This reflection is prompted by the news that Bishop Richard Stika of Knoxville recently ordained a man to the diaconate on his deathbed, announced here.
This is of course not the first time that men have been ordained on their deathbeds, but as far as I am aware Ken Conklin may be the first to have been ordained a deacon rather than a priest.
The crux of the matter seems to be this: do we really understand that we are ordaining people for future service?
Ordaining someone at an advanced age means that their ministry will be short-lived, even if fruitful, but can be justified. However, ordaining someone on their deathbed could be indicating that ordination is about status. In these days when we recognize the danger of clericalism, this may not be a rationale that we would wish to follow.
Others seem to say that if you die as a priest you are in some way spiritually better off than if you were a lay person. Bishop David Choby of Nashville justified the 2014 case referenced above as follows: “The ordination of Father Carmona, which occurred in the face of the certainty of death, reflects the Paschal Mystery. That is how our own lives are transformed in the death and resurrection of Jesus.”
But surely the death of a baptized lay person is equally able to reflect the Paschal Mystery?
Fr Michał Łos, in the 2019 case referenced above, is seen “elevating the host” as he celebrates Mass, lying in his hospital bed. One wonders who else apart from the photographer was present, and why Fr Michal felt he needed to elevate — the rubric says the presider shows (ostendit) the host to the people. Was he ordained simply in order to give him spiritual solace through being able to celebrate Mass in bed before he died? (In the event he survived for 24 days after ordination.) Is that a valid reason for doing so?
I am sure that when we hear of a seminarian, or a candidate for diaconal ordination, who will soon die prematurely, our heart goes out to that person, and to that person’s family and friends. We naturally want to offer every possible loving support in the last days or hours of the person’s life. But there’s a question of sacramental integrity, too. In ordaining on the deathbed, we seem be leaving on one side any concept of priesthood or diaconate as ministry. What are we ordaining people for, if not to serve? And why would we even contemplate ordaining people who have not completed their basic formation for ministry?
The OCIA makes it clear that catechumens may receive a Christian burial (Introduction, para 47), as if they had in fact been baptized. But they do not actually receive the sacrament. They will never minister to others through their life as a Christian, but they are nevertheless counted among God’s household.
Is ordination an analogous case? A seminarian or candidate for the permanent diaconate who is in danger of imminent death will in all probability never actually be able to minister to others, but could still receive an “enhanced” funeral without having received the sacrament of orders. “Ordination by desire” ?
Returning to Bishop Stika and Deacon Conklin, can we assume that the newly-ordained deacon would never be able properly to exercise his threefold ministry of Charity, of the Word, and of the Table? If he was a man who already lived by this vocation, his exsequiary rites would not have needed diaconal status to demonstrate his holiness in the sight of God.