Marital Spirituality as the Foundation of a Diaconal Spirituality    Deacon Walter Sweeney

..”The spiritual life of the deacon must concern his life of ministry (diaconia) but, for the married deacon, it also is deeply intertwined with his sacramental life as a husband and father, his matrimonial spirituality…”

Marital Spirituality as the Foundation of a Diaconal Spirituality: An Intimate Reflection on True Love in Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love)

by Deacon Walter Sweeney

I would like to continue to explore diaconal spirituality after looking into the psalms and into contemplative spirituality in previous articles on deaconden. The spiritual life of the deacon must concern his life of ministry (diaconia) but, for the married deacon, it also is deeply intertwined with his sacramental life as a husband and father, his matrimonial spirituality. The spiritual richness of the life of the married deacon in this prior call and commitment is a foundation for the richness of his response to his diaconal call and its commitments and activities. (I would like also to explore the ministerial spirituality of deacons in a later article.)

For those of us deacons who are not married another basic spirituality applies, one involving their celibate lifestyle and the joys and graces of Christian virginity. Perhaps another can explore this aspect of diaconal spirituality; I don’t feel qualified or experienced enough to tackle it.

Since the latest papal teaching on marital love and spirituality is Pope Francis’ Amoris Laetitia, The Joy of Love: On Love in the Family (2016) it seemed the most appropriate place to go to explore the marital spirituality of deacons. It provides some perspective on ministry to married couples and families but its most striking contribution to the deepening of a marital spirituality is an intimate reflection by the Holy Father himself on the meaning of true Christian marital love. In one section he imparts a personal message to married couples based on St. Paul’s definition of love, “Love is patient, love is….”

While only slight mention is made of married clergy in the document (in section 202), and none directly of married deacons, Francis’ direct words to married couples is a deeply touching meditation that clerical married couples would profit greatly from reflecting on together. And that is what I want to encourage us to do — diaconal couples read together, prayerfully and meditatively, Francis’ reflections on Paul in Chapter Four, “Love in Marriage.” And I will give a little taste of it to encourage you to pick it up and experience the Holy Father’s encouragement to deepen out marital and familial love.

At ordination married deacons would have already been called into and accepted the obligations and have lived by the graces of sacramental marriage for some time. It is one of the foundations of their, their wives’ and families’ spirituality. It cannot be incompatible with the subsequent call to diaconal ministry and its spirituality; indeed, they both need to be integrated into a healthy personal and ministerial life.

These two sacraments are indeed particularly compatible because both are responses to divine initiatives, both are calls to self-giving love and both lead to service that is Christ-like. Though Holy Orders imparts an eternal character, both Sacraments call for life long, permanent acceptance of total self-giving, kenosis, and both are paths to sanctification. Those called to both are witnesses to all married Christians that marriage and holiness, even evangelical holiness (section 160), even ordained ministry, is not precluded by the call into sacramental marriage. This reality seems an invigorating foundation upon which to base a robust ministry, indeed evangelization, to married couples and families.

In Chapter Four, “Love in Marriage” of this document is Francis’ intimate teaching on Paul’s explanation of true, Christian love. This love truly grasped and lived, or at least struggled with, is the foundation of the married Christian’s life and holiness. “Where two or more are gathered in my name, I am there.”

“Marriage is a path of fidelity and mutual self-giving that perfects the couple’s love” (89). The Holy Father uses Paul’s description of Christian love to offer us a deeply touching catechesis. It is a meditation reaching deeply into the reality and divine inspiration of each particular marriage. If absorbed with gratitude and docility it is life changing and an experience of the Lord himself calling us to deeper integrity. It could be suggested that each married couple give themselves the gift of receiving this teaching personally as if from Christ himself, through a holy cleric, sitting in intimate conversation sharing the Gospel. That is, each clerical married couple should open themselves to it and integrate its graced wisdom with the graces and obligations of their other vocational sacrament, Holy Orders.

