In the footsteps of Abraham, a model of faith, and of the Levites, and dedicated to liturgical service, deacons appeared in the Apostolic Church (see Acts 6). They embodied the admonition of Jesus to wash each other’s feet (John 13) in works of justice and charity. In the early Church deacons had an important ministry in the service of their local bishop. In the fifth century, the diaconate faded into a transition step to the priesthood. The Council of Trent (16th Century) recommended its restoration.
Following the directives of the Second Vatican Council (Lumen Gentium no. 29; 1962-65), Pope Paul VI restored the order of the diaconate as a permanent ministry in the Western Church on June 18, 1967. The following year the bishops of the United States were granted permission to have permanent deacons in America. In 1973, the Diocese of Brooklyn began its formation program for the permanent diaconate. The first class was ordained in 1977.
The Diaconate and Holy Orders
A deacon is a man who is called by God and after discernment, formation, and preparation is ordained by his bishop to serve the needs of God’s people. If a married man is called to the diaconate, his wife must consent and support his decision to seek formation and ordination. As Catholics, we believe that each ordained deacon is conformed through the sacramental grace of Holy Orders into the image of Jesus the Servant.
To better understand the role and mission of the deacon in the life of the Church, one must begin with the Church’s teaching regarding the sacrament of Holy Orders that the deacon receives and shares. The bishops of the United States, in their document The National Directory for the Formation, Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons in the United States (NDPD) (2003), describe the sacrament of Holy Orders in the following way: “Holy Orders is the sacrament through which the mission entrusted by Christ to his apostles and their successors continues to be exercised in the church until the end of time. Thus, it is the sacrament of apostolic ministry: “The mission of the Apostles, which the Lord Jesus continues to entrust to the pastors of his people, is a true service, significantly referred to in the Sacred Scriptures as ‘Diakonia,’ namely service or ministry. This diakonia is exercised on various levels by those who from antiquity have been called bishops, priests, and deacons.” The ordained ministries, apart from the persons who receive them, are a grace for the entire church. (art. 24).
As an integral part of the sacrament of Holy Orders, the conferral of the diaconate configures a man to Christ’s consecration and mission, constituting him as a member of the hierarchy and sacred minister of Christ with “a distinct identity and integrity in the Church that marks him as neither a lay person nor a priest; rather, the deacon is a cleric who is ordained to diakonia, namely, a service to God’s people in communion with the bishop and his body of priests” (art. 29). Thus, the divinely constituted structure of the Church requires the unique and irreplaceable ministry of bishops, priests, deacons, laity and religious to work together for the building up of the community of faith. Each state of the Church contributes in a unique way to its divinely given mission. The deacons of the church are the sacramental sign of Christ’s ministry of service on behalf of the Church and the world, serving the discipleship of God’s people.
The Threefold Service of the Deacon
Deacons are called to live a threefold ministry of service. This service can be summarized in the following way:
• Service to the Word of God: the deacon is called to be a man of deep prayer, becoming familiar with and a living witness to the Word of God in his ministry, among his family, and in the workplace. He is to love, preach and teach the Sacred Scriptures from the pulpit and in his daily life. A deacon is also called to teach and catechize his fellow Catholics and help prepare those seeking to receive the sacraments, most especially adults seeking entry into the Catholic family of faith.
• Service to the Eucharist: Every deacon is called to serve the sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood by his proper participation in the Liturgy, his love and reverence of the Blessed Sacrament, and his willingness to bring the Eucharist to those who are sick and unable to join the community of faith in Sunday worship. By virtue of his ordination, a deacon may preside at many liturgical services, including the baptism of infants, witness marriages, conduct funeral wakes, lead the Exposition and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, and assist at the Eucharist. Each deacon must also cultivate a profound love and reverence for the sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood. Such a Eucharistic spirituality is essential in the ministries described above.
• Service on behalf of Justice, Charity, and Peace: Deacons serve as Christ’s heralds of hope and love to the poor, disabled, needy, lonely, young, forgotten, and society’s outcasts. Through their living witness and service, they promote works of mercy, justice, reconciliation, and peace. In this most important aspect of diaconal service, each deacon must strive to challenge fellow believers to address the social needs of the materially and spiritually poor and look to meet those needs.
The Unity of Diaconal Service
The Church has always taught that the threefold ministries that mark the life and work of the diaconate form a single whole whose parts can never be compromised or lost. The bishops teach this truth very clearly:
Therefore, diaconal ministries distinguished above are not to be separated; the deacon is ordained for them all, and no one should be ordained who is not prepared to undertake each in some way. A deacon may also have greater abilities in one aspect of ministry; therefore, his service may be marked by one of them more than by the others. Fundamentally, however, there is an intrinsic unity in a deacon’s ministry” ((NDPD, art. 39).
Thus, every aspirant who wishes to discern a vocation to the diaconate must be ready to serve the fullness of diaconal ministry when and if he is ordained a deacon.