Understanding Diakonia, Gaudium et spes: “The Church … is interested in one thing only – to carry on the work of Christ … for he came into the world … to serve and not to be served.”

“On this earth Christ’s kingship is exercised, not through power, but in gentleness and through service.” Yves Congar cited here Jesus’ instruction to the disciples when they were arguing about who would be the greatest (Mk 10:37-45). “For the Christian, a place of power is an opportunity for serving others,” Congar added.

The contrast with empire indicates that discipleship functions at a level where power does not exist. The situation is not only that power is inappropriate within discipleship, but also that discipleship is an environment that is not receptive of power. Of its nature, power disrupts the interplay of charism.In a Church of disciples everyone should be in a position to appreciate what other disciples are capable of. And in this they would have one source for establishing leaders.

There is nothing servile or demeaning about diakonia. It is all about obligation of the task and of fidelity to the task-giver. A person can be diakonos to royalty, a military commander, a friend, a community… The moon, the air, a window… can be diakonos to the light of the sun, the call from a distant child, the color of a flower beside the house… Hermes was diakonos of Zeus.

In La Croix, May-June 2020…excerpt, by John N. Collins a world expert on the history and meaning of diakonia/ministry. A former Sacred Heart Missionary, he studied at the Pontifical Biblical Institute (Rome) and the Ecole Biblique (Jerusalem) and has taught in universities in Australia. He is author of several books.

Roman Catholics canonize diakonia

In the first place, the second commission on women deacons that Pope Francis established is preparing for its sessions.

And Benedict XVI warmly embraced the “Protestant” notion of diakonia in his 2005 encyclical Deus caritas est (God is love).

He also declared that “exercising the ministry of charity (diakonia)” was, from the beginning (Acts 6:1-6), “part of the fundamental structure of the Church”.

The “Protestant” notion of diakonia as loving service had, in fact, already deeply affected some fundamental perceptions at the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).  The preface to its 100-page final document, Gaudium et spes (The Church in the Modern World), concluded with this rousing statement:

“The Church … is interested in one thing only – to carry on the work of Christ … for he came into the world … to serve and not to be served.”

A year earlier Lumen gentium (The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church) had named the office of bishop “in the strict sense of the term, a service, which is called very expressively in sacred scripture a diakonia or ministry” (LG, 24).

Clearly, among the bishops a level of notoriety attended the invocation of this Greek term for “ministry” as “service”.

In 1963 the Dominican theologian Yves Congar, a leading expert at the Council, had published Power and Poverty in the Church: The Renewal and Understanding of Service. His purpose in the book was to bridge “the gulf” in thinking between notions of ministry in the early Church and the Church of the 20th century (p. x).

The method he adopted was “at the level of vocabulary” (p. 16). The term he identified as relevant to this task was diakonia.

“Its specific connotations are so rich and varied that it is best to translate it as ‘ministry’,” he wrote. 

Confronting power

Congar had long perceived the essential need for the Church to acknowledge and embody the service dimension of ministry. In Lay People in the Church (1956, p.226; French original 1954) he had written:

“On this earth Christ’s kingship is exercised, not through power, but in gentleness and through service.” He cited here Jesus’ instruction to the disciples when they were arguing about who would be the greatest (Mk 10:37-45). “For the Christian, a place of power is an opportunity for serving others,” Congar added.

This almost reads as if the late theologian, acknowledging that power is at work within the Church, now sees the way to make power more churchlike under the guise of service/diakonia.

As already noted, Benedict XVI identified diakonia as “the ministry of charity” that “became part of the fundamental structure of the Church”.

And Pope Francis is tireless in promoting this Church as “an inverted pyramid”.

In his 2015 address for the 50thanniversary of the Synod of Bishops he said: “Those exercising authority are called ‘ministers’ because, in the original meaning of the word, they are the least of all… the only authority is the authority of service…”

He has envisaged the need for a “diaconal primacy” within each phase and at all levels of the Church up to and including “a ministerial and curial diaconia” for the Roman Curia.

