The Church is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council this year — and the 45th anniversary of the restoration of the permanent diaconate in the Latin Church.
Pope Paul VI released an apostolic letter, Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem in 1967, after a recommendation made by the bishops of the Council. The permanent diaconate has since had a major impact on the Church in dioceses around the world, as the number of deacons has steadily grown. Also, as time passes, Church leadership is able to reflect on the proper role of the deacon and help the laity come to a proper understanding of it.
The diaconate has its roots in the very early Church. The Book of Acts relates that the first seven deacons, “filled with the Spirit and wisdom,” were ordained by the apostles to assist them in performing corporal works of mercy (Acts 6:1-6). One of them, Stephen, would soon become the Church’s first martyr. Deacons preached, baptized and served the Church community (Acts 7; 8:4-13). St. Paul discussed the particular qualifications a man should have to be selected as a deacon (1 Timothy 3:8-13). The early Fathers of the Church, such as Sts. Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp, Justin Martyr and Irenaeus of Lyons, made references to the work of deacons.
But the diaconate declined after the year 400, and, by 800, it became in the Latin Church merely a transitional step toward the priesthood. (In the Eastern churches, conversely, the permanent diaconate was retained.) In the 20th century, a desire to restore the permanent diaconate arose, leading the bishops of the Second Vatican Council to declare, “It will be possible in the future to restore the diaconate as a proper and permanent rank of the hierarchy” (Lumen Gentium, 29).
The deacon receives the first of three degrees or levels of the sacrament of holy orders — deacon, priest, bishop — and is hence a member of the clergy. He cannot celebrate Mass or hear sacramental confessions, however. His traditional roles include baptizing, officiating at weddings and funerals, distributing Communion during Mass or bringing Communion to the sick and dying, reading from the sacred Scriptures at Mass and devoting himself to apostolic works. Those served by deacons include the poor, sick, imprisoned, lonely and abandoned and others otherwise in need.
The number of permanent deacons in the U.S. has grown steadily since 1967. In 1975, 898 men were permanent deacons. In 1985, the number had risen to 7,204. A 2010 study released by Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) reported that there are 17,000 permanent deacons in the U.S., or about half of all the permanent deacons in the world. Most deacons are married, and wives are invited to participate in the work of their deacon husbands, such as through praying with them or joining in their efforts to help those in need.
Yet, as with any new initiative in the Church, confusion can arise among the rank-and-file as to the proper role of the permanent deacon. With the deacon preaching the homily at Sunday Mass, for example, he can appear to supersede or eclipse the priest as celebrant of the Mass, with the priest viewed as merely there to consecrate the Host and Precious Blood.
In an effort to clarify the role of the permanent diaconate in his Diocese of Marquette, Mich., Bishop Alexander Sample released a 19-page letter, “The Deacon: Icon of Jesus Christ the Servant,” in 2011. Media coverage of the letter focused on one piece of the document: The deacon should not preach the homily at Mass “on a routine or scheduled basis.”
Bishop Sample was disappointed that this was the focus of so many news stories.
“That was a small piece in a lengthy document,” he said. “The focus of my letter is that the deacon is called to service. He is to configure himself to Christ as Christ the Servant.”
Into the World
The bishop noted that the deacon does receive the sacrament of holy orders but is not ordained to the priesthood. Rather, he is called to service as “a humble aid to the ministry of priests and the bishop.” Although the deacon can assist in the liturgy, “this is not his essential identity and role.”
Bishop Sample said his letter was “fruit” of a study conducted by a committee, which included deacons.
Deacon Thomas Dubois, executive director of the National Association of Diaconate Directors, believes that the rapid growth of the permanent diaconate in the U.S. is a “work of the Holy Spirit.” He remarked, “The irony is that the Second Vatican Council fathers thought the diaconate would grow the fastest in third-world countries.”
A strength of the diaconate, he said, is that the deacon leaves Sunday Mass “to go into the world and the workplace as an active person of faith.”
Dubois noted that his neighbors in Lexington, Ohio, know him as “Deacon Tom” and view him as a representative of the Church. Ordained in 2002, he has devoted much of his diaconate work to prison ministry at Ohio’s Mansfield Correctional Institution. Inside the prison, Dubois counsels inmates, prays with them, instructs them in the tenets of the faith and otherwise is a friend to them. He remarked, “They’re appreciative of my efforts and say it makes a difference in their lives. In an environment where they’re cut off from their families and possibly an embarrassment to them, we treat them like human beings.”
Dubois believes being a deacon has given him the education and formation he needs to better minister to prisoners. Additionally, as a deacon, he is more closely identified with the work of the Church.
Many view deacons as “mini priests,” he said, with priests having the ability to do many more things. That’s not an accurate view, he said. The “fullness of holy orders” comes through the bishop, and he “disseminates his ministry through the priests and deacons.” Dubois continued, “We’re not competing. Deacons are not trying to be priests. We’re working in a complementary way with them.”
Deacon Gerald DuPont, director of the diaconate for the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, Texas, believes the restored diaconate to be a “tremendous value” to the nation’s Catholic parishes and institutions. The formation of deacons has “evolved and been refined” since 1967, he said, particularly with the release of instructions on the diaconate from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in 1983 and 2004, and from the Vatican in 1998.
Since being ordained a deacon in 1990, DuPont has worked in prison ministry, visited nursing homes, assisted at parishes and, today, teaches classes at St. Mary’s, the archdiocesan seminary in Houston. With nearly 400 active deacons, the third most in the country (Chicago is first, with 600), DuPont says there is still a need for more. In fact, the archdiocese recently did a survey of its priests, he said, and there were 183 requests for additional deacons.
He’s always ready to interview prospective candidates who would find the ministry of deacon as satisfying as he does: “I have found great happiness as a deacon. I have also found peace. God wants me to be here.”
Deacon Bob Puhala is director of the Institute for Diaconal Studies for the Archdiocese of Chicago. He was ordained by Cardinal Francis George in 1998 and has devoted much of his ministry to formation of prospective deacons.
“The permanent diaconate was an unexpected blessing of the Second Vatican Council,” he said. “No one anticipated that it would make such a big impact on ministry in the U.S.”
When discussing the diaconate, Puhala said he tries to avoid defining a deacon in terms of what he can do and instead focuses on who he is: “A deacon is ordained to serve the bishop to undertake a ministry that the bishop deems most important to his diocese.”
He says the ministry of the deacon “stands on its own” and should not be viewed in competition with or subordinate to the role of the priest.
He, too, believes there is a need for more deacons. “Until the day when all the hungry are fed, the homeless given shelter and the marginalized brought back into the body of Christ, we’re going to need more deacons.”
His own ministry has been “the most incredible blessing of my life. It’s a privilege and honor to have served.”
Register correspondent Jim Graves writes from Newport Beach, California.