For nearly 1,000 years, the permanent diaconate had all but disappeared from the Church in the West. How were permanent deacons restored, and what service do they offer the Church today?
“At that time, as the number of disciples continued to grow, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. So the Twelve called together the community of the disciples and said, ‘It is not right for us to neglect the word of God to serve at table. Brothers, select from among you seven reputable men, filled with the Spirit and wisdom, whom we shall appoint to this task, whereas we shall devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.’ The proposal was acceptable to the whole community, so they chose Stephen, a man filled with faith and the holy Spirit, also Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicholas of Antioch, a convert to Judaism. They presented these men to the apostles who prayed and laid hands on them” (Acts 6:1-6).
As is clear from this passage in the Acts of the Apostles, the deacon is called to the service of the faithful. The word deacon itself comes from the Greek word diakonos , which means “servant,” or “helper.” In the days of the early Church, deacons traditionally helped the local bishop. In fact, one of the Church Fathers, St. Ignatius of Antioch, writing in the first century, noted that the deacon had two functions: penning letters for the bishop and assisting him in the ministry of the Word. These first deacons were also active in helping the poor and needy of the community. St. Ignatius emphasized their role as one of service to the Church of God.
An Age of Decline
By the third century, the roles of the deacon began to fall into disuse. Historians say it was due to a number of issues, including tension between the duties of the priest and those of the deacon. Also, confusion existed as to who had authority over them. Priests questioned why deacons were not subject to them, but rather were under the direct orders of the bishops.
By the fifth century, the role of the permanent deacon was all but defunct. Emphasis was instead placed on the identity of the deacon as an introductory step to holy orders, the so-called transitional diaconate. It was and still is today the final step of formation before priestly ordination. Thus the Church was full of transitional deacons — or priests in training — while permanent deacons were essentially gone from the West, and would be for nearly a millennium.
Amazingly, interest in reviving the permanent diaconate was sparked by a group of priests imprisoned in Nazi concentration camps during World War II. They envisioned men — married or single — taking up the work of the Church beyond the walls of the sanctuary. They also saw the deacon as one who would help overcome the estrangement that many Catholics had experience due to a rigid hierarchical structure. They envisioned deacons as married or single celibate men who would live and work in the world. When the idea of a restored permanent diaconate was presented to Pope Pius XII in 1957, he expressed his support. However, the Pope noted that “the time is not yet ripe.”
In the following decade, the Church decided that the time had arrived. The Second Vatican Council (1962-65), in its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church ( Lumen Gentium ), placed emphasis on the restoration of the permanent diaconate:
“The diaconate can in the future be restored as a proper and permanent rank of the hierarchy. It pertains to the competent territorial bodies of bishops, of one kind or another, to decide, with the ap- proval of the Supreme Pontiff, whether and where it is opportune for such deacons to be appointed for the care of souls. With the consent of the Roman Pontiff, this diaconate will be able to be conferred upon men of more mature age, even upon those living in the married state. It may also be conferred upon suitable young men. For them, however, the law of celibacy must remain intact” (No. 29).
In July 1967, Pope Paul VI issued the document Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem (“Sacred Order of the Diaconate”), which authorized the re-establishment of the permanent diaconate, making it possible for men to become deacons permanently, without going on to the priesthood. He allowed married men, with the explicit consent of their wives, to be ordained permanent deacons. Bishops, particularly those from the United States, began to set up formation programs for those men interested in being ordained a deacon, and, by the middle of the 1970s, the Church around the world saw the ordination of these new permanent deacons.
The Modern Permanent Diaconate
Since Vatican II, much has been discussed about the identity and role of the permanent deacon. Questions arose, for example, as to whether they were “sub-priests” or simply dedicated lay ministers. In 1998, under the direction of Pope John Paul II, two important documents were issued by two offices in Rome: Directory for the Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons, by the Congregation for the Clergy, and Basic Norms for the Formation of Permanent Deacons, by the Congregation for Catholic Education. Both documents provide the world’s bishops’ conferences with directives and norms on the selection, formation and pastoral care of aspirants, candidates and deacons in accordance with the intent of the Second Vatican Council. In its Directory for the Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons, the Congregation for the Clergy stated that “through the imposition of hands and the prayer of consecration [the deacon] is constituted a sacred minister and a member of the hierarchy” (No. 1).