Diaconal ministry as an expression of “the ideal of loving service” does indeed stand in tension with the notion of authority, as Congar recognized. He noted how the history of the Church demonstrates that “legalism has crept … into her practice”, even to the extent of “tyrannical and unworthy claims to ascendancy” (Lay People in the Church,p. 60).

Paradigm shift

At this point, however, contemporary scholarship intervenes and relieves us of the task of resolving conflict between diakonia and power. It can (and must) do this because diakonia, in its native home of ancient Greek, never implied anything about delivering lowly and loving service.

The scholarship emerged in a lexical investigation that began in 1971 and was published only in 1990. This was my own Diakonia: Re-interpreting the Ancient Sources. The conclusions of the book were endorsed and enriched in a further lexical examination by German scholar Dr. Anni Hentschel in her 2007 book, Dienst und Dienen im Neuen Testament.

Currently, the Finnish scholar Pauliina Pylvänäinen has a forthcoming examination of diakonia in the fourth century Apostolic Constitutions. She declares that it is here that we see a change of paradigm in the understanding of diakonia and the Church.

The predominating service paradigm yields ground to notions associated with agency – and without connotation of lowly and loving service.

A new paradigm began, although it has been only hesitatingly acknowledged, with the incorporation of the 1990 semantic investigation into the 3rd edition of the Bauer, Danker, Arndt, Gingrich Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (2000).

These modern studies have clarified the “rich and varied” material that confused Congar and several generations of earlier scholars. This was to lead — at Vatican II and in its following era – to an inadequate and even erroneous theology of ministry, not least in Pope Benedict’s encyclical Deus caritas est.

Twenty years later, from my perspective, such areas of theology have simply become more tentative and confusing, the new research being commonly ignored but also misunderstood and even misrepresented.

Defusing power

For the present purpose, one critical factor at play in relation to theology of the Church is Mark’s presentation of Jesus countering the leadership aspirations of James and John (10, 35-45).

The essential component in this is the context that Jesus establishes. This is the contrast between the sociological framework within Roman aristocratic and imperial settings and the setting within discipleship of Jesus. Within one framework social functions operate out of power and oppression (“rulers lord it over”; “great ones are tyrants”); in the other “it is not so” (Mark 10, 42-43).

The sayings of Jesus insist that discipleship does not function in a way that generates opportunities to become “great” or “first. This would be power at work.

Instead, discipleship operates by principles that no social organization has ever known; or, better, the sayings about the servant and the slave are proposing that discipleship is a paradigm all its own.

The contrast with empire indicates that discipleship functions at a level where power does not exist. The situation is not only that power is inappropriate within discipleship, but also that discipleship is an environment that is not receptive of power. Of its nature, power disrupts the interplay of charism. 

Diakonia of the word

In a Church of disciples everyone should be in a position to appreciate what other disciples are capable of. And in this they would have one source for establishing leaders.

Another source is charism or inspired initiative in response to the gospel. The prime exemplar is Paul, himself the living exponent of diakonia of the word, which he heard and spoke to the Church about.

Paul “glorified” his diakonia (Romans 11:13) because he recognized his calling as from God. But this was authenticated in the Church only by its reception.

Through his diakonia, he knew he was channeling the call of “the living God” to the consciousness of people like those in the Corinthian community. And he recognized that they knew what they were experiencing.

“You show”, he wrote, that “the Spirit of the living God” was stirring within “the tablets of [their] fleshy hearts” (2 Corinthians 3:3).

There is nothing servile or demeaning about diakonia. It is all about obligation of the task and of fidelity to the task-giver. A person can be diakonos to royalty, a military commander, a friend, a community…

The moon, the air, a window… can be diakonos to the light of the sun, the call from a distant child, the color of a flower beside the house…

Hermes was diakonos of Zeus.

John N. Collins is a world expert on the history and meaning of diakonia/ministry. A former Sacred Heart Missionary, he studied at the Pontifical Biblical Institute (Rome) and the Ecole Biblique (Jerusalem) and has taught in universities in Australia. He is author of several books.

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