Why does the church have permanent deacons?

Permanent deacons for the Archdiocese of Seattle at their fall 2012 ordination. Photo: Stephen Brashear Permanent deacons for the Archdiocese of Seattle at their fall 2012 ordination. Photo: Stephen Brashear

What do they do outside of Mass?

Q: My parish was recently assigned a new permanent deacon and I am confused about the role of the deacon within our parish (and our entire church for that matter!). Why did the Second Vatican Council reestablish the ministry of deacons? Any insight you could give me would be greatly appreciated!

A: Thank you for your question! It seems to me that in spite of the fact that we have had permanent deacons in our country for more than 40 years, many of the faithful still do not fully understand what a deacon is or fully appreciate his mission and role within the body of Christ. Many people see the permanent deacon simply as someone who wears his stole different from a priest, proclaims the Gospel, preaches once in a while and usually does a good job lifting the chalice when the priest says “through him, with him and in him … .” While these are important roles and responsibilities for permanent deacons, their function and service within the church extends far beyond these visible liturgical parts.

Why do we have the permanent diaconate in the church? The roots of the answer to your question can be found in the word deacon itself. It comes from the Greek word diakonia which can be translated as service. In the New Testament it can refer to a specific kind of help for someone, service at table or a distribution of financial resources. In any case, the root of diakonia is service of one sort or another.

The word diakonia surfaces in an important way in the Acts of the Apostles, chapter 6. The number of converts to Christianity was growing rapidly and the apostles were finding themselves unable to complete a number of the day-to-day responsibilities within the Christian community, including the care of widows. The apostles decided to select seven men to take care of this desperate need: “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.’ … They presented these men to the apostles who prayed and laid hands on them.” (Acts 6:2-4, 6) These seven men were the first deacons of the church.

When we combine the definition of diakonia (rendering service) with this incident from Acts, we can see that a permanent deacon has hands laid on him (is ordained) in order to serve the Christian community in a multitude of ways. A deacon has a specific ecclesial vocation within the church like that of a priest or religious, and is ordained like a priest or bishop.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that deacons “share in Christ’s mission and grace in a special way. 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) A deacon is a servant of all — his ministry is “the Church’s service sacramentalized,” as St. John Paul II once wrote.

While the church’s mission began with permanent deacons, their place within the Christian community fell by the wayside for many centuries. It wasn’t until the Second Vatican Council reestablished the permanent diaconate, and Blessed Pope Paul VI formally reestablished the order of deacons as a permanent ministry in 1967, that it became a part of the church once again.

Deacons serve within the church in many ways through their threefold ministry of liturgy, word and charity — for example, by running RCIA programs, ministering to prisoners or preaching a good homily at Sunday Mass. As we can see, a deacon is much more than someone who wears his stole differently from a priest. Deacons are integral and important servant ministers within the life of the church whose presence should inspire all of us to a greater love and service of the Lord and his church.

May God’s blessings be with you today and always!

Archdiocese forming new deacon class

The Archdiocese of Seattle has begun the process of forming a new class of permanent deacons with the creation of a core team led by Father Frank Schuster, pastor of St. Teresa of Calcutta Parish in Woodinville. Laymen who feel a call to be permanent deacons are asked to speak to their pastors as part of their discernment process. Father Schuster will hold a diaconate information session at the archdiocese’s May 1 Pentecost celebration. Applications for the new deacon class will be available Aug. 10. 

Northwest Catholic - April 2015

Father Cal Christiansen

Father Cal Christiansen is pastor of St. Pius X Parish in Mountlake Terrace. Send your questions for “Ask Father” to [email protected]

Website: www.nwcatholic.org/spirituality/ask-father