by Markus Tymister
St. Isidore died in 639 in Seville, where he was bishop. In his works he succeeding in pulling together knowledge from antiquity and making it accessible. He is generally considered the last church father of antiquity.
In his work De ecclesiasticis officiis, written between 598 and 615 at the commission of his brother Fulgentius, bishop of Astigi (Ecija, 50 miles east of Seville), Isidore gives us information on, among other things, the origin and meaning of ecclesial ministries, offices, and usages. In the second book of the work is found, after the section on presbyters, a chapter on deacons. His explanation of the origin of offices is strongly informed by the Old Testament, but it also says something about how a bishop of the 7th century viewed the relationship of the various ministries:
Ipsi [diaconi] enim clara uoce in modum praeconis ammonent cunctos, siue in orando, siue in flectendis genibus, siue in psallendo, siue in lectionibus audiendis; ipsi etiam ut aures habeamus ad dominum adclamant, ipsi quoque euangelizant.
Sine his sacerdos nomen habet, officium non habet. Nam sicut in sacerdote consecratio, ita in ministro dispensatio sacramenti est; ille orare, hic psallere mandatur; ille oblata sanctificat, hic sanctificata dispensat. Ipsis etiam sacerdotibus propter praesumptionem non licet de mensa domini tollere calicem, nisi eis traditus fuerit a diacono. Leuitae inferunt oblationes in altario, leuitae conponunt mensam domini, leuitae operiunt arcam testamenti. (Isidorus Hispalensis, De ecclesiasticis officiis 2:8, 3-4, ed. C.M. Lawson [CCSL 113], Turnhout 1989, 67f.)
Let the deacons admonish all in a loud voice after the manner of a herald, whether to pray or to bend the knee or to sing psalms or to listen to the readings; they also pray publicly to the Lord and proclaim the Gospel.
Without them the priest has his name but not his office. For as it the duty of the priest to consecrate the sacrament, so it is the duty of the server [deacon] to distribute it. As it assigned to the priest to declaim the prayers, so it is the deacon’s item to declaim the psalm. The one sanctifies the gifts, the other distributes the gifts. It is not even permitted to priests, because of the danger of arrogance, that they take to themselves the cup of the Lord from the altar, but that it be extended to them by the deacon. The Levites [deacons] bring the gifts to the altar, the Levites [deacons] prepare the Table of the Lord and veil the Ark of the Covenant.
It is interesting that Bishop Isidore can only imagine the celebration of the Eucharist such that the various offices of service are exercised. A priest that “can do everything himself” is unthinkable for him. Indeed, he even sees in this the danger of arrogance. Thus, the priest may not take Communion himself from the altar: it is extended to him – like everyone else in the community – by the deacon. At this time this was also customary in papal liturgies.
Even if according to the current liturgical precepts the priest communicates himself first (before the community!) and then gives Communion to the deacon, respect for the various ministries and offices in the liturgy is just as important now as it was at that time.
Priests who think they can carry out everything alone and do without other ministries (servers, lectors, cantors, deacons, organists…) distort what is characteristic of the celebration of Mass. Ministries and offices are not an addition – actually dispensable – to elevate solemnity. Rather, they represent the hierarchically structured church, the people of God, the mystical Body of Christ, which, with Christ the head, is subject of the liturgy. The liturgy constitution of the Second Vatican Council expresses it like this in article 7:
Rightly, then, the liturgy is considered as an exercise of the priestly office of Jesus Christ. In the liturgy the sanctification of the humans is signified by signs perceptible to the senses, and is effected in a way which corresponds with each of these signs; in the liturgy the whole public worship is performed by the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ, that is, by the head and his members. From this it follows that every liturgical celebration, because it is an action of Christ the priest and of his Body which is the Church, is a sacred action surpassing all others; no other action of the Church can equal its efficacy by the same title and to the same degree. (Sacrosanctum Concilium, December 4, 1963)
Respect for various ministries and offices does not concern only the priest, but rather all who – according to their ordination or commission – preside at worship services. It is self-evident that also in a service of the Word of God led by a lay person, various ministries are responsible for their own tasks.
Translated by AWR and reprinted with permission from the blog Populo Congregato. Original: “Ohne die Diakone können Priester ihr Amt in der Eucharistiefeier nicht ausüben: Eine Stimme aus dem 7. Jahrhundert” Fr. Markus Tymister is faculty member at the Pontifical Institute of Liturgy at Sant’ Anselmo in Rome. Art: “Disputation of the Holy Sacrament” by Raphael.