Who is the Catholic Deacon?

What does the word “deacon” mean?

The Catholic deacon is not very well understood. Perhaps it is because the Greek word for deacon, diakonos, was used in so many different ways when the New Testament was written. The meaning of the Greek word includes attendant, waiter, teacher, pastor, minister or servant (Strong’s Concordance). 

“In [Acts] 1:17, 25, the term refers to apostolic ministry; in 11:29 and 12:25 … [as in Luke 8:3], it means financial service; in 20:24, it is Paul’s testifying to the good news [i.e., preaching]; in 21:19, it sums up the whole of Paul’s ministry” (Harrelson, 1966, fn. 6:1-7). Jesus described himself as ho diakonon, “one who serves” in Luke 22:27. 

How did deacons come about?

In Acts 6, the Seven men who are commonly identified as the first deacons, including St Stephen, received laying on of hands because the minority Jewish widows who spoke Greek, rather than Hebrew, complained that they were being neglected in the daily distribution of food. The Twelve apostles responded saying, “It is not right for us to neglect the word of God to serve at table” (Acts 6:2, NABRE).

So they chose Seven reputable men who were filled with the Holy Spirit and wisdom to take over this task so that the Twelve could devote themselves to prayer and ministry of the word, i.e., preaching. What is particularly interesting about the Seven is how quickly their mission took up an apostolic character.

What is surprising to present-day readers is the contemporary insight that the persons who control the community’s purse control a good share of the community’s authority about agenda and priorities. The Twelve and majority Hebrews concede this authority to the minority in at least this substantial matter of how community money will provide for widows who need assistance. However since these new leaders have similar qualifications as the Twelve–wisdom, faith, and the Holy Spirit–the text will show Stephen and Philip, two of the seven new leaders, exercising similar evangelizing ministries as the Twelve. They clearly are not limited to this distribution to widows (“to wait on tables” [Gk. diakoneo). This Greek expression became the source of the name later given to these seven, “deacons.” … 

Clearly, the seven are another level of authority in the church, but they also share a lot of the church’s primary mission of evangelizing new members. Even today, Catholic permanent deacons combine corporeal care of the poor with preaching, baptizing, and funerals, which they share with bishops and priests.

(Aguilar Chiu, 1200)

Though the Seven were created initially for table service, “[t]his separation of ministerial functions [of word for the priest and of table for the deacon] does not hold in subsequent episodes, as Stephen is portrayed working wonders and signs (6:8), debating in the synagogue with wisdom and spirit (6:8-9), and preaching before the Sanhedrin (7:1-53). Philip likewise devotes himself to preaching the word (8:4-5), becoming known as ‘the evangelist’ (21:8)” (Harrelson, 1966, fn. 6:2-4). 

A common and ministerial deacon?

St Ignatius of Antioch said “the office of the deacon is nothing other than ‘the ministry of Jesus Christ, who was with the Father before all ages and has been manifested in the final time’ … ‘The deacons too, who are ministers of the mysteries of Jesus Christ should please all in every way; for they are not servants of food and drink, but ministers of the Church of God’” (Ad Pascendum). 

The Basic Norms for the Formation of Permanent Deacons, a document that was promulgated by the Congregation for the Clergy in 1998 (Formation), says, 

“The diaconate is conferred through a special outpouring of the Spirit (ordination), which brings about in the one who receives it a specific conformation to Christ, Lord and servant of all.” Insofar as it is a grade of holy orders, the diaconate imprints a character and communicates a specific sacramental grace. … The diaconal character is the configurative and distinguishing sign indelibly impressed in the soul, which configures the one ordained to Christ, who made himself the deacon or servant of all. It brings with it a specific sacramental grace, which is strength, vigor specialis, a gift for living the new reality wrought by the sacrament. “With regard to deacons, ‘strengthened by sacramental grace they are dedicated to the People of God, in conjunction with the bishop and his body of priests, in the service (diakonia) of the liturgy, of the Gospel and of works of charity.’” Just as in all sacraments which imprint character, grace has a permanent virtuality. It flowers again and again in the same measure in which it is received and accepted again and again in faith.

