A Synod Without Deacons: The Absence of Christ the Servant

COMMENTARY: What effect will the absence of deacons from the synod have on the process and its conclusions?

Pope Francis poses for a picture during the Synod on Synodality Oct. 23, 2023.
Pope Francis poses for a picture during the Synod on Synodality Oct. 23, 2023. (photo: Edward Pentin / National Catholic Register )

The Vatican’s Synod on Synodality is seeking to discern the Church’s path in fostering a culture of dialogue and participation among its global community.

The process will unfold over a two-year period, concluding in 2024. It began at the diocesan level, with local Church communities engaging in consultations and sharing reflections about their experiences and the future of the Church. The insights from these local dialogues subsequently moved to national and regional levels and were synthesized by the national bishops’ conferences.

The culmination of this process is currently taking place in Rome, where representatives from across the Church have gathered to reflect on the collective wisdom gathered throughout this synodal process.

Certain segments of the Church have, in recent years, raised the question of admitting women to the diaconate. In response to this interest, Pope Francis initiated a commission in 2016 to study the historical roles of deaconesses. In 2020, he formed a second commission, of which I am a member, to focus more on theology and provide the Holy Father with specific recommendations. And now, with the Synod on Synodality, the role of women, especially in the diaconate, is likely to be a recurring topic. It represents not just historical curiosity but broader issues of participation in the life of the Church today.

Since its restoration by the Second Vatican Council and its subsequent implementation by national conferences around the world, the permanent diaconate has arguably become one of the fastest-growing segments in the Church. According to the latest figures in the 2022 edition of the Annuario Pontificio and the most recent Annuarium Statisticum Ecclesiae, there were 48,635 permanent deacons in 2020. This number continues to grow, with nearly half the deacons living in the United States.

Given the sheer number of deacons throughout the world, and given the synod’s consideration of women and the diaconate, it is reasonable to expect that deacons would be among the delegates in Rome. And yet, while more than 450 bishops, priests, religious and lay Catholics have gathered for the 16th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, the only segment of the Church not represented in the universal phase, as an order, are deacons.

So one might ask: How is it that those, ordained to serve at table (Acts 6:2), are not invited to this particular table? What effect will this absence have on the synod and its conclusions? Even more to the point, what does this say about the diaconate as it relates to the constitution of the broader Church?

As St. Ignatius of Antioch observed in his first-century Letter to the Trallians:

“Let all respect the deacons as representing Jesus Christ, the bishop as a type of the Father, and the presbyters as God’s high council and as the Apostolic college. Apart from these, no church deserves the name.”

Whether deliberate or simply overlooked, deacons — those ontologically configured to Christ the Servant by virtue of their ordination — are completely absent. With this absence is their essential contribution to the Church, to bear witness to Christ the Servant through the exercise of sacred ecclesial service.

This deficiency sends the message, whether intended or not, that deacons — those who go out to the periphery in hospitals and nursing homes, in jails and prisons, in food kitchens and among the poor — have no place in a gathering whose purpose is communion, participation and mission. These men, most of whom are married, are numbered among those who have the “smell of the sheep,” as Pope Francis likes to say. Because of this, they possess rich insights that bishops, priests, religious and laity do not have. In this respect, and in a complementary manner, deacons add a depth, dimension and texture to the broader conversation, enriching it at the same time.

The Holy Father has consistently emphasized the importance of reaching out to those on the margins of society. For him, the concept of the periphery is not limited to geographical boundaries but extends to people who are marginalized, excluded or suffering. He urges the Church to avoid being insular and to actively reach out to these individuals.

In this respect, like many bishops, priests and laity, deacons become staunch defenders of the vulnerable, including the poor, migrants and the elderly, often critiquing what Pope Francis terms the “throwaway culture,” where individuals deemed unproductive are sidelined. This is where the diaconate lives, bringing the healing touch of Jesus Christ to those in desperate need of his saving love.

As the Vatican works through the synod’s universal phase over the next year, one can only hope and pray that the synodal organizers will recognize this grave deficiency. In doing so, may they have the grace and courage to correct this lacuna so that the voice of Christ the Servant may be heard from a particularly diaconal perspective and, with him, the voices of those who live on the periphery.

Deacon Dominic Cerrato, Ph.D., is the director of the diaconate for the Diocese of Joliet, Illinois, editor of The Deacon magazine, a member of the Pontifical Commission on Women and the Diaconate, author, retreat master and national speaker.