The document goes on to define the ministry of the deacon as that of service and proclamation of the Word of God: “The principal function of the deacon, therefore, is to collaborate with the bishop and the priests in the exercise of a ministry which is not of their own wisdom but of the word of God, calling all to conversion and holiness. He prepares for such a ministry by careful study of Sacred Scripture, of Tradition, of the liturgy and of the life of the Church” (No. 23).
Today, there are around 17,000 permanent deacons in the United States (the highest total by far for any single country) in full-time ministry, as opposed to holding another job and serving part time in ministry. Worldwide, there are nearly 36,000 permanent deacons. The majority of these men work in parishes, helping in the day-to-day ministries of the parish. Among other things, they preach the Gospel at Mass, baptize, witness marriages and help the faithful prepare for the sacraments.
Pope Benedict XVI made it clear in a 2006 address to the permanent deacons of Rome that whether their ministry is on the weekend at Church or perhaps a weeknight at a nursing home, the call of the permanent diaconate is a universal one. “Union with Christ,” said the Pope, “to be cultivated through prayer, sacramental life and, in particular, Eucharistic Adoration, is of the greatest importance to your ministry, if it is truly to testify to God’s love.”
Feast day, Dec. 26
The Church honors St. Stephen as the patron saint of deacons, and rightfully so. Stephen was one of the seven men named in Acts 6 to take care of needy Christians and to proclaim and teach the Word of God. He was also the first martyr for the Faith when he was stoned to death just outside of Jerusalem.
The feast of the protomartyr, as Stephen is often called, is celebrated each year on Dec. 26. As well as being the Church’s first martyr, Stephen is the first on a long list of saints who served the Church as deacons.
St. Lawrence of Rome
Feast day, Aug. 10
The rise of St. Lawrence, deacon of Rome, could not have come at a better time. It was A.D. 258 when the Roman Emperor Valerian began a fresh round of persecutions against Christians. Among those rounded up was Pope Sixtus II, who was arrested and beheaded just outside of Rome with several of his deacons.
St. Lawrence was one of the pope’s deacons, but he avoided arrest and hurried back to Rome. Fearful that the oncoming mob would rob the Church’s sacred vessels, he sold them and distributed the money to the poor of the city. However, not long after, he was summoned to appear before the Roman court.
There, he was offered a deal. The prefect promised to spare Lawrence’s life if he would bring all of the Church’s treasures to the state. Lawrence agreed and had three days to complete the task. On the third day, Lawrence returned to court with a large crowd of poor, ragged and lame people. He explained to the prefect that these people were the treasures of the city.
The judge was furious and ordered Lawrence to be burned alive in public on a giant griddle. While being roasted alive, the jovial Lawrence is reported to have said to his executioners, “Turn me over, I am done on this side.”
Fittingly, he is the patron saint of cooks and butchers.
St. Ephrem of Syria
Feast day, June 9
Little is known about the early life of this fourth-century saint. It is believed that he served as a deacon under four bishops of Nisibis, an ancient city of Mesopotamia in what is now southeastern Turkey.
Ephrem is known for writing hymns, homilies and poetry. Tradition has it that Ephrem began composing hymns to combat a number of heresies and attacks on the Church during his era. He is often credited with introducing the use of hymns in public worship.
In 363, the area of Nisibis was under attack by the Persians, and Ephrem led a number of Christian refugees to Edessa, roughly 100 miles from his home. There, he established a popular theological school. He died in 373 and was proclaimed a Doctor of the Church in 1920. He is the patron saint of spiritual directors and spiritual leaders.