The diaconate has its origins in apostolic times and flourished during the first four centuries of the Church’s history. Later, for very complex reasons, the diaconate went into decline until it became little more than a step on the way to the priesthood in the Western Church.
When the Second Vatican Council restored the diaconate as a permanent ministry in the Church, it did so for three primary reasons: first, a desire to restore to the Church the full complement of active apostolic ministries, second the desire to integrate and strengthen those who were, in fact, already exercising diaconal functions, and third, to more fully serve the needs of the people.
Loving service is a task that falls upon every Christian as an immediate duty of life in obedience to and in imitation of Jesus. Service is obviously, also a primary and central task of priests and bishops, but the deacon especially has this role by virtue of his ordination. The deacon continually makes visible to the Church the redemptive service fulfilled by Jesus Christ. He represents and promotes in the Church what the community of faith must be, namely a community of service.
Ministry of Love and Justice
From its beginning, and particularly during the first centuries, the diaconate has been primarily a ministry of love and justice. The early metaphorical description of the deacon as “the eyes and ears, the mouth, heart, and soul of the bishop” referred to the duty of the deacon to identify the needy, to report their needs to the bishop and the Church, and to direct the Church’s loving service to them.
As the diaconate has developed in the United States it is hard to find a single category of needy people in Church and society who are not being served by deacons: the homeless, the ill, prisoners, refugees, the rural poor, street people, victims of racial and ethnic discrimination, the aged, the bereaved, battered women, the blind, the deaf, the divorced, drug addicts, the dying, the handicapped, abused children, etc. Deacons are ministering to these people, in the name of the church, and representing the care of Jesus Christ the Servant.
Through the grace of ordination, the deacon is to inspire, promote, and help coordinate the service that the whole Church must undertake in imitation of Christ. He has a special responsibility to identify to the Church those who are in need. Among such people the deacon is to speak about Christ and to offer them the Church’s varied assistance. But in the Church, he is also to speak about the needy, to articulate their needs, and to inspire and mobilize the whole community’s response. He thus becomes the link through which the Church reaches out to the needy and the needy challenge the church.
The Ministry of the Word of God
The deacon’s ministry of the Word is also a far-reaching one. It may include proclaiming the Gospel at the liturgy, preaching, catechetical instruction and other forms of teaching, counseling, instruction of catechumens, giving retreats, outreach to alienated Catholics, parish renewal programs, etc. Besides these more or less formal occasions, deacons may also have many opportunities to speak about Jesus Christ more informally, especially as they carry out their ministries of love and justice. Deacons who have secular occupations are also able to witness to the Gospel in the marketplace. Here they meet the demands of their work both as committed Catholics and as ordained ministers. They use the opportunities their work provides to bring the Gospel to bear on the concrete circumstances of everyday individual and social life. In turn, their secular involvement also can equip them to bring questions and insights to bear on the Gospel and can thus help lead the Church to a richer and deeper appreciation of the faith.
The Ministry of the Liturgy
The Second Vatican Council asserted that “the Liturgy is the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed and the source from which all its power flows.” This is as true of the deacon as it is of the Church in general. To the Church gathered in worship, the deacon both brings the gifts of the people and articulates their needs. At the Eucharistic assembly, the deacon assists the community in its worship and helps to minister the great mystery of Jesus Christ’s redemptive gift of himself in Word and Sacrament. And, in such liturgical celebrations, in which all three of the deacon’s ministries are uniquely concentrated and integrated, the deacon finds the source from which he draws his own Christian life and the grace to carry out his ministry.
At the Eucharist, the deacon may proclaim the Gospel, preach, voice the needs of the people in the general intercessions, assist in the presentation of the gifts, and distribute communion. The deacon can also perform other liturgical roles such as solemnly baptizing, witnessing marriages, bringing Viaticum to the dying and presiding over funerals and burials. In addition to these roles, he can also preside over liturgies of the Word, the Liturgy of the Hours, and exposition and the Blessed Sacrament. He can lead non-sacramental reconciliation services, conduct prayer services for the sick and dying, and administer certain of the Church’s sacramentals.
The Integration of Diaconal Ministries
The diaconal ministries, distinguished above, are not to be separated. The deacon is ordained for them all, and no one should be ordained who is not prepared to undertake each in some way. This is not to say that a deacon may not have greater abilities in some areas than others. But, there is an intrinsic relationship among the three areas of the deacon’s ministry if he is to be a sign of the Servant-Christ who redeemed us as Prophet, Priest, and King. In his person and in his roles, the deacon is also to represent to the Church the full range of services which it itself is called to carry out in the world. When the deacon preaches or teaches, it is shaped by his presence in the world, which has well acquainted him with the needs of the people. When he ministers at the altar, he brings those needs to the Church and to Jesus Christ. As he ministers to the needy in his day-to-day service, so also at the Eucharist he ministers the Body of Christ to the People of God. And when he works for the needy he does so as one who has himself both received and ministered the two-fold bread of the Word and of the Eucharist.