(Formation, 5, 7)

Though no deacon is above table service, his ministry is not limited to that role. Instead, the understanding of the deacon as a servant called to varied types of service is consistent with the ministry of Jesus Christ, ho diakonon, who was not above washing his disciples’ feet, but was also the Son of God who preached the Sermon on the Mount, healed the sick, exorcised demons, multiplied the loaves and fishes, walked on the Sea of Galilee and rose from the dead. 

The Twelve didn’t lay hands on everyone who served the Church. Therefore, the ministry of the Seven was different than the office of servant which all Christians are called to through baptism. The Catechism tells us that through our baptism, we are called to follow Christ the King who became servant of all (CCC 786). Thinking of the diaconate as having both common and ministerial aspects is consistent with the Church’s understanding of the common priesthood of the baptized and the ministerial priesthood of the ordained. 

In summary, then, there are common and ministerial priests within the Church, and in a similar way there seem to be common and ministerial deacons within the Church. Those deacons who are specially called and strengthened by the Sacrament of Holy Orders take on a special ministerial role in the Church. All baptized Christians are called to the three offices of priest, prophet and king (CCC 784-786). However, the three common offices of all baptized Christians should not be confused with the ministerial offices of those called to ordained ministry within the Church. 

What is the ministry of the ordained deacon?

The ordained deacon’s ministry is set forth in several Church documents. According to the General Instructions of the Roman Missal (GIRM):

After the Priest, the Deacon, in virtue of the sacred Ordination he has received, holds first place among those who minister in the celebration of the Eucharist. For the sacred Order of the Diaconate has been held in high honor in the Church even from the early time of the Apostles. At Mass the Deacon has his own part in proclaiming the Gospel, from time to time in preaching God’s Word, in announcing the intentions of the Universal Prayer, in ministering to the Priest, in preparing the altar and in serving the celebration of the Sacrifice, in distributing the Eucharist to the faithful, especially under the species of wine, and from time to time in giving instructions regarding the people’s gestures and posture.

(GIRM 94)

At Mass, the deacon is the servant of the presiding priest, with the specific ministries of the altar (assisting at the altar, especially the chalice), the book (assisting with the book of Gospels and the missal), and the word (proclaiming the Gospel and preaching the Word). Deacons are “ministers at the altar, both as regards the chalice and the book” and are responsible for handling and purifying the sacred vessels (i.e., ciboria, chalice, paten) (GIRM 171, 178, 183; see also Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem, V.21.). 

When the assembly witnesses a deacon serving at the altar, they are witnessing “a living icon of Christ the servant within the Church” who serves the presiding priest standing at the altar in persona christi. During the Mass, the deacon is therefore both the servant at the altar of the high priest of the order of Melchizedek, Jesus Christ, and also of the Body of Christ present in the gathered assembly. The ministry of the deacon at the altar is a holy and solemn one. 

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” (Lk 1:28), at the service of the salvation of the world. And so that the whole Church may better live out this sprituality 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. The Leitmotiv of his spiritual life will therefore be service; his sanctification will consist in making himself a generous and faithful servant of God and men, especially the poorest and most suffering; his ascetic commitment will be directed towards acquiring those virtues necessary for the exercise of his ministry.

(Formation, 11)

Like all baptized Catholics, the Eucharist must be the source and summit of the deacon’s faith (CCC 1324-1327). It is at Eucharist that the deacon is nourished with the Body and Blood. And it is only by serving at the altar and receiving the Eucharist that the deacon is able to perform his other ministries, including ministries in service to the poor. Without the Eucharist, i.e., receiving and serving at the altar, the ordained deacon is in danger of being reduced to a social worker. 

In his book, Deacons: Servants of Charity, Pope Francis recognizes that all diaconia, Christian service, comes from the Eucharistic Mystery which is “realized through service to the poor” (Francis, 3). A sacramental bond of communion and affection exists between the bishop and the deacon; this relationship with the bishop and the service of the deacon “revolves around the altar” (Francis, 16). The deacon “fulfill[s] his service by letting it flow directly and primarily from the Eucharist … [which] is the point of arrival of all Christian service” (Francis, 134). 

