An important dimension of the life of the Church which has become visible in the last fifty years is the order of deacons. By now many Catholics are familiar with the kind of deacons who are married men serving as critical co-workers of priests in parish ministry and in other forms of specialized pastoral ministry in the Church. Some parishes also have the experience of hosting men who are deacons and are in the final stage of their preparation for priestly ordination. Both types of deacons share the same office in the Church and are charged with the same responsibilities, although the latter group eventually take on the new office of the priesthood in addition to their diaconal ministry.
Today’s first reading gives us a window into the institution of this important order in the earliest days of the Church, when concerns began to arise as to the level of attention that the Apostles were giving to Gentile Christians as compared to their fellow believers of Jewish origins. Saint Luke tells us: “As the number of disciples continued to grow, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution” (Acts 6:1).
The Apostles overcame the division that was beginning to tear at the early Church’s unity by establishing a new office of service in the Church, and by directing the faithful to select the first seven men who would be called deacons: “the proposal was acceptable to the whole community, so they chose Stephen, a man filled with faith and the Holy Spirit, also Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicholas of Antioch, a convert to Judaism. They presented these men to the apostles who prayed and laid hands on them” (Acts 6:5-6).
What we see here is the whole Church—her faithful in union with her shepherds—acting together for the temporal good and above all for the salvation of the whole Body of Christ. The division between Christians of Jewish and Greek origins which threatened to rip apart the nascent Church was healed by a combination of God’s grace and the good will and hard work of Christian believers.
Today other issues stand ready to rend the unity of the Church but if we stand together as the early Christians did then we can overcome whatever storms confront us. The best way to deal with such divisions, whether they are political, economic, social, or cultural in nature, is to recognize that people who line up on opposite sides of an issue often have more in common than they think. By extending ourselves to understand why others hold views different from ours we can usually find at least some common ground and use it as a foundation on which to build healing rather than division in the Church.
As the First Letter of Peter reminds us today, we all have a role to play in this process of building up the Body of Christ in love, just as all the Christians of the early Church in Jerusalem had a role to play in resolving disputes in their day. We read: “You are ‘a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own, so that you may announce the praises’ of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Pet 2:19). When confronted with disunity in the Church let us call to mind the words of Peter and the story of the first seven deacons, so that we may all journey together toward him who said “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).
Father Edward Mazich, O.S.B.