So, after receiving this catechesis for themselves the diaconal couple might look to Francis’ example of ministering in an intimate and Christ-like way for their own ministry to married couples together or for the deacon as a “holy cleric.”

In 1Corinthians 13:4–7 Paul teaches:

Love is patient,

love is kind;

love is not jealous or boastful;

it is not arrogant or rude.

Love does not insist on its own way,

it is not irritable or resentful;

it does not rejoice at wrong,

but rejoices in the right.

Love bears all things,

believes all things,

hopes all things,

endures all things.

Our holy catechist explains each phrase as a meditation on the foundation of our holiness as married Christians and its wider implications for our service role in the community. This love leads to service in and also beyond marriage. This meditation could also serve as an effective examination of conscience on ways we have strayed from this primary way of our sanctification.

A brief synopsis of the teaching might motivate a direct extended meditation on it in its entirety. In part, Francis says:

Love is patient when we do not act on impulse and, like God, avoid giving offense. When slow to anger we leave open the possibility of repentance, change and reconciliation — forsaking all reasons for anger and for creating conflict (91).

Love is kind when it assists others, does good deeds and “shows its fruitfulness in the happiness of giving and the nobility and grandeur of spending ourselves unstintingly…purely for the pleasure of giving and serving.” God is kind (93).

Love is not jealous when we are concerned for the good and happiness of others, and as we seek our own path to fulfillment we allow others to find their own. It is seeing others with the eyes of God (95). Love is not boastful when it does not need to be the center of attention, or to be haughty, pedantic or pushy, but focused on others (97).

Love is not arrogant when it has no need to show off and is able to keeps a sense of reality. “The inner logic of Christian love is not about importance, greater knowledge, or power but about service to others” (97). Love is not rude when it is not harsh, but gentle and thoughtful, pleasing and not abrasive or rigid. As an essential requirement of love, “every human being is bound to live agreeably with those around him.” Love abhors making others suffer. Imitate Jesus’ own gentleness in dealing with each other, and speaking encouraging words (99).

Love does not insist on its own way but is “nobly generous in serving others and desiring to love more than even to be loved.” Without resentment, or irritation at the deeds of others, love rejoices at the good of others. “When a loving person can do good for others, or sees that others are happy, they themselves live happily and in this way give glory to God, for ‘God loves a cheerful giver’ (2 Cor 9:7)” (110).

Love bears all things when we limit judgment and try to speak well of others. Accepting the limitations and imperfections of others we see weaknesses in the wider context of grace and a love that is striving to be better (112).

Love believes all things when it trusts the other and does not need to control or dominate, so all can be themselves and mutually enrich the marital and family communion (114).

Love hopes all things when we can see possibilities for the future even when tempted to despair. “Others can change, mature and radiate unexpected beauty and untold potential” (116).

Love endures all things when we recognize our graced ability to face any trial and challenge with a positive and loving attitude — to never give up even in the darkest hour and even to love and do good for those who hate and harm us (118).

The Holy Father suggests that seminarians be trained in sensitivity to and exposed to family issues and realities in their training (202). The assumption being that their spiritual way is one of virginity. For all the obvious wisdom of this, I would like to suggest that a focus on married clergy, i.e. our married deacons, as primary initiators of family ministry might be at least as productive in launching the much needed effort of reinvigorating marriage and family life. The lived sense of urgency for the needs of couples and families, alive in their own experiences and even their failures, can go far in stimulating any renewed, comprehensive family ministry. It is no doubt a like-to-like ministry to be effectuated largely by lay couples, but the energy for its stimulation and perseverance might need the urgency of ordained ministers living it out in their own life and families. Just a thought, with no sense of diminishing the roles of celibate deacons, priests, or lay ministers or counselors , but more a call for married deacons to look deeply at the spiritual depths of their marriages for the benefit of their own marriages and families and that of the whole church.


Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.