CALLED TO SERVE: THE MISSION OF THE PERMANENT DIACONATE
by Deacon Michael Chesley
In recent years, Catholics have seen an extra "presence" in the sanctuary assisting the priest at Mass in many of our local Roman Catholic Churches. Along with the many changes in the Mass that have occurred since the Second Vatican Council, Roman Catholics have yet to make another adjustment in trying to figure out exactly who is this newcomer which the Roman Catholic Church calls Permanent Deacons. Although the permanent deacon is a relatively new occurrence experienced on the altars of many U.S. dioceses around the country, deacons in general are nothing new to the Church.
We can find the emergence of the use of deacons very early in Church history. In fact, we first read about the ministry of deacon in the book of The Acts of the Apostles:
"At that time, as the number of disciples continued to grow, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. So the Twelve called together the community of the disciples and said, "It is not right for us to neglect the word of God to serve at table. Brothers, select from among you seven reputable men, filled with the Spirit and wisdom, whom we shall appoint to this task, whereas we shall devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word." The proposal was acceptable to the whole community, so they chose Stephen, a man filled with faith and the Holy Spirit, also Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicholas of Antioch, a convert to Judaism. They presented these men to the apostles who prayed and laid hands on them." (Acts 6:1-6, NABWRNT) [i]
The fact that the apostles "prayed and laid hands on them", gives the first indication that these men were "ordained" to a special task. In this particular case, to help feed and take care of the Greek widows who were being neglected by the wider community. Another clue to the deacon's role in ministry is found in the third chapter of St. Paul's 1st Letter to Timothy, which states, "Do not neglect the gift you have, which was conferred on you through the prophetic word with the imposition of hands of the presbyterate." (1 Timothy 4:14, NAB) [ii]
St. Paul tells his young protégé' Timothy that the ministry of deacon receives a "gift" through the prophetic word and imposition of hands; this of course is what the Catholic Church calls the sacrament of Holy Orders. In St. Paul's opening greeting to the Philippians, St. Paul sends his greetings not only to the bishops, but to the deacons as well. Thus, the Church has a well grounded biblical foundation for the ordination of deacon as part of the threefold ministry of Holy Orders.
The ministry of deacon continued in both the Western and Eastern Churches and developed as needs changed. As liturgy developed over the first few centuries, the actions on the altar of the bishop, priest, deacon, and eventually a lower clerical state called sub-deacon, developed and became more defined.
The deacon's role at Mass commonly was to receive the gifts of the faithful, direct the prayers of the laity, assist the bishop in distribution of the Eucharist, and read or chant the Epistle and Gospel at Mass. Deacons were also responsible for preparation of the altar, and seemed to have had a particular role in the preparation and purification of the sacred vessels. It was the role of the deacon in particular to be the administrator of the chalice at Mass. To this day, it is the role of the deacon during the climax of the Eucharistic Prayer to elevate the chalice alongside the presiding celebrant. In addition, deacons administered the sacrament of Baptism, as recorded in Acts 8: 38 by the deacon Phillip. The deacon also discharged many of the bishop's duties and was the bishop's chief administrator. This is true particularly in Rome.
