How do we understand ministry?

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.

Previous instances of ordination to the priesthood on a deathbed include this one in 2014,
this one in 2019,
and this one as far back as 1997.

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.

19 comments

  1. As someone of a more traditional liturgical bent, I found myself asking the same questions as Paul when I read about this. The ordination of this dear Deacon, while touching, does seem to me to be a counter sign to the purpose and meaning of ordination.

    Allow me to also say that I have similar questions about the marriage of a couple far beyond child bearing years. Because of that sacrament’s essential connection to children, such a celebration seems to emphasize an understanding of the sacrament that is more an emphasis on the individual than the Church really intends, and can therefore obscure it’s sign value.

    1. Thanks for this thoughtful post, Fr. JP.

      I have similar concerns as others. It does seem counter to the meaning of ordination to ordain a person more as a personal ‘prize’ than an authorization for ministry to a community.

      On the other hand, the poor many is dying. It somehow seems compassionate to ordain him. It that my emotions getting the better of me, at the expense of rigorous theological thinking? Probably.

      awr

  2. If a catechumen is on his deathbed, he or she is to be baptized. If a catechumen dies without warning and the possibility of sacramental baptism, then the baptism of desire suffices and is buried as a Christian. So to make this analogous to the seminarian, if the seminarian is on his death bed, ordain him. If he suddenly dies, you could still use the funeral rite of priest?

    I have no strong opinion about ordaining men near their deathbeds. To counter argue though, with priests celebrating mass, even in private, is considered a service to the universal Church. So a newly ordained priest maybe able to offer mass for the good of the entire Church even in hospice.

    I think another justification is that Church’s teaching about a change in character (perhaps related to what you call status?) that comes with the sacrament that reorders the soul so to speak. If one views the priesthood as at least in part as a call to a “way of being”, just as wood remains wood but becomes something more when ordered into a chair, ordination is perhaps justified. A man is then ordered in a such a way as God called him. I know this view isn’t the most popular among the circles that Praytell runs in, but is basically view the Church and what most of the Bishops who would do the ordaining have been taught in seminary.

    1. Excellent comments, Devin.

      I would push back a bit on the analogy to catechumens being baptized on their deathbed. Baptism is for *everyone*, according to the Great Command, and is necessary for salvation. That distinguishes it from ordination, which is only for some, only after a process of discernment and approval, and always for the service of the Church. As you point out, however, a dying priest could, in his last days, theoretically serve the Church as a priest.

      awr

    2. If a catechumen is on his deathbed, he or she is to be baptized.

      That is not what the rite says. Not “is to be baptized” but “may be baptized”.

  3. There might undoubtedly be a touch of clericalism about these. But I am always a little afraid when clericalism is treated as a shibboleth to mark out a bad attitude that certain priests or bishops might have. I would see these events as being more to do with pastoral care. It’s not the case that any Catholic male that is dying young is offered the possibility of Ordination. In all these case the individual in question was in formation for the Sacrament before they knew of their immanent death.

    Death is not easy, in one of our most traditional prayers we ask Mary to help us “at the hour of our death.” So if a bishop decides to help someone who is dying by ordaining them on their deathbed, this is a lovely gesture to the dying Christian. At the risk of sounding too clerical myself, I would say that the day of one’s ordination is often a high point of one’s life. What is wrong with providing a highpoint for someone who is dying or a milestone for their loved ones? Rather than lament that it is a “wasted” ordination where there is no opportunity for service, or pointing to some ontological benefit to the ordination itself, I would simply way that it can be a beautiful, profoundly human gesture of care and love to someone on their deathbed. The experience of the nearness of the Church and the particular goodness towards them helps them to die. It can provide a spiritual viaticum, potentially casting out some of the fear and sadness that is the lot of all on their final journey.

    1. While agreeing absolutely with Neil about the desirability for acts of pastoral care and love for those near to death, I wonder if using ordination in this way is like giving someone a parting gift. Though I obviously applaud the generosity of spirit, I am a little discomforted that we would think of sacraments in those terms when their purpose is rather different. On the other hand viaticum, alluded to by Neil, is designed precisely for this purpose.

    2. I think it is fairly common to try to help dying people achieve their goals when they have studied or worked for something or have a great desire to do something. Consider the case of an actress who wants to try a dream role or a traveler who wants to visit a specific place or a couple who may have waited to marry who marry early.

      I think this impulse comes from love and a real respect for the sorrow and pain of early death even given the knowledge of the resurrection.

      I wouldn’t be inclined to support ordaining anyone to the priesthood just because they are dying. But to let dying people on the path to ordination be ordained or people planning to be religious take early vows seems a simple act of compassion. Some things are just exceptions that don’t need to be overthought.

      Also, regarding the above comment about marriage for people who are over childbearing age, I know of several happy marriages of that type. Marriages are to be open to children, but they are not solely about children. What are loving older couples supposed to do — live in sin?

      1. Thanks Renee. I certainly know of many very, very happy marriages contracted after child bearing years. I don’t mean to infer they cannot be happy or meaningful. But it seems to me that procreation and the presentation of children for rebirth in baptism is in fact one of the main purposes of sacramental marriage (I could be mistaken, but I think this good was actually listed first among the “ends” of sacramental marriage for many years), and therefore, if a couple knows that this is not possible, serious discernmemt is neccesary as to whether this is what the Lord is calling them to, instead of a new, different way of living Christian holiness, perhaps even celibacy for the Kingdom.

        I am sure like you, I know of many couples (increasing in number, I am heartbroken to say) that carry the cross of infertility, but this was most often not known when the sacrament was celebrated. I am again not infering in any way that this struggle minimizes the power or beauty of their marriage. But it was not chosen by them, and I think that makes a difference.

        (I actually think it is still required to receive special permission to be married sacramentally if it is known that the male is unable to complete the marital act, which I think gets to my point.)

        On the other hand, St Paul does speak of marriage as an antidote to concupiscience, and that should be respected. Perhaps we should be preaching more about that! We have rightly emphasized in recent years the positive grace and beauty of marriage. And we need to. But it is part of our tradition, it seems, to also understand marriage as a check on sin and desire. And as I’ve been told, concupiscience burns out about 10 minutes after burial.

        Finally, I promise you finally, I think your comments about ordination in this case bring an act of compassion and an honoring of significant professional preparation is thought provoking. Thank you for that.

  4. While agreeing absolutely with Neil about the desirability for acts of pastoral care and love for those near to death, I wonder if using ordination in this way is like giving someone a parting gift. Though I obviously applaud the generosity of spirit, I am a little discomforted that we would think of sacraments in those terms when their purpose is rather different. On the other hand viaticum, alluded to by Neil, is designed precisely for this purpose.

  5. Is there not a long tradition of the Vatican handing out episcoopal ordinations for men who have been promoted to various Vatican offices, or to papal secretaries who have retired? This has always struck me as handing out a prize or an award for service, rather than ordaining a bishop for a particular community who otherwise has no bishop..

  6. While it is true deacons are called to service, is a deacon defined only by what that person can do? Or are they defined by who they are? In aspirancy and formation, a candidate for the “permanent” diaconate must show a servant’s heart.
    Does being on a “death bed” prevent him “doing” those things he is called to do as a servant/deacon? Such as praying the Office for the Church as a deacon? Will being on a “death bed” prevent him from offering his sufferings, as a deacon, in union with Christ’s for the sake of the Church?

  7. David Brockman expresses my thoughts very well. Ministry is not merely functionary but in the case of Deacon Ken a sign of grace. I agree clericalism is a danger in the community of faith but Ken’s service has been in formation for years and not to the detriment of the kingdom priesthood we all share in through baptism.

  8. “Allow me to also say that I have similar questions about the marriage of a couple far beyond child bearing years. Because of that sacrament’s essential connection to children, such a celebration seems to emphasize an understanding of the sacrament that is more an emphasis on the individual than the Church really intends, and can therefore obscure it’s sign value.”

    As a married person, I feel a need to veer somewhat off topic and address this with come criticism. This is perhaps an era in which the Church’s understanding of the sacrament of matrimony has not, let’s say, advanced quite as far as our understanding of orders or Eucharist. Married persons do not exist to serve as breeding stock for a hierarchy that has been bereft of experience, study, and discernment on this sacrament.

    Perhaps the essential element is not biological child-bearing but a more demanding openness to generativity on all possible fronts: older couples caring for grandchildren, mentoring younger couples, adopting or fostering children, and even serving in ministerial capacities in local communities as spiritual directors, counsellors, or certainly, companions in mainstream parish ministries.

    I tire of clergy who, while well-meaning in striving to discern the Spirit’s wisdom for the sacramental life for married couples, often lack the depth, experience, and theological chops to say much beyond the black words of the rite. I had a friend who was engaged to marry someone who was diagnosed with a fast-moving terminal cancer. They obviously never had children, and the married life was largely spent in medical care, then hospice. Yet there was the witness of the devoted care for a gravely ill spouse–a lesson for which clerics are usually spectators, not participants.

    I think it is enough to permit God to do unexpected things when ordination is administered on death beds. Part of clerical culture? Likely. Clericalism? Could be, but not necessarily. As a married person, I have little to say to affirm or criticize it.

    1. Thank you Todd. As a post-menopausal woman, i should be denied the beauty of a committed, sacramental, self-giving marriage because the celibate male clergy deems it “intrinsically disordered”? They have NO concept of birthing/nurturing/foster relationing because wombs are only breeding grounds to them. Anti-scriptural, spiritually/emotionally abusing mansplaining.

  9. I’m sympathetic with Paul’s thoughtful analysis. On the other hand, Father Łos did preside at Eucharist at least once, with at least one person participating. At what point do we say that a presbyter is “serving?” After 10,000 liturgies? 1,000? 100? 1? Existentially, aren’t they all they same? Please bear in mind that I’m very sympathetic with Paul’s insights, but I think there is this additional dimension to the discussion.

    Nor would I be inclined to pile on with respect to this particular aspect of the more clerical overtones of presbyteral ministry in this age. For indeed, that is what this is. It’s related to the “Welcome to the club” sentimentality often associated with ordination. Including the fact that often seminarians and laity must be segregated academically, with separate classes being provided with identical course numbers, titles and syllabi. Deathbed ordinations come out of this same mindset.

    Another manifestation is the more recent innovation added to the Rite of Ordination, during which the practice of the newly ordained giving their very first blessings to the ordaining bishop is a kind of sentimental accretion.

    So, even though I appreciate much of what Paul has to say, and because of the sad tragedy of a young person being so mortally ill just at the point of a major life event, I would rather fry the other fish mentioned above, rather than the deathbed ordination issue.

  10. Please. Ordain a dying man a deacon, when hundreds/thousands of deacons are needed, rather than ordaining called/educated/formed women, who can serve for a lifetime?

    The picture says it all. A fully vested and mitered bishop with multiple altar boys. Full on male clerical display.

  11. An update on Deacon Conklin. Who knows how many days or weeks or years he has left— though, as his bishop points out, this is true of all of us. But in the mystery of God’s mercy he is certainly fulfilling the mandate given him at his ordination: “Receive the Gospel of Christ, whose herald you have become. Believe what you read, teach what you believe, and practice what you teach.”

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