Friday 8 February 2019

Understanding the Diaconate: Historical, Theological, and Sociological Foundations - W. Shawn McKnight

Understanding the Diaconate:
Historical, Theological, and Sociological Foundations
W. Shawn McKnight
David W. Fagerberg (Foreword)
Catholic University of America Press
ISBN 9780813230351


I have both a personal and academic interest in Diaconal studies. Over the last few years I have read a half dozen books about the Diaconate, I have started an not finished just as many, and still have that many in my to be read pile. And I must state, clearly, and definitively, that this is by far the most comprehensive book on the Deaconate that I have read to date. I read this book of three weeks, taking my time, and really digging into the material. I know it may seem odd, but I want to begin with two quotes from the conclusion:

“An inadequate role description for Latin-rite deacons hampers the effectiveness of their ministry. For the diaconate to become successful it must have a specialized ministry that is well-defined and important to the life and mission of the church. Deacons know they are called to serve as ordained ministers, and they have some concrete guidance regarding what they are allowed to do, but pastoral demands and a lack of clarity pull them in various directions. We should not assume that, because the ranks of permanent deacons have been growing and the pastoral need is great, the diaconate will simply flourish now that it has been restored. The original Golden Age of the deacon in the history of the church, as we have seen, occurred before the legalization of Christianity in the Roman Empire, before the church grew to its large present structure of dioceses and parishes.”


“For the diaconate to thrive, bishops, priests, the laity, and the deacons themselves must understand what deacons are called to do and whether a particular ministry is appropriate for the diaconate. The deacon’s role cannot be reduced to a simple set of tasks, whether charitable or liturgical. Such limitations of the deacon’s scope occurred after the Golden Age of the diaconate in the church’s history, and the result was the gradual diminishment of the diaconate to a mere stepping stone to the priesthood—the very situation that the Second Vatican Council sought to remedy by restoring a “permanent” diaconate. Instead, deacons need a focal understanding of their role that organizes many potential activities, encouraging some and discouraging others.”

As I was reading this volume, I had to reign myself in and slow down and process the material. It was hard to put the book down. It in part reads like an academic text, and in part like a spiritual manual. The textbook part is objective, honest, and critical. Critical in the sense of a true and complete look at the Diaconate in history, as it is today, and what it could grow to become. But the book is also infused with faith and hope. Hope that the diaconate can grow and flourish not just in numbers, but in substance, in fulfilling the role envisioned. And part of that growth will only come about because of books like this that flesh out what the role of deacons should be, what it should not be, and help to fill the knowledge gap in regard to both of those.

The focus in this book is the charism of the deacon. What it is meant to be. Bishop McKnight also examines what it often becomes. The emphasis is on the deacon as social intermediary. The bridge between clergy the people and bishops. And between the church and those in need.

Reading this book as someone who has been discerning the diaconate and put off applying because of family issues. This book provides encouragement, and clarification. It Is very academic, and yet remains accessible. The writing is such that you just want to keep reading. And in fact, I was greatly disappointed upon finishing it to not find any other book by Archbishop McKnight available to pursue. But that being said, I will likely return to this volume and reread it in another year or so.

I recommend this book to all deacons, to grow in your knowledge, understand, practice and charism of your ordination. For those discerning the diaconate I have not come across a better resource. For Bishops, priests, and other religious this book will be an excellent read, not just to highlight what deacons are called to be, but what they are not. And for the rest of the lay faithful it will give you a clear understanding of Deacons, Priests, and Bishops, their roles, their relationships to each other and their relationships to us. It is an excellent read and I give it a solid 5/5 stars recommendation.

Note: This book is part of a series of reviews: 2019 Catholic Reading Plan!

For all reviews and articles about the Diaconate click here.

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