I invited my old friend Mike Hayes — a deacon candidate for the Diocese of Cleveland — to read and review the latest work of another old friend, Deacon Bill Ditewig. Below are Mike’s thoughts on Bill’s book, “Courageous Humility: Reflections on the Church, Diakonia and Deacons.” 

Take Courage, Be Humble
Deacon Bill Ditewig’s “what if” calls for a Church and a diaconate to listen with open hearts and act

By Mike Hayes

As a deacon candidate, I have read many of Deacon Bill Ditewig’s books on the diaconate.  His latest, “Courageous Humility,” steps out initially to discuss his views on the future of the Church, not just the future of the diaconate.  In this book, Ditewig uses humility as the lens for what might bring the Church into an “other-focused” future, one that reflects Pope Francis’ call for a more synodal Church.

From the start, the author defines humility as being rooted in the Hebrew scriptures where we find the words “strong and courageous” written 40 times.  “Courageous humility,” he writes, “is a humility that takes risks, investing the talents and strengths God has given us for the good of others.”  He draws this rootedness out in his first two chapters, one on the Trinity and the other on St. Benedict’s Rule.

He starts down a different avenue in suggesting some ecclesial reform in Chapter 3 and continues on in that vein in the remainder of the book, focusing then more on the diaconate and offering suggestions or developments in the Code of Canon Law, the liturgy of diaconal ordination and some recurring age-old issues that come up with the diaconate.  He finishes with a positive look at how changes to the diaconate might help renew the Church.

The book often asks “what if” — floating ideas as opposed to being insistent or inflexible on changes. This reflects the humble heart that Ditewig thinks needs to be central to the Church’s future. He centers his opening thoughts on the Trinity and God’s kenosis, or self-emptying.  This alone should spark our humility; after all, God does not need to become human, but to re-connect with humanity, he does so anyway! God models this humility for us and repeats it throughout the Incarnation — the washing of the feet being one prime example.  The fact that God shares his life with us all the way to human death should allow us to open our own hearts.  But this humility needs to seek courage. Citing the works of Friar Dan Horan and Pope Francis, we need to be open to where the Holy Spirit is calling each of us and to not try to resist the Holy Spirit when the Spirit calls us out of our respective comfort zones.

Ditewig gets creative in the second chapter, likening Benedict’s Rule to a 12-step program for the Church, with each step opening us more to humility,  The rest of the book is both homage and suggestion.  Ditewig honors the work of the late San Francisco Archbishop John Quinn, calling for more decentralization and collegiality. Ditewig also makes connections here to Pope Francis’ reform of the Roman Curia and even the day-to-day operations in the Vatican Dicasteries. In Ditewig’s view, it all needs to trickle down to the parish level.  He writes eloquently here:

“True synodality cannot be something that is done every few years by a relative handful of people (and certainly not just by the clergy), with its documented results filed away for further study by scholars.  A constitutive synodal approach must be part and parcel of everyday ecclesial relationships and decision making.  For this to happen, all members of the church—laity, religious, and clergy—must participate in the process, process that is open and humble enough to listen and courageous enough to act.”

He focuses on the diaconate for the book’s remainder, but as a lens for all in the Church to realize their own call to diakonia Ditewig gives a long review of the Second Vatican Council with regard to the diaconate; this serves as an excellent backdrop for his latter suggestions.  The question “Why ordain deacons at all?” is paramount here and, as someone in formation, I found this to be compelling.  “The diaconate,” he writes, “is a different, substantive and complementary model of ordained ministry.”  Indeed, Benedict XVI reminds that it is a “spiritual office which carried out an essential responsibility of the church, namely a well-ordered love of neighbor.”

Related: Bill Ditewig on humility, synodality, serving in the Navy and more

In Chapters 5 and 6, Ditewig reviews Canon Law and the Ordination Rite for Deacons.  He borrows much from Eastern Tradition here and offers some thoughts on the future of the order.  I found one thought particularly compelling. We differentiate between transitional deacons (those who will become priests) and permanent deacons (those who do not become priests, most of whom are married).  But Ditewig makes the point that all ordinations are permanent. Indeed, priests and bishops have often stated to me that they are “still deacons” and we learn throughout formation that ordination confers an indelible character on the ordinand. (Ditewig ruefully notes that, after all, we don’t call bishops “transitional priests.”)

While I don’t completely agree that we should eliminate a transitional diaconate as a stepping stone to the priesthood (as Ditewig later suggests), I do think we could offer some better vocabulary around these titles. With many laity confused about a deacon’s role in a parish or in liturgy, Ditewig also calls for a greater role for the laity to respond to the candidate in a call and response during the ordination rite, as it is done in the Eastern Church.  He also provides a nifty schematic for revisions to consider in both the canon law and ordination chapters.

Finally, he explores some age-old questions — ranging from whether deacons should be allowed to anoint the sick, wear clerical collars and the always controversial, possibility of women being ordained to the diaconate, which is still an open question.  The relationship between priests and deacons, which can sometimes be contentious, is also explored in depth and with great care.  Pastors and deacons alike who find difficulty in working together may find this section particularly useful and humbling.

Ditewig sums up by calling for the diaconate to truly be “a full and equal order.” All members of Holy Orders are ordained for a specific purpose, but many think of deacons as “not quite priests,” as opposed to distinct members of the clergy with a particular role.  One deacon I know exemplified this when his pastor informed him that he would proclaim the gospel that day because he was preaching and he always reads the gospel when he is the homilist.  Naturally, this is a role for the deacon, of course, but the deacon responded sarcastically, “OK, if you’re going to read the gospel, then what part of the Eucharistic Prayer do you want me to take?”  Ditewig recalls another deacon’s experience of a priest informing him that his vocation was not equal to his, and it was “little more than a hobby.”

The fact is, all who are in Holy Orders — priests, bishops and deacons — have one collective goal: “To build up the body of Christ.”  Deacons do this through word, sacrament, and charity.  Deacons are to “animate the church’s service” to all the people of God. But we need humility to do this. Ditewig’s questions should challenge all of us: “Are our actions building up or tearing down?  When preaching and teaching is the deacon proclaiming opinion or fact? Do we think and act through the Church?”  Much like the recent Vatican document on social media, “Towards Full Presence,” Ditewig believes we need to heal polarization in the Church and world.  Deacons can indeed be, as he puts it, “a humble go-between” where they are often called upon to “see what’s not being done” and to be the person who may act as a sentinel or liaison to both pastor and bishop, taking on work that others find themselves too busy to accomplish.

But to do any of this, Ditewig explains, we need courage — the strength to overcome fear and then act.  His call for a more dynamic, synodal church is a beacon for our time and a message that, perhaps, deacons can well execute with their feet, their hands and their hearts — in both clerical culture and secular life.