What is a Catholic Permanent Deacon?

Now during those days, when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food.  And the twelve called together the whole community of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables.  Therefore, friends select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word.”  (Acts 6: 1-4).

This neat division of labor between the “seven men of good standing” and the apostles was outlined in this passage from Acts, which is frequently cited as the primary scriptural basis for the permanent diaconate.  Deacons served at table while apostles devoted themselves to prayer and serving the word.  But just four verses later, Stephen (one of the seven) is mentioned not as serving per se, but rather as “full of grace and power” and doing “great wonders and signs among the people.”  Then later on, Philip (another of the seven) “went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah to them.  The crowds with one accord listened eagerly to what was said by Philip, hearing and seeing the signs that he did.”  So, in these very first references to deacons, there appears to be a breakdown in the distinct division between their role and the work of the apostles.  Fast-forward a few thousand years and there are still very few clear and neat distinctions in terms of exactly what permanent deacons actually do.

First, some basic information.  Deacons are ordained ministers, as are priests and bishops.  From the very earliest days of the Church, beginning with the idea that the needs of some members of the community were not being met (as noted in the passage from Acts above), deacons were viewed as modeling the role of Christ as servant.  The very first definite reference to deacons occurs in St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians, which is addressed to “all the holy ones at Philippi, with their bishops and deacons in Christ Jesus (Phil 1:1).  We also know from the Acts passages that the original seven were presented to the apostles who “prayed over them and then imposed hands on them.”  This suggests a form of ordination by the apostles.  It’s also worth noting that one of the first deacons, Stephen, became the very first Christian martyr (Acts 6-7).

Some time later, deacons began to become closely associated with the Church’s bishops.  St. Ignatius, at the beginning of the second century, described two key roles of the deacon: first, writing letters for the bishop and assisting him in the ministry of the word and second, serving as the representative of the bishop from one local church to another.  “Deacon” comes from a Greek word – diakonos – which means servant or helper.  The early deacons frequently assumed the role of serving the poor of the community, typically on behalf of the bishop.  Based on the contributions of deacons in the early Church, theologian Karl Rahner wrote that deacons should be considered as specialists, available for assignment by bishops to tackle certain problems or address specific unmet needs.

I stood in a large room full of patients of our health center, all residents of Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan.  I was describing our plans to expand services in some of our clinics and the conversation turned, unexpectedly, to the health promotion role of ministers in the many Baptist and other Protestant denomination churches in the area.  Pride swelled within me when my boss mentioned that I was studying to become a deacon at St. John’s Seminary.  One of the older women perked up and said: “Oh, we have deacons in our church.  They park the cars of the elders for Sunday services!”

Even though the diaconate was flourishing, by the third century, deacons began to experience something of an identity crisis.  They didn’t preside at the Eucharist… that was a role assigned to priests.  Rather, deacons worked “in the field” and were to be deployed as representatives of bishops on special, service-related assignments.  By the beginning of the fifth century, however, deacons started assisting priests at the altar, increasingly foregoing their other service work.  During the remainder of the fifth century, the diaconate began to be seen as an introductory stage in the process of becoming an ordained priest.  By the Middle Ages, the office of deacon was, according to Karl Rahner, a “legal fiction.”  For the next several centuries, the diaconate was little more than a stop along the way to becoming a priest, not its own distinct ministry.

Renewed interest in the diaconate as a permanent role dates back to World War II.  Priests and others imprisoned in Nazi concentration camps, reflecting on the devastating conditions within the camps, began to consider the work being done by some of the prisoners who focused on serving the needs of other prisoners.  These individuals saw their work as an outgrowth of their faith and commitment to the work of the Church.  In 1957, Pope Pius XII began to speak favorably about the restoration of a permanent diaconate.

By the time of Vatican II, the possibility of a full restoration of the office was actively in discussion.  The Council’s statement on the restoration of the diaconate noted: “Deacons… receive the imposition of hands not unto the priesthood, but unto a ministry of service.”  Pope Paul IV issued an apostolic letter (Diaconatus Ordinem) in 1967, which directed the restoration of the permanent diaconate.  In 1972, specific norms were issued to dictate the formation and ministerial guidelines for permanent deacons.

Within the Archdiocese of Boston, the specific liturgical roles of the deacon are as follows (as cut and pasted from the diocesan website):

•May solemnly baptize

•May act as deacon at the Eucharistic Liturgy in accord with the prescriptions of the law

•May preach everywhere; this faculty is to be exercised with at least the presumed consent of the rector of the church

•May distribute Holy Communion and bring Holy Communion to the sick.  If no priest is available, he may bring Viaticum to the sick who are dying

•May be the minister of exposition and benediction of the Most Blessed Sacrament

•May impart blessings

•May officiate at marriages with delegation from the pastor of the parish where the marriage is to be celebrated

•May lead prayers at a wake and officiate at burial services at a cemetery

Mass ended and I processed along with the team to the back of the church (some would say the front of the church) and proceeded to the top landing of the steps to greet parishioners as they left the building.  One gentleman, a man I did not recognize, approached me and stated that he enjoyed my homily.  It was a homily about Zaccheas climbing up the tree to see Jesus.  In it I mentioned that my son, Joseph, was fond of climbing trees when we recently went apple picking.  The man said: “Father, I’ve not been to church in a while.  I guess I missed the announcement that priests can now get married and have kids.”

Permanent deacons are sometimes referred to as “neither fish nor fowl.”  We seem to be quasi-clergy and quasi-laypeople.  Some deacons I’ve met seem to bemoan this fact… feeling as though wish they were more fully one or the other.  My own experience so far as led me to appreciate the uniqueness of being “both fish and fowl”.

At a recent diaconate convocation meeting for all deacons in the archdiocese, Deacon Bill Ditewig cited the fact that an increasing number of permanent deacons are taking full-time positions working for religious organizations or directly for the Catholic Church itself.  He described this as “a growing problem”.  If one accepts the “both fish and fowl” model for the diaconate, this indeed is a problem.

It is a unique blessing and opportunity to hold a secular job, while also being a permanent deacon.  I work within the health care industry, specifically the community health center field.  Community health centers provide services for historically under-served populations, including the poor and the homeless.  Victims of domestic violence, substance abusers, and HIV infected patients are well served by community health centers.  Abortion, contraception, intravenous needle exchange, and other issues are ever present in these settings, however, and frequently challenge the Catholic perspective regarding the consistent life ethic.  Whenever these issues surface, I need to represent the views of the Church… an often challenging and humbling task.

The vision of deacons as intermediaries or “go-betweens” serves as a model for evangelization for the Church.  Rather than bringing the message of Christ elsewhere, such as to another country, to non-believers, or to strangers, deacons who are frequently married and working in the secular world, bring Christ’s message to the sidelines at soccer fields, corporate boardrooms, and to next door neighbors.  “Deacons do not have a monopoly on acts of service and charity, but it may be their unique mission to bring news of the needs of the world to the church, and the message of the church to the world (Baker).”

And so, deacons do have important liturgical functions.  But those functions, when viewed in isolation of the deacon’s role in modeling Christ as servant and as acting as evangelist within a secular world, do not tell the full story.

Boston priest, Father John Sassani, once commented on the role of the deacon, saying: “The deacon does not serve on the altar to empower his charitable work.  It’s the other way around… it’s the very service itself that empowers everything that the deacon does on the altar.”

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