It is not difficult to find references to deacons in many of the works of the Church Fathers. Most interesting is St. Clement, who is writing at the end of the first century. Clement includes the office of deacon as part of the hierarchy of the Church. St. Clement writes:
The apostles have preached the gospel to us from the Lord Jesus Christ; Jesus Christ [has done so] from God. Christ therefore was sent forth by God, and the apostles by Christ. Both these appointments, then, were made in an orderly way, according to the will of God. Having therefore received their orders, and being fully assured by the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, and established in the word of God, with full assurance of the Holy Ghost, they went forth proclaiming that the kingdom of God was at hand. And thus preaching through countries and cities, they appointed the first fruits [of their labors], having first proved them by the Spirit, to be bishops and deacons of those who should afterwards believe. Nor was this any new thing, since indeed many ages before it was written concerning bishops and deacons. For thus says the Scripture in a certain place, "I will appoint their bishops in righteousness, and their deacons in faith." [iii]
It is St. Isidore of Seville, writing in the seventh century, who gives a very detailed account of the role of deacon in his epistle to Leudefredus:
To the deacons it belongs to assist the priests and to serve [ministrare] in all that is done in the Sacraments of Christ, in baptism, to wit, in the holy chrism, in the paten and chalice, to bring the oblation to the altar and to arrange them, to lay the table of the Lord and to drape it, to carry the cross, to declaim [proedicare] the Gospel and Epistle, for as the charge is given to lectors to declaim the Old Testament, so it is given to deacons to declaim the New. To him also pertains the office of prayers [officium precum] and the recital of the names. It is he who gives warning to open our ears to the Lord, it is he who exhorts with his cry, it is he also who announces peace." (Migne., P.L., LXXXII, 895) [iv]
However, by the time of Pope Gregory the Great in 595 A.D, many of these duties already began to be heavily curtailed or delegated to the minor orders. Although it is beyond the range of this article to cover a detailed account of the reasons for the decline of the order, suffice to say that their was a gradual occurrence of men who preferred not to remain a deacon all their lives, and wanted to advance to the higher orders. By the middle ages, the order of deacon as a permanent rank in the hierarchy of the Church all but disappeared in the West, and became nothing more than a stepping stone for preparation to the priesthood. Although not widely known, the Council of Trent (1545 – 1563) called for the restoration of the permanent deacon. Unfortunately the idea was never followed through, and it was not until the Second Vatican Council that the Church in the West took up the wishes of Trent some 400 years later.
Pope Paul VI, in his Apostolic Letter Containing Norms for the Order of Diaconate (Ad Pascendum) wrote:
Finally. the Second Vatican Council supported the wishes and requests that, where such would lead to the good of souls, the permanent diaconate should be restored as an intermediate order between the higher ranks of the Church's hierarchy and the rest of the people of God, as an expression of the needs desires of the Christian communities, as a driving force for the Church's service or diaconia towards the local Christian communities, and as a sign or sacrament of the Lord Christ himself, who "came not to be served but to serve." [v]
On June 18th 1967, Pope Paul VI issued in motu proprio form, the Apostolic Letter Sacrum Diaconatus Orinem, by which canonical norms were established for the Order of Deacon, and a year later, the new rite was officially recognized and established as a proper and permanent rank in the hierarchy of the Roman Rite.
In the document entitled Lumen Gentium, issued during the Second Vatican Council, the document addresses the hierarchical structure of the Church. The third chapter of this document begins the section recognizing Christ the Lord who "instituted a variety of ministries, which work for the good of the whole body". The chapter addresses the ministry of deacon as follows:
29. At a lower level of the hierarchy are deacons, upon whom hands are imposed "not unto the priesthood, but unto a ministry of service."(74) For strengthened by sacramental grace, in communion with the bishop and his group of priests they serve in the diaconate of the liturgy, of the Word, and of charity to the People of God. It is the duty of the deacon, according as it shall have been assigned to him by competent authority, to administer Baptism solemnly, to be custodian and dispenser of the Eucharist, to assist at and bless marriages in the name of the Church, to bring Viaticum to the dying, to read the Sacred Scripture to the faithful, to instruct and exhort the people, to preside over the worship and prayer of the faithful, to administer sacramental's, to officiate at funeral and burial services. Dedicated to duties of charity and of administration, let deacons be mindful of the admonition of Blessed Polycarp: "Be merciful, diligent, walking according to the truth of the Lord, who became the servant of all." [vi]
Although the Latin Rite Church had "transitional" deacons, the Council goes on to say that the Church envisions what it hoped would be a permanent rank reestablished within the Latin Church. One could ask why did the Church desire to restore the order of deacon as a permanent rank at this point in church history? The Directory for the Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons addresses this question as follows: "One of the fruits of the Second Vatican Council was the desire to restore the diaconate as a proper and stable rank of the hierarchy". On the basis of the "historical circumstances and pastoral purposes noted by the Council Fathers, the Holy Spirit, protagonist of the Church's life, worked mysteriously to bring about a new and more complete actualization of the hierarchy which traditionally consists of bishops, priests and deacons. In this manner the Christian community was revitalized, configured more closely to that of the Apostles which, under the influence of the Paraclete, flourished as the Acts of the Apostles testifies." [vii]
The spirituality of the deacon also has a distinct path. The call to holiness is first brought about by our baptism. Each of us, as members of Christ's Body, has a unique role to play in the drama of salvation history. Each of us must, if we wish to grow in holiness with Christ, discover our individual paths. The deacon however, has his path "cut out for him" in some way by his ordination. This of course does not mean that ordination requires him to follow a "type" of spirituality in his personal prayer life. But diaconal ordination does call the ordained deacon to a life of radical charity, worked out in whatever form of spiritual discipline he may follow. To be a deacon means to live a life of charity, especially in the form of service to both the immediate members of the Body of Christ, and those individuals who fall outside the Church. In fact, the deacon often finds himself ministering to a wide variety of people, and in a wide variety of places. It is when the deacon ministers to those who live in the margins; those who are spiritually bankrupt; and those who most want to meet the face of Christ but do not know where to look, that the deacon finds his vocation.
