Monday, August 27, 2007

In Persona Christi and the Deacon

A possibly controversial assertion appears in a new book on Deacons and the Mass [1]. The author states “As minister of the Word, the deacon has a special responsibility for bearing the Gospel into the assembly and proclaiming the Gospel to all. In this ministry he acts ‘in persona Christi’, since it is Christ’s own Gospel, and ultimately Christ himself who proclaims that Gospel.” [2] I question the applicability of this term to deacons.
To my knowledge, the first application of the specific term “in persona Christi” to deacons in an official Church document occurs in the Code of Canon Law of 1983 [3] (emphasis mine):

Canon 1008: By divine institution some among the Christian faithful are constituted sacred ministers through the sacrament of orders by means of the indelible character with which they are marked; accordingly they are consecrated and deputed to shepherd the people of God, each in accord with his own grade of orders, by fulfilling in the person of Christ the head [Latin: in persona Christi Capitis] the functions of teaching, sanctifying and governing.
Canon 1009: 1. The orders are the episcopacy, the presbyterate, and the diaconate. 2. They are conferred by an imposition of hands and by the consecratory prayer
which the liturgical books prescribe for the individual grades.
The first edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church [4] seems to follow Canon 1008:
875: … No one can bestow grace on himself; it must be given and offered. This fact presupposes ministers of grace, authorized and empowered by Christ. From him, they receive the mission and faculty ('the sacred power') to act in persona Christi Capitis. The ministry in which Christ's emissaries do and give by God's grace what they cannot do and give by their own powers, is called a “sacrament” by the Church's tradition. Indeed, the ministry of the Church is conferred by a special sacrament.
However the second edition of the Catechism [5] reads:
875: … No one can bestow grace on himself; it must be given and offered. This fact presupposes ministers of grace, authorized and empowered by Christ. From him, bishops and priests receive the mission and faculty (“the sacred power”) to act in persona Christi Capitis; deacons receive the strength to serve the people of God in the diaconia of liturgy, word, and charity, in communion with the bishop and his presbyterate. The ministry in which Christ's emissaries do and give by God's grace what they cannot do and give by their own powers, is called a “sacrament” by the Church's tradition. Indeed, the ministry of the Church is conferred by a special sacrament.”
The latter expression (in the second edition of the Catechism) is more consistent with what was written by the Fathers at Vatican Council II [6] than the former (in the first edition):
28. … Priests, although they do not possess the highest degree of the priesthood, and although they are dependent on the bishops in the exercise of their power, nevertheless they are united with the bishops in sacerdotal dignity. By the power of the sacrament of Orders, in the image of Christ the eternal high Priest, they are consecrated to preach the Gospel and shepherd be faithful and to celebrate divine worship, so that they are true priests of the New Testament. Partakers of the function of Christ the sole Mediator, on their level of ministry, they announce the divine word to all. They exercise their sacred function especially in the eucharistic worship or the celebration of the Mass by which acting in the person of Christ…
29. At a lower level of the hierarchy are deacons, upon whom hands are imposed “not unto the priesthood, but unto a ministry of service”.
If we examine the sources for Vatican Council II and of the Catechism, plus the teachings of the recent popes, before and since the Council, we find that the term “in persona Christi” finds application to the priesthood only, especially in relationship to the peak moment of the Liturgy, the words of institution within the Eucharistic Prayer:
Pius XII [7]:
40. Only to the apostles, and thenceforth to those on whom their successors have imposed hands, is granted the power of the priesthood, in virtue of which they represent the person of Jesus Christ before their people, acting at the same time as representatives of their people before God….
68. The august sacrifice of the altar, then, is no mere empty commemoration of the passion and death of Jesus Christ, but a true and proper act of sacrifice, whereby the High Priest by an unbloody immolation offers Himself a most acceptable victim to the Eternal Father, as He did upon the cross. “It is one and the same victim; the same person now offers it by the ministry of His priests, who then offered Himself on the cross, the manner of offering alone being different.”
69. The priest is the same, Jesus Christ, whose sacred Person His minister represents. Now the minister, by reason of the sacerdotal consecration which he has received, is made like to the High Priest and possesses the power of performing actions in virtue of Christ's very person.
Paul VI [8]:
29. … acting in the person of Christ, the priest unites himself most intimately with the offering, and places on the altar his entire life, which bears the marks of the holocaust.
John Paul II [9]:
8. The priest offers the holy Sacrifice in persona Christi… Awareness of this reality throws a certain light on the character and significance of the priest celebrant who, by confecting the holy Sacrifice and acting “in persona Christi,” is sacramentally (and ineffably) brought into that most profound sacredness, and made part of it, spiritually linking with it in turn all those participating in the eucharistic assembly.
Benedict XVI [10]:
[News item] Celebrating the Chrism Mass on Holy Thursday with the priests of Rome, Pope Benedict XVI said that priests should prepare themselves thoroughly to celebrate Mass and administer the sacraments, remembering that they act in the person of Christ.
In light of consistent Tradition, from well before Pius XII through Vatican Council II, the definitive edition of the Catechism, and Benedict XVI, the term “in persona Christi” is intrinsically identified with the priesthood (and “in persona Christi Capitis” with the episcopacy and priesthood), not the diaconate. The Code of Canon Law, which is not a theological treatise, is an outlier in this regard. Perhaps we might anticipate a future update of the Code to more definitively articulate this understanding, with changes analogous to those made in the second edition of the Catechism.
Notes: [1] Ditewig, W. T., The Deacon at Mass, Paulist Press, 2007. [2] Ditewig, , p. 90-91. [3] Holy See, Code of Canon Law, 1983. [4] Holy See, Catechism of the Catholic Church (First Edition), 1994. [5] Holy See, Catechism of the Catholic Church (Second, “Definitive” Edition), 1997. [6] Vatican Council II, Lumen Gentium, 1964. [7] Pius XII, Mediator Dei, Encyclical, 1947. [8] Paul VI, Sacredotal Caelibatus, Encyclical, 1967. [9] John Paul II, Dominicae Cenae, Apostolic Exhoration, 1980. [10] CWNews: Benedict XVI, “At Chrism Mass, Pope reflects on priest's vestments” Apr. 5, 2007,


  1. So then what is the basis for a deacon's commitment to celibacy which is either given at ordination or expected if a permanent deacon's wife dies?

  2. Responding to Michael Demers... Western (Roman Rite) Church tradition since the 4th Century is for single men who take Orders to make a commitment to celibacy prior to Ordination. The reinstitution of a married diaconate in the Roman Rite as called for by Vatican II harkens back to the earlier Church, in which a married clergy was present (and continues in the Eastern Church to the present). Upon the death of his wife, the deacon in the Western Church automatically assumes the obligation of celibacy. Perhaps the more fundamental question is: Why did the bishops at Vatican II decide to permit a married diaconate? As a married deacon, I certainly see the fruit of my own ministry (over 22+ years) and of so many other deacons, married and celibate. I truly believe that the Holy Spirit spoke to the Church through the Council, bearing much fruit, including the permanent diaconate.

  3. Continuing from the previous comment...
    There is a large literature on the significance of celibacy in the Church. Perhaps John Paul II's reflections in his "Theology of the Body" are the most illuminating. They can be found at: