My Pre-Diaconate Exam
I was ordained a deacon in Rome in June of 1994. I was then a member of a religious order, the Salesians of Don Bosco, and I became a deacon as part of my ministry as a Salesian. Rome is a special place to be ordained a deacon obviously because it’s the pope's very own diocese. We candidates had to take a special oral interview-exam for the diaconate conducted by professors coming from different Roman pontifical universities. This was the last hoop to be cleared before one was ordained in the pope's diocese. The exam was to take place at the Lateran University because that is the university of the local church of Rome. So we prepared for the exam and went to the Lateran University bright and early on the specified date.
When my turn to be examined came, I was directed to the exam room. There was a priest-professor waiting for me. I found out later that he was the rector of the North American College in Rome. I don't remember his name but, looking at the list of rectors online, he must have been then-Fr. Edwin O'Brien (later archbishop of Baltimore). His first question to me was a totally unexpected one: What is ontology?
I was blindsided by the question because, to my mind, it apparently had nothing to do with being ordained a deacon. But I duly answered him and explained what I thought ontology was: that it was examining the nature of reality and the totality of things in existence. I think I also went on about ontology as the study of 'being' and what constitutes a being as the word "ontology" comes from the Latin "ens" which means precisely "being."
Having listened patiently to my explanation, he proceeded to his second question which was even more baffling to me. He asked , "What’s the connection between ontology and being a deacon?"
The So-Called "Ontological Change"
As soon as I heard that, I immediately grasped what he was getting at. So, I calmed down and started to explain that being ordained a deacon means having, as it were, a spiritual "seal" seared into your very being, because standard Roman Catholic sacramental theology teaches that the sacrament of ordination effects a character upon the people who receive them. To use a fancy yet traditional expression, the sacrament of holy orders effects--what Roman Catholic theology calls--an "ontological change" (a transformation in the person's very being) whereby the person is given an ontological character which changes them into the very thing that the sacrament signifies.
Baptism is another of these "character-giving" sacraments because it bestows an irrevocable seal, a mark on your soul that transforms you into a child of God. After all, baptism is the sacrament of initiation which transforms people--it is believed--into children of God. When you receive the sacrament of ordination (and there are three kinds: diaconal, presbyteral [priestly], and episcopal), Roman Catholic theology teaches that you are given the "ontological character" (a character that constitutes your very being) of what the particular sacrament signifies.
The Heart of Becoming a Deacon - Becoming a Servant Forever
In the case of the ordination to the diaconate, the ordinand is, therefore, marked with the "ontological character" of a deacon. And what is that character, one may ask? It is to be a servant, one who devotes oneself to the service of the Christian community, particularly in the service of proclaiming the word and offering a few sacraments and ministries that would serve the community.
As I went on explaining the connection between "ontology" and "ordination" along those lines, it seemed that the good father realized that I knew my theology and so he stopped me and said in a solemn yet calm voice, "Do you know why I asked you those questions?"
Without waiting for my answer, he proceeded to answer his own rhetorical question. What he said struck me powerfully and I have never forgotten it to this day. He said that many candidates for ordination think that being ordained a deacon is just the penultimate stage on their path to being ordained a priest because the diaconate in the Catholic Church is still generally a "transitional" stage. That means: it is mostly conferred on men who are eventually going to be ordained as priests. My priest-examiner said that this lack of mindfulness about the diaconate is a lamentable fact because very few priests remember that, when they were ordained deacons, they were in fact given a character which remains irrevocably embedded in their souls for life. And that character is, as I said, to be a diakonos, a servant. In short, when one is ordained a deacon, one is transformed irrevocably into a servant forever because the sacrament effected this so-called "ontological" change! Hence, even if one does become a priest one day, one should never forget that one is and should always and in all cirumstances be, first and foremost, a servant.
Reflections in Retrospect
I remember quite clearly those memorable words of the priest-examiner before my ordination to the diaconate as if they were uttered yesterday. I did get ordained to the diaconate shortly after that at the Sacred Heart Basilica just beside Rome's central train station Termini. It was a joyous and memorable occasion particularly because my father flew all the way from Asia to attend it. I was surrounded by dear friends who wished me well. I served as a deacon for a whole year, most of the time at the very basilica where I was ordained a deacon. A year later in 1995, I was ordained a presbyter (priest) this time in--what was then my home base--Tokyo, Japan.
Fast forward now some 25 years later to myself in 2021. I no longer have the official "faculties" (a kind of a "license") to practice formally as a deacon or a priest at present due to circumstances that I will not bore you with now. I still do remember though with a grateful heart what the priest examiner told me before I was to be ordained a deacon. I don't think that the "ontological change" language is helpful anymore though. It kind of sounds arrogant and narcissistic to me. However, if you describe the diaconate as being "sealed with a character of service," I still find that symbolic language quite powerful. I have always striven to be true to that mission and that character which I gratefully received then and continue to cherish even now.
In the final analysis, what is ordination anyway? It is a sacrament conferred on a select few in order to symbolize more intensely the true nature of the Christian community and of every member thereof: a servant, a minister, a mediator like Jesus between God and one's fellow humans, a shepherd like Jesus who takes care of those under one's charge to the point of being willing to offer one's life for them.
The nature and mission of the so-called "ordained" state therefore are not the exclusive property of ordinands, some of whom like to strut around like peacocks because of their different so-called "ontological" state. I find that attitude quite silly. They belong rather to the whole body of Christ and they ought to be conferred--I firmly think--on any Christian, irregardless of sex or marital status, who is willing and qualified. That's what I honestly think today and, in large part, that is in line with the practice of the early Church.
The ultimate argument though for me is this: If someone can bear the image of God and of Christ (and that again is not dependent on sex or marital status), they can be rightfully empowered to represent God-Christ in a more intense way through ordination to the munus triplex (the threefold role) of "prophet, priest, and servant-king." Any quibbling about that is--I think--nothing but attachment to a patriarchal past rather than genuine openness both to tradition and to the "spirit at work in the world" today.