Kevin Di Camillo writes regularly for The National Catholic Register and is a Lecturer in English Literature at Niagara University. His latest book is Now Chiefly Poetical, and with Rev. Lawrence Boadt he edited John Paul II in the Holy Land: In His Own Words. His work has been anthologized in Wild Dreams: The Best of Italian-Americana, and he was awarded the Foley Poetry Prize from America Magazine. A graduate of the University of Notre Dame, he regularly attends Yale University’s School of Management Publishing Course.
A dozen years ago I read and edited a manuscript by Deacon Owen F. Cummings, D.D., entitled Deacons and the Church. It contained a short (very short!) chapter on “Deacons for Deacons”. However, I thought there was (or could be) more to this and asked him to tease this out, which became a small book called Saintly Deacons.
The book may be small and their number may not be too large, but the deacons who have become saints or led especially saintly lives have had an immeasurable impact on the Church:
1. St. Stephen (1st century A.D.). St. Stephen was the Protomartyr, the first to die a martyr’s death for the Christian faith. We can read all about the passion of St. Stephen in the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 6: 8-7:60)—the longest single discourse in Acts—where his death mirrors very clearly that of Jesus Himself, right down to the forgiveness of his killers, which included Saul (soon to be St. Paul) who “consented to his execution”. His feast day is appropriately the day after Christmas.
2. St. Philip (1st century A.D.). Like St. Stephen, one of the “original” Seven Deacons (cf. Acts 6: 5-6) along with Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas and Nicholas of Antioch. St. Philip converted the Ethiopian eunuch of Queen Candace’s court and baptized him, thus bringing Christianity to the Horn of Africa. “Philip [then] came to Azotus, and went about preaching the good news to all the towns until he reached Caesarea.” (Acts 9:40) According to the Roman Martyrology, Philip was the father of four daughters. He is commemorated on June 6.
3. St. Lawrence of Rome (d. ca. 258). One of the most beloved of all the early Roman saints, Lawrence is remembered for presenting the Prefect of the Empire with the “Treasure of the Church”—that is, the poor, the sick, the lame, the old, the infirm and all those who suffer. For this Lawrence was slowly roasted alive on a great giant gridiron, all the while maintaining his sense of humor, telling his tormentors to “turn me over; this side is cooked enough.” His feast day is August 10—three days after Pope St. Sixtus II, whom he served and who preceded him to the martyr’s death.
4. St. Francis of Assisi (1182-1226). Many seem to forget that Francis was a deacon, and never was ordained to the priesthood. While there is some debate over this—being a “permanent deacon” in 13th century Italy didn’t mean the same thing it does today, and apparently Francis did not want to be ordained a priest due to his great humility, Francis is still the first recorded recipient of the stigmata (give or take St. Paul’s account of his own sufferings in his body) and remained only a deacon till his dying day. Undoubtedly one of the most important saints of all time, as well as one of the most beloved. His feast day is October 4.
5. St. Ephrem the Syrian (306-373). St. Ephrem is the great Eastern mystic, poet, hymnist and, significantly, a doctor of the Church. But, and this is significant, he is the only deacon-doctor from the East. Ephrem gave us some of the most beautiful and timeless verse in any language, inspired by his great love of God. His feast day is June 9.
6. St. Vincent of Saragossa (d. 304). St. Vincent is the protomartyr of Spain, who, like his Roman fellow-deacon Lawrence, refused to kowtow to the pagan Roman Empire. He held fast to the faith and helped sow the seeds that would render fertile the Iberian Peninsula to the very present day. His feast day is January 22.
7. Quodvultdeus (d. 451). A disciple and friend of the great Doctor of the Church St. Augustine, Quodvultdeus has the unique distinction of being the “prime mover” behind Augustine’s earliest writings. Though never formally canonized, he was exiled and died for his adherence to the true Faith in 451 in Naples.
8. Deogratias (5th century). Another follower of St. Augustine and a cleric who asked the great Doctor of Hippo to explain everything from the Resurrection to whether or not Jonah could have literally lived in the belly of a whale for three days. All of this St. Augustine answered in his “Letter 102”, one of the great pastoral epistles after the time of the apostles. Deogratias’s name also signaled that he was an “Orthodox” Christian opposed to the Donatists (who used the term “Deo Laudes” instead).
9. Reginald Cardinal Pole (1500-1558). Cardinal Pole was not a canonized saint, but he was certainly of saintly stuff. He stood up to King Henry VIII and wound up living in exile because of it. It is said that he came within one vote of the papacy in 1550 (losing out to the compromise candidate Julius II), and was one of the few “modern” cardinals who was not only not a bishop, but was not even a priest when he was added to the College of Cardinals.
Deacon Cummings called men like this “Deacons for Deacons”, in that they provided historical examples of how today’s deacons should take as examples men whose lives are not only beyond reproach, but living examples of diakonia—that is, service—to their God, Church, and family.