Reflecting on 21 Centuries of Faith

Re-thinking Liturgical Roles…

This past Monday, my Pastor and I were kneeling before the Blessed Sacrament preparing for Reposition. During the singing of the Tantum Ergo, he turned to me and asked, “Do deacons repose the Blessed Sacrament?” I replied, “I have no idea. You are wearing the humeral veil… don’t you?”  We shrugged our shoulders and continued as usual with him reposing and placing our Lord back into the tabernacle. Afterward, he asked me to research his question.

So, I did. I was surprised to discover that it is the deacon who exposes and reposes our Lord even if a priest is present and/or he is not the presiding minister. The Order for the Solemn Exposition of the Holy Eucharist in paragraph 51, concerning reposition states:

If the exposition is to be interrupted, the deacon (or in his absence, a priest, even the presiding minister) immediately removes the blessed sacrament from the monstrance and places it in the tabernacle.

Paragraph31 in the ritual also states the same – even if the period of exposition begins during Holy Mass.

Once I shared my findings, a close friend asked, “How do we explain this to the parishioners since it would appear that the deacon is of a higher rank than the priest? Is it that deacons are like worker bees?” Initially I said said, “Sure” because it was a quick answer but then I realized the great disservice that would be perpetuated by such an analogy. So, I thought through a different answer and composed an email.

If you would permit me, I would like to share the email (although this version is cleaned up – DQ should never quickly write an email and hit send without proofing it, especially at 7 am):


I thought about the worker bee image as an analogy to illustrate the relationship of service between a deacon and priest, especially during adoration. I think while the worker bee image makes it easier for everyone to understand, it is an incorrect one. I think the real challenge is that we are looking for the most efficient way to explain this relationship which translates to the quickest way and, thus, falls short of the theological truths that reveal the vocation.

The following explanation is longer to give to someone but I think it is much closer to the truth. The risk of the worker bee analogy is that it can easily cheapen the dignity of the vocation. It is like saying my wife is just a housekeeper or we are just admin assistants.The worker bee image implies a group working for the good of the whole completing whatever task is assigned to them. The service of the deacon, especially during a liturgy, has a very specific focus and service.

The role of the deacon is to serve the priest in all things that pertain to the altar and the liturgy. It is not a case of dignity (priest is higher than the deacon or that the deacon works for the priest) but a case of function. This type of service is what we were ordained for. The following is the mental challenge that I believe we need to overcome:

Many of the liturgical actions that our priests have been ministering are by way of exception not ministerial duty.

Our current state finds us positioned in such a way that particular duties have been ascribed to priests that are not part of their ministerial priesthood. Why can they function in them and not the laity? They were ordained deacons first. The greater can always serve in a lesser position, but not the other way around. Those who are not ordained have been a special gift to the Church – our Lord provided in our need. For these reasons, the pervasive attitude (which we have discussed multiple times) that Extraordinary Ministers of Readers and Holy Communion demand they have a right to serve and be seen, or to serve when and how they want – I find offensive. Not because I am ordained, but because none of us ever have a right to serve whether we are laity or clergy. The Church suspended a number of liturgical laws and traditions that date back to 494 (Leonine Laws) in order to find a way to assist the priest until the institutes (Instituted Lectors and Acolytes) and order (Deacons) could be reestablished – then phase the extraordinary ministries out. But sadly, and mostly because of lack of training and boundaries, everyone believes these are permanent delegations and they have a right to serve in these ministries.

Priests are ordained for sacrifice which is directly linked to the forgiveness of sins and governance. Deacons are neither coming in to take over priestly actions and duties, nor are we married “wanna be priests”. Some liturgical actions, or duties, were never intended to be fulfilled by them. But, as you know, the deprivation in vocations to the Permanent Diaconate has been basically lacking for 22 years in the diocese (Add to the fact that it was suppressed for 1000 years in the Western Church and we are all still learning how to relate to one another).

