What Is A Deacon?

by Stephen May, Director of Ministries at the Blue Hills Collaborative

Although nearly everyone, Catholic or non-Catholic can recognize the role of a priest in the day-to-day operations of a Catholic parish, and possibly even recognize that priests are accountable to the bishop who oversees the (arch)diocese in which the parish is located, many cannot identify or explain the other ordained position in the Catholic Church, the deacon. 

There are, in fact three ordained positions in the church: bishop, priest, and deacon. (Titles such as pope, cardinal, monsignor, etc. are special titles for certain bishops or priests.) For deacons, there are only two designations: transitional and permanent. Men who are preparing for the priesthood are first ordained a deacon, and assume the responsibilities of that position for approximately one year. During that time they are considered “transitional deacons” because they are passing through a diaconate phase before becoming priests. The majority of deacons, however, are permanent deacons, who are ordained to the diaconate for life.

The word “deacon” is derived from the Greek word “diákonos,” which means “servant” or “minister.” Deacons are called to be upstanding, spiritual, and prudent, and to serve the faithful in a variety of ways.

The structure of ordained ministers in the Catholic Church is historical. Bishops are the successors of the apostles. In the years following the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, His disciples appointed bishops to succeed them in their mission. But they also needed men who would oversee the day-to-day operations of the infant Church. These men were deacons (1 Timothy 3:1–13). The modern role of priest is not mentioned in the Bible per se, and did not come into existence until hundreds of years after the birth of Christianity.

In the early days of the Christian church, the permanent diaconate played a vital role in how the church functioned. Deacons were, as they are today, responsible for continuing the ministry of Jesus Christ by being active in their church community. Beginning in the fifth century, there was a gradual decline in the permanent diaconate as their roles were assumed by priests, who had been created to assume many of the roles of the bishops within growing numbers of local churches.

For the next 1500 years there were no permanent deacons. Finally, in 1964, in the dogmatic constitution “Lumen gentium,” the Vatican II council recommended full restoration of the order of permanent deacons, which was thus ordered by Pope Paul VI in 1967.

The ministry of a deacon is one of service. Deacons report directly to the bishop, not to the priest with whom they serve in a parish. At the parish level, it is the duty of deacons to administer baptisms, care for and dispense Communion at mass, and at the homes of the infirm and dying, bless marriages in the name of the Church, and to read Sacred Scripture to the faithful, especially during any mass at which he is present. He is also responsible for officiating at funeral and burial services, instructing the people in the faith, and administering sacramentals (blessing objects for use in prayer and devotion). As a servant under the authority of the local bishop, he is also required to serve in any diocesan ministry that his bishop deems worthy of his unique gifts and talents.

Many of these responsibilities are also performed by a priest, but unlike a priest a deacon cannot preside at a liturgy where bread and wine are transubstantiated into the Body and Blood of Christ, nor can a deacon perform any of the sacraments of healing, which include the Sacrament of Reconciliation (hearing confessions), or The Sacrament of the Sick (formerly known as “Last Rites.”)

Unlike priests, permanent deacons can be married at the time of their ordination, but if their wife predeceases them, then the rule of celibacy applies.

Deacons are easy to spot in a Catholic church. Like priests, they wear a stole as well as an alb, the white garment coming down to the ankles, which imitates the long, white linen tunic used by the Romans. But unlike priests, the deacon wears his stole over only his left shoulder and ties it cross-wise at his right side, similar to a sash. A deacon is properly referred to as “Deacon” not “Father.”

In an increasingly secular world where vocations to the priesthood continue to decline, participation in the diaconate continues to increase. There are now over 18,000 active and retired deacons living in the United States, all of whom were ordained in the first 50 years following the restoration of the order.

For more information on deacons and the order of the diaconate, please go to http://www.usccb.org/beliefs-and-teachings/vocations/diaconate/.

This article originally appeared August 16, 2015 in WickedLocal Easton


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