Deacons: Servants of Christ’s Love
In this final article of Liguorian’s yearlong series on permanent deacons, we wrap up with some common questions and history about this calling and how these men contribute to God’s people and his Church.
Q. What are deacons?
A. The diaconate, as a permanent state in life, had its origins in the early Church. From the Acts of the Apostles and the letters of St. Paul, we learn that the first Christian communities had two orders: the episcopate (bishops) and the diaconate (deacons). Later, as the Church grew too large for a bishop to be personally present to the members of the local communities (parishes), the order of presbyterate (priests) developed.
The Book of Acts tells the story of the apostles choosing seven people to serve the social welfare needs of the early Christian community and to carry the gospel into the marketplaces and the trenches of society (see Acts 6:1–6).
In the Middle Ages, the Church ceased to foster the role of deacon as a permanent state in life and made the diaconate a transitional step on the way to the priesthood. But in the late 1940s, a group of priests, who had been imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp during World War II, discerned the need to bring back the role of deacon as it was originally intended—to carry the gospel and the ministry of loving service into prisons, hospitals, marketplaces, and out onto the fringes of society. They petitioned the pope to restore the ordained ministry of the permanent deacon. In 1967, following the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI restored the permanent diaconate and opened it up to married as well as single men.
Q. What is the pathway to becoming a deacon?
A. There are two pathways—based on marital status—in which this vocation to holy orders unfolds. Seminarians in formation for the priesthood are first ordained as transitional deacons for several months to a year before ordination to the priesthood. Permanent deacons come from all walks of life. A man may be married when ordained, but if his wife precedes him in death, he is not permitted to remarry and still remain a deacon. If single at ordination, he must remain so. Through the sacrament of holy orders, permanent deacons are ordained as clergy within the Church for a threefold ministry of the word, the altar, and charity.
The deacon strives to live the gospel in all circles of life in which he is present: with his family, friends, and co-workers; in the parish; at his workplace; and in the marketplace. While you may see the deacon assisting at the altar or preaching at Mass, his primary work is charity—service through various outreach ministries—to the poor, the sick, the troubled, and otherwise marginalized members of our human family.
Q. How does answering the call to the diaconate require an individual to be indelibly changed?
A. Like the sacrament of baptism, the sacrament of holy orders brings an ontological change to one’s being. A person doesn’t just achieve the goal of ordination. Rather, one is permanently and indelibly changed and marked forever.
The sacrament of holy orders marks deacons with an imprint, or character, that cannot be removed, and which configures them to Christ, who made himself the deacon, or servant, of all. Just as a baptized person is expected to be a Christian at all times and in all places, similarly, a person ordained to the diaconate is a deacon at all times in all areas of life.
The diaconate is not a role or a persona that one puts on and takes off depending on time and place. The deacon is called to be an instrument of Christ’s peace and a channel of Christ’s love during every waking moment and in everything he does. Deacons are not an executive, teacher, truck driver, or whatever job during the day and then a deacon in the evenings and on the weekends. Rather, men are called to be diaconal in every place they go and in everything they do.
Q. How is a deacon a servant of Christ’s love?
A. Above all else, a deacon is a servant of Christ’s love. It is a special kind of service that comes from the heart. The ancient Greeks had a word for it: diakonia. It is the root of the English adjective diaconal and the noun deacon. All Christians are called to be diaconal people: people in loving service to God and to our neighbor. Ordained deacons make a public and permanent commitment to live a life of diakonia.
The Servant, Christ Jesus, as he is depicted in the Gospel for the Holy Thursday Mass of the Last Supper, is the archetype, the role model for deacons and all baptized Christians. It’s not merely the symbolic act of washing another’s feet, nor is it just the act of serving. It is a special type of service that comes from the heart [diakonia] to which we are called. Real diakonia, genuine loving service, is at the core of Christianity. It should be given freely to everyone, even those who have hurt us deeply, those who act and live in ways we find hard to understand, and those who have turned away from God and from human goodness.
Q. How does a deacon differ from a lay minister and a priest?
A. As ordained clergy, deacons may administer the sacraments of baptism and marriage. They may also preside at benedictions, Communion services, and funeral services. Additionally, they may assist the bishop at confirmation and the priest at the Eucharist. In his ministry of the word, the deacon proclaims the Gospel at Mass and often preaches the homily. Unlike priests, deacons cannot celebrate the Eucharist or administer the sacraments of reconciliation or anointing of the sick.
Q. What training is required to be a deacon?
A. Permanent deacons must go through an intense discernment and multiyear formation program. The program includes psychological testing, academic work in theology, Church history, spirituality, pastoral ministry, and ongoing service ministry to people in need. For more information about the diaconate in your area, contact your diocesan offices.
Q. Describe the threefold ministry of a deacon.
A. A deacon’s service unfolds in a threefold ministry: word, altar, and charity. Deacons are privileged to proclaim the word by reading the Gospel and preaching the homily at Mass. At the altar, deacons assist the celebrant at Mass and at funerals, perform baptisms, officiate at weddings, and lead benediction and Communion services.
The thrust of the deacon’s life is charity: caring for the community and those in need, those who are disenfranchised, and those who live on the fringes of society. People who need someone to come along, scoop them up, and bring them into the healing presence of Jesus.
Q. Do deacons work outside of the Church?
A. Although the Church employs some deacons, most have jobs and support themselves and their families. They also minister in prisons, hospitals, shelters, parishes, and offices.