This week concludes a three-week examination of the three degrees of Holy Orders. First, we talked about bishops, who receive the fullness of the Sacrament. Then, we looked at the second degree, priests, who are on the front lines, directly ministering to the people of the Church. Now, we will look at the lowest degree of Holy Orders – the deacons.
The word “deacon” comes from the Greek word diakonos, which means “servant.” While the priest performs his duties in persona Christi, or in the person of Christ, the deacon operates in persona Christi servi, as an icon of Christ the Servant. There is a threefold aspect to the ministry – Word, Sacrament, and Charity – which I will expand on in a moment.
Like all degrees of Holy Orders, the diaconate finds its origin in Scripture. In Acts 6:1-7, we read that as Christianity began to spread, the apostles realized they would need help as some new followers’ needs were neglected. So, as directed, the community “selected seven reputable men, filled with Spirit and wisdom,” and “presented these men to the apostles who prayed and laid hands on them.” These men were then sent out to serve the Christian communities.
While the diaconate existed in the early Church, its utilization and emphasis have changed over time. Every priest, including eventual bishops, is ordained a deacon while still in his formation period since it is the first degree of Holy Orders. The deacon then transitions into a priest later with his priestly ordination. Therefore, for an extended period of Church history, there was an overarching focus on the “transitional diaconate,” and these soon-to-be priests served as deacons as needed. Then, with the Second Vatican Council, the Church decided to renew the “permanent diaconate” ministry and ordain men who intended to remain in the servant role. In 1967, the apostolic letter Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem (General Norms for Restoring the Permanent Diaconate in the Latin Church) was promulgated.
The letter acknowledges that the need for a permanent diaconate will vary from place to place and leaves it to the regional bishops to determine their needs. It then lays out the appropriate characteristics of a man discerning this role and guidelines for ensuring proper formation. Essentially, a deacon is the bridge between the lay faithful and the priesthood. He is a man who lives in the world as the lay do, but while he does so, he remains faithful to his ordination and integrates the Sacrament of Holy Orders into the world. In other words, a deacon will often have a career and a family, which means he is operating out in the greater community the same way a layman is, but he is still a deacon as he does so. No matter what he does, he is a representative of the Church. He cannot compartmentalize his different roles in the world and the Church, forgetting that he is a deacon at home or work, and likewise, he cannot pretend he is not a husband and a father while serving in the Church. Therefore, the letter directs that a deacon’s interior life must match his exterior life by completely conforming his life to Christ and conducting both his personal and public lives as an icon of Christ the Servant. This is a tall order!
Because of the challenges involved with integrating one’s interior disposition with Christ-like outward conduct, deacons go through rigorous formation before ordination as well as continued formation after ordination. The document specifies at least three years of formation are required before ordination. Here, in the Diocese of Phoenix, diaconate formation is a five-year process preceded by two years of formal catechetical instruction. During this formation period, deacons create a deep prayer life, receive extensive and ongoing spiritual direction, receive assistance in strengthening their vocation of marriage, and learn to live as Christ to the world. Similarly, the wife of a diaconate candidate must provide her consent and work to integrate her faith into all aspects of her life and conduct so as not to bring scandal upon her husband, meaning the vocation of the diaconate works in tandem with and is supported by the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony. So, a man does not simply decide to become a deacon because he feels “called” rather, he spends years discerning the call, and, at the same time, the Church is determining whether he is fit and prepared for the vocation. Until ordination day, both the Church and the candidate are deciding and determining whether to proceed with the pursuit of the role and the fit of the individual for eternal ordination as a deacon.
We turn now to the threefold role of a deacon — Word, Sacrament, and Charity. As a minister of the Word, the deacon is called to evangelize, catechize, preach in the liturgy, and proclaim the gospel. Priests are called to do these things as well, but a deacon does so uniquely, bringing his experience of living among the laity in the world into his ministry. Likewise, he carries his obligations as a minister of the Word into work, family life, and the community by living the gospel he proclaims and by teaching and leading as appropriate.
As a minister of the sacraments, deacons participate in administering the sacraments to the faithful. During the liturgy, the deacon assists the priest at the altar in a servant role, tending to the various needs of the priest as he consecrates the Eucharist. Also, in the absence of a priest, a deacon can preside over prayer and communion services, the Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, Liturgy of the Hours, and provide blessings. A deacon can also preside at baptisms, weddings (as a witness for the Church), and funerals. Because deacons often have families, it is a unique spiritual treat that they can do things such as participate in their children’s weddings and baptize their own children and grandchildren, providing an outward illustration of their role as the bridge between the priesthood and the laity.
Finally, as ministers of charity, deacons are called to be active both in the Church and the world as servants to the people of God. Therefore, you will see deacons leading ministries at their parishes and participating in ministries such as visiting the homebound, visiting prisoners, working street evangelization, and other such activities. They are also called to offer help in situations they encounter out in the world, as needed, but always as an icon of Christ the Servant.
One final note about this unique degree of the Sacrament of Holy Orders is on the issue of celibacy. All Holy orders come with a call to celibacy, but at the level of the permanent diaconate, some clarifications must be made. First, an unmarried man with no desire to advance to the priesthood can become a permanent deacon. However, he cannot get married after he is ordained and is committed to lifelong celibacy. A married man who is ordained a deacon is not required to commit to celibacy when he is ordained, as he is to live out his vocation to marriage fully and completely. However, if a deacon’s wife passes away, he is not permitted to remarry as a layman could, thus committing to celibacy for the remainder of his life. The Sacrament of Holy Orders is ultimately ordered to the service of the Church, the bride of Christ, and comes with particular sacrifices and crosses.
While the diaconate is the lowest degree of Holy Orders, it is arguably the most complex due to the integration of the various aspects of life. Deacons provide good examples of how to live a holy life while participating in ordinary life. This week, pray for all deacons so they may be strengthened in their ministry. Pray also for all men in formation and those discerning their vocation in the Sacrament of Holy Orders.
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