The Role of the Deacon in the Traditional Latin Mass

A chasuble between two dalmatics in the Museo del Carmen de Maipú, Santiago de Chile
A chasuble between two dalmatics in the Museo del Carmen de Maipú, Santiago de Chile (photo: Photo Credit: Jorge Barrios, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

As anyone who has ever attended a Solemn High Mass according to the Extraordinary Form knows, the role of the deacon is integral. In fact, it is indispensable: without a deacon, you cannot celebrate it properly. Or at all, actually.

And as we are all well aware, the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) “restored” the clerical order of the diaconate to a “permanent” role in the triad of Holy Orders—while, strangely, dispensing all the minor orders, as well as tonsure which led up to it.

The restoration of the diaconate has turned out to be a real boon for the Church on a number of levels: Deacons provide a return to the balance in the three ancient orders (diaconate, presbyterate, episcopate). Of course, deacons existed all along from the very earliest days of Christianity: the proto-martyr St. Stephen was a deacon. However, over the centuries, the order as a discrete group languished and became “transitional”, as in transitioning into a priest.

While the implementation of many, many changes of Vatican II had a tough time of it, as most changes to ancient institutions do, the formation of Deacons is one of the few outright success stories, despite some flaws in the formation process which weren’t fully hammered out until the National Directory for the Formation, Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons in the United States of 2005. (At least in the United States. The Diaconate in the rest of the world is still kind of spotty). And even in the U.S. not every diocese has an active diaconate program; this is left up to the discretion of the local ordinary.

Still, the numbers don’t lie: there are almost 20,000 deacons, active and retired, in the United States alone—and thousands upon thousands of men in diaconal formation. And deacons represent the only area of the Church that is growing in any real, measurable numbers in terms of clergy and religious—though there are certainly some bright spots in terms of the growth of the F.S.S.P. priests and some spikes in the numbers of more “traditional” women’s orders, too.

But to put the number of deacons in perspective: there are almost as many deacons in the United States as there are Jesuits (the largest religious society) in the entire world.

So with the restoration of the Latin Mass in 2007 by Benedict XVI’s motu proprio “Summorum Pontificum” I was hoping that this would be a match-made for the F.S.S.P., the Canons of St. John Cantius, and the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest (all groups who can be proud of their own growth) and the large number of deacons, since to celebrate High Solemn Mass (as mentioned above) you need a deacon.

Not for the first time, I was wrong.

The deacons I’ve worked with—and I’ve edited a dozen books by deacons, who were all good, well-educated and informed men who love the Church they serve—have absolutely no interest in serving at the Latin Mass. These deacon-authors who have doctorates in theology tend to take exception with the ecclesiology that the reified Latin Mass proposes: namely, that it is priest-centric, and that, using the Holy Books of 1962, there’s no “place” for a permanent deacon—despite the fact that you can’t celebrate Solemn High Mass without a deacon.

Some responses included: “I have no contact with the Extraordinary Form community so I cannot comment. I think it is best for the priests of those movements to simply answer the question of why they do not invite permanent deacons to become competent to serve at this version of the Mass?” As well as, “My sense from following some traditional websites online is that many Catholics (including priests) who favor the Extraordinary Form HATE permanent deacons. Truly. Comments are generally spiteful and disrespectful, deeming the restoration of the permanent diaconate to be an innovation of the council that was designed to undermine the priesthood. More than a few people have called for abolishing the permanent diaconate, because they think (wrongly) that it is hurting vocations to the priesthood.  I wouldn't be surprised to learn that most permanent deacons just don't feel welcome among many traditional Catholic parishes.”

Another deacon came back with, “Most deacons don't care to get involved in the Extraordinary Form simply because it is not a real factor in the life of most parishes and dioceses.  It's just not there, and it's not something most people lose any sleep over.  Deacons (“permanent” ones anyway) tend to be down-to-earth guys who are already balancing family, work, ministries such as visiting jails and hospitals and on and on, including prepping homilies and all the rest of it.  They/we don't have the time to worry about Ordinary Form/Extraordinary Form simply because that's just not where our people need us, 99% of the time!”

Other deacons I asked for comment maintained a discrete and complete silence on the subject. As did all of the priests, save one (below).

The response to what to do when there isn’t a “transitional” deacon available is that a priest may take the part of the deacon (and for that matter, the subdeacon) at the Solemn High Mass. This, to me, is bad theology even if it produces good liturgy. I try not to hate too many things but I hate adjectives that describe deacons: “transitional deacon” or “permanent deacon”—these I detest: one is either a deacon or not. Period. The former implies that the diaconate is simply a “stepping-stone” to the priesthood, and the latter is overkill. (“I’m a PERMANENT deacon!” As opposed to what? A part-time one?) The ontological change brought on by the matter of the Sacrament of Holy Orders, the laying on of hands at diaconal ordination is, by definition and design, “permanent”.

Still, why these two groups—who seem to actually NEED each other—can’t work out some sort of liturgical arrangement is mystifying to me. And disappointing. I live in the sixth-smallest diocese in the United States, but we have one of the highest percentages of deacons AND the presence of BOTH the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Peter as well as the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest. Our bishop is not only featured in ultramontane publications like the Transalpine Redemptorist’s The Catholic Illustrated and F.S.S.P.’s The Fraternity Newsletter of Saint Peter, he sometimes confers the sacraments according to the Norms of 1962. And yet he still ordains a large number of men to the diaconate of the Novus Ordo. Bishop Arthur Serratelli is certainly leading an irenic example that both parts of the Church—those who practice according to the Extraordinary Form of the Mass and the Deacons, who, prior to Vatican II, didn’t exist in their current incarnation can not only co-exist, but work together for the good of the Church.

