Many people don’t know exactly what deacons are or how they fit into the Church. This article provides five reasons why we need permanent deacons in the Church right now, but before we do that let’s look at the differences between transitional and permanent deacons and the three degrees of the Sacrament of Holy Orders.
Transitional Versus Permanent Deacons
Transitional deacons are seminarians in training to become priests. Hence, their intent is to eventually receive the next degree of Holy Orders after they are ordained deacons. Permanent deacons are men, usually married, whose intent is to receive only the first degree of Holy Orders, that of the diaconate. The Sacrament and rite of ordination for all deacons, whether transitional or permanent, is the same, except for the vow of celibacy which married men do not recite during the ordination ceremony.
The Three Degrees of Holy Orders
There are three degrees of the Sacrament of Holy Orders in the Catholic Church. The third degree of Holy Orders is bishop, the episcopate, which is the fullness of the Sacrament of Holy Orders. Bishops are members of the “high priesthood.” They are the primary teachers of their flock and rulers over their assigned geographical area or diocese (CCC 1555-1561).
The second degree of Holy Orders is priest, the co-worker of the bishop. “The function of the bishops’ ministry was handed over in a subordinate degree to priests so that they might be appointed in the order of the priesthood and be co-workers of the episcopal order for the proper fulfillment of the apostolic mission that had been entrusted to it by Christ” (CCC 1562). People are most familiar with priests whose duties include celebrating the Mass, acting as confessor and acting as the shepherd of the people of God at the parish level.
The first degree of Holy Orders is deacon, the servant of the Church. “At a lower level of the hierarchy are to be found deacons, who receive the imposition of hands ‘not unto the priesthood, but unto the ministry.’ At an ordination to the diaconate only the bishop lays hands on the candidate, thus signifying the deacon’s special attachment to the bishop in the tasks of his ‘diakonia’” (CCC 1569). “The sacrament of Holy Orders marks them with an imprint (‘character’) which cannot be removed and which configures them to Christ, who made himself the ‘deacon’ or servant of all” (CCC 1570).
“The spirituality of service is a spirituality of the whole Church, insofar as the whole Church, in the same way as Mary, is the ‘handmaid of the Lord,’ at the service of the salvation of the world. And so that the whole Church may better live out this spirituality of service, the Lord gives her a living and personal sign of his very being as servant. In a specific way, this is the spirituality of the deacon. In fact, with sacred ordination, he is constituted a living icon of Christ the servant within the Church” (“Basic Norms for the Formation of Permanent Deacons.”).
The diaconate is ancient. Seven deacons, including St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, were ordained by the Apostles in the year 34 A.D. (Acts 6). Today, some believe that the deacon’s only purpose was to serve as a table servant or waiter. While deacons are not above doing any work, including the most menial work, deacons in the early Church had important administrative responsibilities and served as the eyes and ears of the bishop, basically as the bishop’s “right hand man.” (“A Short History of the Permanent Diaconate.”).
In summary, the deacon is a servant of all, especially the poor, and an icon of Christ the servant. Today, deacons primarily perform baptisms, witness marriages, serve at funerals, proclaim and preach the Gospel and serve at the altar. They also serve in a variety of other ministries as directed by their bishop or the pastor of the parish they are assigned to.
Five Reasons Why the Church Needs Deacons Right Now
“Deacons likewise must be serious, not double-tongued, not indulging in much wine, not greedy for money; they must hold fast to the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. And let them first be tested; then, if they prove themselves blameless, let them serve as deacons” (1 Timothy 3:8-10).
“Only those are to be promoted to orders who…have sound faith, are motivated by the right intention, are endowed with the requisite knowledge, enjoy a good reputation, and have moral probity, proven virtue and the other physical and psychological qualities appropriate to the order to be received.” The deacon must be “affable, hospitable, sincere in their words and heart, prudent and discreet, generous and ready to serve, capable of opening themselves to clear and brotherly relationships, and quick to understand, forgive and console” (“Basic Norms for the Formation of Permanent Deacons.”).
This list applies to permanent deacons in varying degrees, of course.
1. Deacons Have Been Tested
Permanent deacons cannot be ordained until they are at least 35 years old. This gives them time to experience trials (financial, family and health), grow in their humanity and spirituality and gain life experience.
2. Deacons Have Special Skills
Permanent deacons are accountants, physicians, IT professionals, auto mechanics, architects, lawyers, business owners, and professors. They come from diverse work backgrounds and possess special skills which they have developed using their own resources (time and money) which can be applied to ministries and administrative roles within the Church.
3. Deacons Have Diverse Social Experience
Most permanent deacons are married, so they understand intimate relationships between men and women (from courtship and engagement, to marriage, childrearing, and running a household), and therefore can appreciate the mystery of Christ’s relationship with his Bride, the Church. They also have experience with a variety of mature relationships with co-workers and parishioners and can easily relate to married people who struggle with financial, work, marital and family challenges.
4. Deacons Have a Track Record
Since permanent deacons cannot be ordained until they are 35 years old, and since most are ordained even later than that, they have a track record. Before being accepted into the diaconate formation program, the bishop can closely review the aspirant’s track record. He can look at the aspirant’s entire life and how he has performed in his roles as husband, father, worker and parishioner. Having a track record helps the bishop determine whether an aspirant will be a faithful and trusted steward of the Church and servant of God once he is ordained.
5. Deacons are Manly
The world lacks good male role models. Manliness is under attack by our culture. In fact, manliness is being feminized and has been treated as inherently bad for some time. Deacons who are responsible members of secular society, who are living a sacramental marriage, who are actively raising their children and running their household, who are prayerful and devoted to Christ, and who give their lives in service to others for Christ are real men. They are a heroic model of manliness for the world. Balancing family, work, prayer and ministry is not easy, but the deacon who does so provides a powerful witness to society of who men can be if they give everything to Christ.
[Note: This article is not meant to compare the diaconate to the priesthood or to say that one is better than the other. That would be foolish. Without priests, there would be no Eucharist and no Church. However, the men sitting in the pews with potential vocations to the diaconate have a lot to offer the Church. They are a “sleeping giant.” Their talents should be utilized as members of the Body of Christ. The Church needs the minds of theologians and philosophers, but it also needs the minds of entrepreneurs, doctors, engineers, accountants and others. The ordained permanent deacon has a unique role to play alongside priests and the laity.]
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