one centre, groups of the faithful directed locally by their deacons.

The success of the apostolate is linked to its capacity to assume a truly human dimension. The anonymous mass in which the believer finds himself lost can hardly appear to him as a church, as the family of God assembled around the workers are few”? Through the voice of Vatican II the Lord
is calling many laymen to answer this new vocation.

He addresses His call to every level of society: workers, manual or intellectual, doctors, lawyers, engineers and businessmen. He calls them as they are: in their work clothes, with their capacities and their limitations. The tasks which the church wishes to confide to them are many and varied. It foresees a training for them which is supple and tailored to their needs, governed by the consideration of definite tasks to be accomplished. We must develop a new pedagogy, and for this the cooperation of the future candidates themselves is necessary. The church enters, as does the man in the Gospel, into the hiring place, and finds many workers there, because no one had hired them. It asks them to understand the spiritual distress of the world, and to share their bread, that is, their Christianity, with those
who hunger sometimes not knowing why. The church invites these men to draw from their faith the courage to make decisions that will not be easy because they involve renunciation and sacrifice. For, normally, these married deacons will earn their livelihood and continue to exercise their profession, harmonizing their various duties with their functions as deacons. This twofold demand may well mean renunciation on the material level. There will be time invested in just being available, there will be responsibilities to share with others, and there will be hours given over to the service of the Lord which could have been dedicated to business or recreation. The Lord isr inviting them to hear a call tc evangelical poverty and to give themselves. Each one must respond to this call personally, in a way which is both balanced and generous.


A married deacon cannot answer such a call before having consulted his family. He must weigh the pros and cons of the situation with the realism of faith and with realism in general, taking into account the thoughts of his wife and children. The wife of a deacon must understand the duty and importance of the call made to him with whom she shares her life. Her consent is essential at the very beginning of her husband’s vocation and her commitment will be necessary to him if he is to live it out. Her sustaining and encouraging role is vital to her husband because outside his family he will have to face a good deal of misunderstanding and perhaps even mockery. He will easily find many people to reproach him for sacrificing his family and involving himself in things which, after all, belong to priests. He will have to go out in the night. No one can guarantee him either the understanding of lay people or the warm understanding of all the priests whose close collaborator he will be. For these too must find their place again in a whole new complex of unexplored situations, not all of which will be comfortable. He will have to walk on the water with his eyes fixed on the Lord, buoyed up by generosity and consistency. He will overcome the contrary winds, provided that he does not concentrate on the waves under his feet, but upon the face of the Lord inviting him to follow.

To insure success, the first men to experiment should be those who have already succeeded in their profession, in their family life, or, to put it briefly, in the business of being a man. For these first deacons will be closely watched by people ready to criticize. The first soldiers out of the trench, those who open the breach, have, when the mission is a success, a glorious role, but one which takes more than common courage. These first volunteers will have to create the image of the diaconate. The generation to follow will have an easier time of it. “One sows and another reaps,” the Lord says. The church is looking for pioneers.

But a delicate-problem arises here: will not vocations to the diaconate further reduce vocations to the priesthood? We do not think so. The church is open to diversity. There are vocations to the diocesan priesthood and to the religious life, and within this latter there is a multiple variety of orders and congregations all existing side by side. Furthermore, the ultimate reason for introducing permanent deacons is precisely to create and multiply centres where the Christian life is lived more intensely. These vital and generous communities should, in the nature of things, give rise to priestly and religious vocations, to contemplatives and missionaries. Let us have confidence that the Holy Spirit will know how to harmonize the charisms of each one for the over-all good of the church.

From now on educators and others who exercise influence in the church – journalists, writers, lecturers – should aid in making known this new form of co-responsibility.  They should help to create that atmosphere of sympathy and receptivity absolutely indispensable for the success of this experiment.

The future will tell what forms and expressions of the permanent diaconate will characterize the 20th and 21st centuries. At the same time, we must look to the past and be inspired by the radiance reflected on the face of a St. Stephen, “a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit.” Yet the Spirit is still at work, still creating. It is with reason that people speak of a diaconate as a hopeful sign on the horizon. We need a minimum of juridicism and a maximum of docility to the Holy Spirit and of suppleness as we exercise this co-responsibility which is at once traditional and new, rooted in the past and stretching out to the future.


Cardinal J. SUENENS