In recently released book, Bishop McKnight proposes a new understanding of the Permanent Diaconate


Bishop W. Shawn McKnight suggested a revision to an article for the Feb. 2 issue of The Catholic Missourian.

Where it said “the word ‘deacon’ is derived from the Greek word, ‘diakonia,’ which means ‘servant,’” he wanted the definition changed to “minister on behalf of another.”

That distinction is a key premise of Bishop McKnight’s book, Understanding the Diaconate: Historical, Theological and Sociological Foundations, released this month by The Catholic University of America Press.

“Deacons are messengers. They are go-betweens, they are intermediaries,” Bishop McKnight insisted. “I see deacons as spiritual entrepreneurs in getting ministries started that are needed but currently don’t exist.”

In his 270-page book (not including the index and extensive bibliography), he draws upon theology, Scriptural exegesis, history and sociology to cast a renewed vision for the Permanent Diaconate in the Church, which he maintains is by nature both priestly and diaconal.

He said deacons animate lay involvement while serving as ambassadors between a bishop and his diocese, between priests and parishes.

“Those who make decisions in the Church benefit from knowing the needs and the desires of the Christian faithful, which deacons bear responsibility for communicating,” he said.

Deacons also extend the ministry of the bishop and that of the priest in showing care and concern for whomever they meet, he stated.


Diaconal Church

Bishop McKnight noted that St. Paul referred to Christ as the deacon of God.

“Jesus is the Word of the Father, and He revealed the Father,” said the bishop, “and all of us are to reveal Jesus to the world around us.”

He said “a deacon is there to help prepare, anticipate, encourage, inspire, motivate and animate the lay faithful, as well as the bishop and his priests, to fulfill their own unique missions.

“In essence, the deacon is involved in supporting everyone else in their role in the Church,” he said.

He sees deacons playing an important role in his vision for parishes as centers of mercy and charity.

The key is for deacons to be catalysts, encouraging and empowering laypeople to get involved in Christ-centered service.

“All of this will require a lot of imagination and creativity and not being afraid to try something new,” he said.


Recognized authority

Bishop McKnight studied the Permanent Diaconate extensively while pursuing his licentiate and doctorate in sacramental theology at the The Pontifical Atheneum of St. Anselm in Rome.

His book is an extension of his doctoral thesis, which he completed under the mentorship of Father James F. Puglisi of the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement.

Having contributed articles to journals and Church publications and led retreats and seminars on the Diaconate, Bishop McKnight is scheduled to give a keynote presentation at the 2018 National Diaconate Congress this month in New Orleans (

That event, sponsored by the National Association of Diaconate Directors in conjunction with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee for Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations, will mark the 50th anniversary of the restoration of the Permanent Diaconate in the Roman Catholic Church in the United States after a centuries-long hiatus in the Church.

More than 50 people from this diocese — mostly permanent deacons and their spouses — plan to attend.


How are deacons different?

Bishop McKnight said writing is a chore for him, “but this book was something I just had to get out. I was driven to get it done.”

He grew up and served as a priest in a diocese that has few permanent deacons and no Diaconate formation program.

A discussion with Fr. Puglisi in a graduate-level class on the sacrament of holy orders spurred his interest in the Diaconate.

Fr. Puglisi defined deacons as “ministers of charity.” Bishop McKnight objected: “Isn’t everyone a minister of charity? Didn’t the Second Vatican Council assert that bishops are to be ministers of charity, as are priests and, for that matter, all of the baptized?”

After exhaustive research, he has concluded that what makes deacons unique is their role as intermediaries — between Christ and the Church, between clergy and laity, between the people entrusted with authority and the people over whom they exercise that authority, and between the Church and the larger community, especially people on the margins.

Deacons are ministers of charity because they are agents of the Church, which mediates between Christ and the world. And Christ ministered with fullness of mercy and charity.


The original deacons

Bishop McKnight said deacons are “an important tool given back to us by the Second Vatican Council to assist with the overall goal of increasing lay participation in the life and mission of the Church.”

He sees the Diaconate as a gift from God, bestowed on the early Church and handed down as part of the Deposit of Faith.

St. Luke recounts in the Book of Acts that as the Church grew, the need arose for ministerial intermediaries between the Apostles and groups within the Church.