Within the liturgy, there are certain tasks and duties that are more perfectly seen and understood by someone serving in persona Christi[1] The deacon provides a sacramental image of Christ the Servant.

Deacon Rex H. Pilger, Jr., Ph.D. in describing the duties that are part and parcel of the deacon’s ministry, also reminds us that a priest and bishop are also deacons,

The munera[2] bestowed on the deacon: proclaiming, preaching, and teaching the Gospel, administering baptism, receiving wedding vows, burying the dead, custodian of the Most Blessed Sacrament, viaticum to the dying, care of the sick, and concern for the poor are still very much the responsibility of the priest and bishop. (The latter, of course, confers the munera.)[3]

This must be understood properly in order to maintain a clear functional and ontological separation between the deacon and the presbyterate/episcopate whose ministry is ordered to sacrifice. While service always requires self-donation, priests (includes bishops) through their actions and words (This is my body…) sacramentally offer themselves through a complete donation as Christ the Priest.

I think a greater temptation for our parish is not that the deacon is higher than the priest but “Why do we need deacons? Laypeople can do whatever needs to be done.” The sacramental grace communicated at ordination provides the Church with a living sign or a living icon of Christ the Servant. The deacon’s simple service of the altar, word and charity is wrapped up in the word serve.

Here again, Deacon Pilger sheds some light on the “why” which may be seen in the:

practical dimensions of diaconal ministry. In the Roman Rite, deacons, together with bishops and priests, are ordinary ministers of Baptism. And, it is through the initial sacrament that the call of Christ the Servant comes: the baptized are called to serve God and neighbor. It is through diakonia that the minister of Baptism — bishop, priest, deacon, or even, in emergency, a layperson — communicates the call. At the beginning of Mass, the deacon may lead the assembly in penitence — pleading the mercy of Christ on his people — the (non-sacramental) forgiveness of sins….. At the altar, the deacon visibly serves, and, as he kneels from the Epiclesis through the first elevation of the chalice, leads the rest of the assembly in adoration as Christ becomes especially Real under the appearance of the gifts of bread and wine. (The deacon’s ordination also involved an epiclesis over the kneeling ordinand, the invocation of the Holy Spirit that strengthens the gifts received at Confirmation.) The deacon elevates and ministers the chalice, the Blood of the new Covenant, shed for the forgiveness of sins. He invites the Sign of Peace. And, finally, he may dismiss the faithful with the most appropriate commission: “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.”

The three orders serving in their unique liturgical roles together, provide an HD picture of the person of Christ and the Blessed Trinity. I do not think these are the exact words we need to say but what we need to communicate. I hope this helps. Thanks for asking the question. Maybe we can continue the discussion to figure out the best way to “package the message” for those who have questions.


[1] Omnium in Mentum, October 26, 2009: Article II makes a clarification to separate the ministerial functions of the Bishop/Priest and deacons “Those who are constituted in the order of the episcopate or the presbyterate receive the mission and capacity to act in the person of Christ the Head, whereas deacons are empowered to serve the People of God in the ministries of the liturgy, the word and charity”. Presently, there is an argument concerning the nature of the clarification. The understanding of this author, who entrusting himself to the explanations of the diaconal formation team and canonists, is that the deacon serves in persona Christi by way of imageo dei and not as capitas or the head.

[2] Munera: assigned service, function, duty

[3] Pilger, Jr., Ph.D, Rex H., Homiletic & Pastoral Review, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, CA, November 2006 (pp 23-27)

One Response to Re-thinking Liturgical Roles…

  1. Marie says:

    Hi, you write …
    “If the exposition is to be interrupted, the deacon (or in his absence, a priest, even the presiding minister) immediately removes the blessed sacrament from the monstrance and places it in the tabernacle.”

    This states an exception but not the rule. I agree with you on the role of a deacon, but I would like to see documentation of the rule not the exception in regards to this. Can you research more?

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