Through the Sacrament of Orders, the mission entrusted by Christ to his Apostles continues to be exercised in the Church until the end of time. It is thus the sacrament of apostolic ministry. The sacramental act of ordination surpasses mere election, designation or delegation by the community, because it confers a gift of the Holy Spirit enabling the exercise of sacred power which can only come from Christ himself through his Church. “The one sent by the Lord does not speak and act of his own authority, but by virtue of Christ’s authority; not as a member of the community but speaking to it in the name of Christ. No one can bestow grace on himself; it must be given and offered. This fact presupposes ministers of grace, authorised and empowered by Christ.”

(Formation, I)

In his book, Pope Francis has also recognized that the Church has been hindered by neglecting the diaconate for 1,500 years. “Doing without a third of that group [the threefold ministry of bishops, priests and deacons] for many centuries has made the Church’s engine underpowered, and the pope looked forward to what might happen when full power was restored” (Francis, 25).

“It is notable that the centuries when the diaconate was effectively absent have also been the centuries when the laity became increasingly passive in the liturgy and increasingly neglected in terms of a formal apostolate. Thus, it is not groundless to observe that authentic flourishing of the diaconate helps and promotes the growth of the laity” (Francis, 26).

Based on the foregoing, Pope Francis recognizes that the Church needs ordained deacons right now. 

Who is the Catholic deacon?

Though Acts 6 may not have been the creation of what we know today as the ordained deacon, the Seven, who were originally tasked with managing the Church’s finances, but who engaged in many other important apostolic ministries, are generally regarded as the first deacons. At the very least, the Seven serve as models for what the ordained diaconate should be today. Therefore, the earliest models for today’s diaconate include Jesus Christ, St Paul and the Seven. They tell us who the deacon is by their words and actions. 

So, we ask, who is the ordained Catholic deacon? 

The Catholic deacon is the servant of the bishop and of the poor; “he is ordained to service of the bishops, priests, and the Christian people” (Francis, 17, 134). He is the eyes, ears and mouth of the bishop to whom he has a special and close relationship which revolves around the altar. 

The Catholic deacon is a man who is ready to serve in whatever capacity the Church needs. He is a minister of the altar, the book and the word at the Mass. Strengthened by the Sacrament of Holy Orders and nourished at the altar, he is made able to feed the poor, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned and bury the dead. 

The Catholic deacon is a teacher, preacher and administrator. He is a life-long student and practitioner of prayer and of the Gospel. He loves the Blessed Virgin Mary. He is a living icon of Christ. 

The Catholic deacon is servant of all. 

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Bibliography:

Ad Pascendum

Basic Norms for the Formation of Permanent Deacons

General Instructions of the Roman Missal

Aguilar Chiu, Jose Enrique, Richard J. Clifford, Carol J. Dempsey, Eileen M. Schuller, Thomas D. Stegman, Ronald D. Witherup, eds. The Paulist Biblical Commentary. New York: Paulist Press, 2018.

Brown, Raymond E. An Introduction to the New Testament. Anchor Bible Reference Library. New York: Doubleday, 1997.

Brown, Raymond E., Joseph A. Fitzmyer, and Roland E. Murphy, eds. The New Jerome Biblical Commentary. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1990.

Casciaro, Jose Maria., ed. The Navarre Bible: New Testament. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2008.

Durken, Daniel, ed. New Collegeville Bible Commentary: New Testament. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2009. 

Harrelson, Walter J., ed. The New Interpreter’s Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003.

Pope Francis. Deacons: Servants of Charity. Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2018.

Powell, Mark Allan, ed. The HarperCollins Bible Dictionary. 3rd ed. New York: HarperOne, 2011.

Senior, Donald, John J. Collins, and Mary Ann Getty, eds. The Catholic Study Bible. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Strong, James. The New Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1996.

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