The latest Scripture scholarship illuminates that the deacons commissioned by the Apostles after prayer and consultation with the people (Acts, Chapter 6), “were chosen specifically because they were Greek-speaking, in order to overcome the language and cultural barriers between the Greek-speaking people and the Apostles,” said Bishop McKnight.

“In all likelihood, it had more to do with conveying the message of the Apostles on any given day than on ‘serving at table,’” he stated. “What happened at the Temple? What were the Apostles preaching? What was their message that day? What miracles did they perform?”

He noted that Stephen and Philip, who were among the seven listed in Acts, are immediately found preaching and baptizing.

“So deacons from the very beginning were helping overcome problems within and beyond the Church — not replacing those in authority but serving in support to them,” he said.


Was a familiar concept

The concept of “diakonia” and the whole group of Greek words associated with it were familiar to anyone in Apostolic Times who were influenced by Hellenistic culture.

For example, in Greek mythology, Hermes was known as the diakanos — messenger — of Zeus.

“It referred to an emissary or herald who bears someone else’s word, someone else’s mandate,” said Bishop McKnight.

Although the Church is the supernatural Body of Christ, it also has many traits of a large human institution. Accordingly, the historical role of deacon as an intermediary in the Church has always been spiritual and practical.

“There is a human need for mediation between those who live under authority and those who exercise authority,” he said.

That is why God inspired the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) to call for the restoration of the Permanent Diaconate, he stated.  

“We have many structures of mediation in our parishes — for example, parish pastoral councils and parish finance councils. But the deacon is a sacramental, personal figure of mediation,” he said. “The deacon serves under someone else’s mandate — the charge of the bishop. In the parish context, he is under the charge of the pastor. And he is a permanent symbolic figure.


A bridge to the altar

The Diaconate flourished in the early Church, reaching its apex of influence and responsibility in the third and fourth centuries.

But by the dawn of the Middle Ages, most of its significance had been lost and its responsibilities rolled into the ministerial Priesthood and religious orders and communities — particularly the care of the poor. 

“The demise of the Diaconate in the late Patristic Era of the Church is a direct consequence of the lack of clear distinction between the Diaconate and the ministerial Priesthood,” Bishop McKnight stated. “That should serve as a lesson for us today.”

“Deacons are not mini-priests,” he emphasized. “They are not laypeople, either. They are bona fide clergy.”

Like priests and bishops, they receive the sacrament of holy orders, but their vocation is unique. They cannot replace priests.

“We have deacons precisely because we have priests, not because we are lacking priests,” Bishop McKnight insisted. “They are important auxiliaries, to assist the priests in the fulfillment of their ministry.”

Deacons’ role as collaborators, he noted, “is symbolically manifested in the celebration of the Mass, where they are almost always next to the priest, serving as the priest’s right-hand man.”

“The way they’re involved in the exchange between the nave and the sanctuary, between the people and the priest, manifests the bridge function that the deacon has between his pastor and his flock,” he said.

By carrying the Book of Gospels in procession, proclaiming the Gospel and sometimes preaching the homily, deacons reinforce that they are formally charged with bearing the Word of God.

Also significant is the deacon’s role in leading the General Intercessions at Mass.

“Historically, deacons were expected to be the experts on who and what needs to be prayed for,” the bishop said.

At the end of Mass, the deacon is the one who dismisses the people — “Go in peace, glorifying the Lord with your life” — further defining him as a bridge between the altar and everyday life.


Tilling the soil

“So the question is: How do we use the Diaconate to further our obligation, our mission, especially that of our parishes to be centers of mercy and charity?” said Bishop McKnight.

That discussion will continue as he reevaluates and articulates the role of deacons in this diocese and what they need in order to carry-out that role.

There are currently 70 permanent deacons active in ministry this diocese, with an additional 18 men in formation to become deacons.

Bishop McKnight is grateful for counsel already given by Deacon Raymond Purvis, who has been serving as coordinator of the diocesan Diaconate Office, and Father Daniel Merz, who recently became the office’s director.

“The clearer we are about what we want from the Diaconate, the easier it will be for us to identify future candidates and the kind of formation they will need,” the bishop said.