Penetrating the Mystery of the Diaconate

COMMENTARY: Although the Second Vatican Council restored the diaconate to its permanent place within the hierarchy, its roots stretch back to apostolic times.

Ordination of deacons within the Diocese of Rome on Oct. 24, 2020.
Ordination of deacons within the Diocese of Rome on Oct. 24, 2020. (photo: Daniel Ibanez / EWTN)

Recently, Pope Francis spoke to the transitional deacons of the Diocese of Rome. In his address, he reminded them that their upcoming ordination to the priesthood will not, in any way, diminish their earlier ordination to the diaconate — an ordination that, he emphasized, has conferred an indelible “spirit of service” that will remain the “inner foundation” of their future priestly ministry.

While Pope Francis was speaking specifically to transitional deacons about this ministry of service, the vast majority of deacons in the U.S. are permanent deacons who are ordained to serve indefinitely in the diaconate without intending to become priests, unlike transitional deacons who are ordained as a step toward priesthood.

But despite the recent proliferation of permanent deacons in the decades following the Second Vatican Council’s decision to reintroduce the diaconate “as a proper and permanent rank of the hierarchy,” they remain a bit of a mystery to many Catholics. We see them at Mass, in various ministries, at the supermarket and with their families, but they don’t quite fit into the Church categories many of us grew up with. Are they glorified altar boys, junior priests or some form of religious brothers? Are they clergy, laity or perhaps a kind of hybrid? 

Like bishops and priests, deacons are members of the clergy who receive the sacrament of Holy Orders — but in their case not unto the priesthood, but unto sacred service. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, deacons uniquely participate in Christ's mission and grace through the sacrament of Holy Orders, which imprints a permanent character aligning them with Christ as servants. Their roles include assisting bishops and priests in liturgical celebrations, particularly the Mass, distributing Holy Communion, aiding in marriage ceremonies, proclaiming the Gospel and preaching, overseeing funerals, and engaging in various charitable ministries (1569).


History of the Diaconate

Although the Second Vatican Council restored the diaconate to its permanent place within the hierarchy, its roots stretch back to apostolic times. The first seven deacons were instituted (Acts 6:1-6) to assist the apostles in the mission of the Church. Stephen boldly proclaimed the Gospel and was the first martyr (Acts 6:8-15, 7:54-60). Philip, known as the Evangelist, catechized and baptized (Acts 8:26-40). 

In his letter to Timothy, St. Paul describes the qualities of a deacon. He says they are expected to exhibit seriousness, honesty, moderation in alcohol consumption, and not be driven by greed. They must faithfully uphold the mysteries of the faith with a clear conscience. Those who are married should be faithful to one spouse and manage their families responsibly. Deacons who fulfill their duties well earn respect and strong confidence in their faith in Christ Jesus (1 Timothy 3:8-13).

Later, during the Patristic Period, deacons became the bishop’s right-hand man often given the responsibilities of financial management along with the distribution of food and alms to the poor. According to St. Ignatius of Antioch writing in A.D. 108:

… all should respect the deacons as Jesus Christ, just as all should regard the bishop as the image of the Father, and the clergy as God’s senate and the college of the apostles. Without these three orders you cannot begin to speak of a church (Letter to the Trallians).

By the early Middle Ages, the importance of the diaconate grew, especially in Rome. Of the 37 men elected as pope between A.D. 432 and 684, only three were ordained to the priesthood before their ascent to the papacy. The remaining 34 were chosen from the diaconate. Despite this influence, by the 8th century, the diaconate shifted from a permanent to a transitional order, being a preparation stage for the priesthood. While some suggest that this was the result of deacons abusing their office, history is unclear.

In the 16th century, the Council of Trent sought to restore the permanent diaconate but, given the larger concerns associated with the Protestant Reformation, it was never implemented. During the Second World War the restoration was discussed at the largest religious community in Europe, the infamous concentration camp at Dachau. There, the Jesuit Father Otto Pies, along with his companions, speculated what the Church would be like after the war if a married diaconate were restored. These discussions were written down and circulated after the war, eventually finding their way into theological journals. The question of restoring the diaconate was posed to Pope Pius XII in 1957, who remarked, “The idea, at least for today, is not yet ripe.”

Shortly thereafter, the time was ripe and the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) voted to restore a permanent diaconate while maintaining a transitional diaconate for those going on to the priesthood. Both forms of the diaconate are sacramentally and canonically equal. 


Nature and Mission of the Diaconate

Despite the many decades since the restoration, and with the number of permanent deacons continually rising, the diaconate remains a mystery for many. Its absence from the Church for over a millennium has led to an underdeveloped theology. This, along with its placement as a final step in the path to priestly ordination, has caused many to see it as an incomplete order. As a result, deacons are often perceived as “half-baked” priests. Lost in such a misperception is the beauty and grandeur of the order itself; perhaps most regrettably, it has brought a diminishing witness among Catholics of Christ the Servant.

Because deacons, like bishops and priests, are part of the sacred deposit of faith, their place in the plan of salvation is grounded in God’s will for his Church. Moreover, because it has its own distinct character, the diaconate can’t be “swallowed up” by the episcopacy or priesthood. While they too share in the order, having been previously ordained deacons, their subsequent ordinations mean they now express this diaconate, this servanthood, as bishops and priests. 

Only through the deacon, by virtue of his unique configuration at ordination, can Christ the Servant be manifest in an ecclesial way. This is in no way to undermine the vocation of those not ordained to the diaconate to reveal Christ the Servant. It is, however, to say that it is properly the role of the diaconate to be the preeminent witness of Christ the Servant. Indeed, this is precisely why Christ instituted the diaconate. The order reveals something about our Lord and his plan for our salvation (Mark 10:24). It also reveals something profound about us and how we are to follow him.

Given this understanding, what then is the role of the deacon in the life of the Church? Quite simply, it is to bear preeminent witness to Christ the Servant and inspire and embolden the faithful to bear witness to the same Christ in service to others. Just as all the faithful participate in the one priesthood of Christ, each in his own way; so too all are called to participate in the one diaconate of Christ. That said, the deacon is called to bear witness in a particular way expressed in ecclesial ministry and his own personal life. He is, by virtue of his ordination, an envoy or emissary of the bishop through the three-fold gifts of liturgy, word and charity. In this way, he inspires the laity, priesthood and episcopacy with a zeal for service by his life and ministry. 

This service, rather than being reduced to any one single ministry, can best be described as “a gift of self that wills the good of the other for the sake of the other.” Following Christ, what the deacon witnesses to the world is that authentic ministry is not something we do, but rather someone we give — our very selves. This is precisely the example our Lord expressed most beautifully on the Cross. Of himself he says, “I came not to be served, but to serve and give my life as ransom for the many (Mark 10:45).” 

Following our Lord and inspiring others, the deacon does not merely function coldly and dispassionately but brings Christ to those he meets and sees Christ in them. In the exercise of his ministry, in the living of his life, he gazes at the suffering Christ before him and is transformed in love. This contextualizes his ministry as a participation in the divine love begun in an encounter and deepened in accompaniment. In this way, along with bishops and priests, he makes his unique contribution so that together, the saving love of God can be known to all.