As mentioned above, I asked a group of priests and deacons to comment on all of the above and though, for the most part, both groups demurred and the ones who did, refused to go on the record with their names. Except for two men—one a priest, one a deacon.

Deacon Stephan A. Genovese is a 55-year-old married cleric who regularly serves at the Extraordinary Form of Holy Mass at St. Mary’s in Norwalk, Connecticut. “Unlike a lot of other deacons,” he remarked, “I never wanted to be a priest. And I don’t have bunch of graduate degrees. I just love being a deacon.” Also unique to Deacon Stephan: he loves the Latin Mass while having nothing but respect for the Novus Ordo Mass, too. A loquacious Sicilian with a sense of humor and a sense of the sacred, Deacon Stephan is at home in both forms of the Mass—and can’t quite understand why so many of his brother deacons are so skittish about the Extraordinary Form. “To me, it is a beautiful expression of our faith, and to be able to participate in it-- is a blessing.”

Ordained in 2000, Deacon Stephan participated in his first Extraordinary Form of the Mass in September 2008. “It [the Extraordinary Form] has brought more people to our parish: we now have Mass in English, Spanish and Latin.” As for learning the rubrics of the 1962 Mass, Deacon Stephan admits, “It was, of course, a lot of work—but learning can be fun, too.”

Though he indicated he was speaking solely for himself and not his brother deacons who cannot (or do not) abide the Latin Mass, “I think there is confusion about what ‘active participation’ in the Mass is. One form is about singing, responding, and movement; the other is about contemplation, meditation, and silence. Both are necessary. I compare it to two roads: both the Merrit Parkway and Interstate 95 will get you to Norwalk, Connecticut, but they are totally different routes with the same destination. Perhaps it isn’t the greatest analogy, but to me that’s a bit what the two forms of the Mass are like. The destination is the same, just the routes are different—and enjoyable in different ways, both for the ministers and the congregation.”

The only priest who responded to my query was Fr. Philip-Michael Tangorra, S.T.L., a 33-year-old priest of the Diocese of Paterson, who wears many different hats, including being the chaplain at Jesus Christ, Prince of Peace Chapel. He often celebrates the Extraordinary Form of the Mass. He opined at length on Deacons and the Latin Mass:

“While it is certainly true that for an epoch the only form of the diaconate that existed was that of those who were to transition into the priesthood. The role of the subdeacon was commonly executed at a Solemn Mass not by a priest but actually by a layman, what was called a ‘straw’ subdeacon.  And, many of the ‘special’ ministerial roles that are now enjoyed by a deacon in the Novus Ordo Mass, such as the co-mingling of the water and wine in the chalice, was done by the subdeacon -- even if only a ‘straw’ subdeacon. The ‘big’ difference between a deacon and subdeacon in the traditional Mass was which part of the ‘liturgy of the word’ they had the role to chant, the epistle or the Gospel, respectively.”

Fr. Phil added, "Furthermore, the role of the deacon at the altar during the Offertory was actually more priestly in the traditional Mass than it is now in the Novus Ordo!" And, he continued, "In the Novus Ordo Mass, the role of the deacon at the Altar was actually changed to what was formerly done by the subdeacon—even a lay ‘straw’ subdeacon—namely, the co-mingling of the water and the wine.”

Looking for similarities, Fr. Phil noted that “The deacon in either of the two forms of the Roman Mass has always had the responsibility of (1) proclaiming the Gospel and (2) the ability to preach. There is no change here. Outside of the Mass, a deacon today will commonly administer Baptisms and, when both parties are … ‘Western’ Christians, a deacon can witness and bless a marriage.”

However, Fr. Tangorra was wary of deacons who argued that the pre-Conciliar Mass was more about the priest, rather than the “people” (let alone the deacon): “The argument that the traditional Latin Mass is more ‘priest-centric’ than the Novus Ordo is, to my mind, a dangerous opinion. Any and all of the Sacraments is the sole work of the ‘Action of Christ the Priest’. Thus, there is never a Mass that is not ‘priest-centric’ because there is never a Mass that isn't ‘Christ-centric’. It is a depraved theology to think otherwise, bordering on the heretical. Even when the deacon is the principal celebrant of a liturgy—it is still the action of Christ, although not specifically a ‘priestly’ act, it is the act of Christ Jesus who is Priest, Prophet and King.”

Finally, Fr. Tangorra mused on the sacramental theology of Holy Orders: “This raises the question of the sacramental character of the diaconate. The deacon is clergy, but does not participate in the priesthood. The deacon is conformed, according to the Catechism, to Christ the Servant—specifically in works of charity and in the proclamation of the Word. Yet, how is this so very different from a person Baptized or Confirmed? The Church has not defined the specific ‘character’ of the Order of Deacon. Hence, the role of the deacon in the Novus Ordo was removed from the ‘offering’-- a clearly priestly act. Arguably, the role of the diaconate in the traditional Mass was closer to a priestly ministry and this probably evolved from the fact that the diaconate became ‘transitional.’”

Still, with a surfeit of deacons and a surge in the number of Latin Masses being said in America, I’d like to see a melding of the old and new: the traditional Extraordinary Form of the Mass with ordained deacons serving at Solemn High Mass.