The word "deacon", or diakonia, means service. The mission of the deacon is found in a threefold diakonia of word, liturgy, and charity. There is a saying among deacons often heard.
"The deacon's service begins at the altar and returns there." In other words, it is the Eucharist that he receives that empowers the deacon to go forth and sanctify the world, enabling him to bring back to the altar of Christ those most in need of Christ's nourishment. Because the deacon is ordained to diakonia, his mission is one of charity and justice in the world, especially to the poor.
The Sacrament of Holy Orders marks the deacon with a sacramental sign for service who is ordained to be an image of Christ, the Eternal high Priest and Shepherd. The deacon shares in the Sacrament of Holy Orders to a lesser degree, and is called to image Christ the Servant. The deacon is therefore neither a priest or lay person, but a cleric.[viii]
The Deacon is called to Ministry of the Word. The deacon is called to make visible the Churches call to kerygma, or proclamation of the Gospel. Because it is a primarily role of the ministry of the deacon to make present the word of God in the public market place, the liturgical norms call for the deacon to carry the Book of the Gospels in procession when a deacon is assisting at Mass. It is also the role of the deacon to proclaim the Gospel at Mass. The deacon is ordained "to proclaim the Gospel and preach the word of God".[ix] In the ordination rite of the diaconate, the newly ordained deacon kneels before the bishop, and places his hands on the Gospel Book held by the bishop. The bishop says, "Receive the Gospel of Christ, whose herald you now are. Believe what you read, teach what you believe, and practice what you teach". [x]Therefore, deacons have the faculty to preach and have a deep obligation to study Sacred Scripture. In this way, deacons share in the responsibility of transmitting Christian doctrine along with bishops and priests.
It is also the role of the deacon to announce the general intercessions before the preparation of the gifts at Mass. Because the deacon is responsible for knowing the needs of the People of God, the liturgical norms call for the deacon to announce the petitions at Mass. Lastly, the deacon dismisses the people at the end of Mass with the familiar instruction, "Go in Peace". [xi] Just as the deacon carried the word of God to the ambo on the altar during the Procession, the deacon dismisses the people, and instructs them to go and carry that message to the world.
The Church's ministry of liturgy calls for the deacon to celebrate the sacraments, sacramentals, and assist at the altar as described above. The document from the Congregation of the Clergy entitled, Directory for the Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons states, "In the Eucharistic Sacrifice, the deacon does not celebrate the mystery: rather, he effectively represents on the one hand, the people of God and, specifically, helps them to unite their lives to the offering of Christ; while on the other, in the name of Christ himself, he helps the Church to participate in the fruits of that sacrifice." [xii]
The deacon is an ordinary minister of baptism, and often witnesses marriages. It is common to see a permanent deacon celebrate the Rite of Matrimony at "mixed marriages" when one of the parties is either unbaptized or baptized but is not Catholic. The deacon is also called to preside over funeral liturgies where a Funeral Mass will not be celebrated.
Lastly, the Church's ministry of charity and justice calls the deacon to "be the image of your Son who did not come to be served but to serve."[xiii] This role is filled by the deacon in as many ways as there are deacons themselves. Each deacon has his own ministry to carry out, based on the needs of his particular community. Often times, the deacon will help with catechesis in the parish. He may assist at RCIA, or conduct Bible studies, and various workshops within the parish. He may also help with baptismal preparation, and certainly will be involved in the preparation of couples for the sacrament of matrimony. These duties and many others are often filled by the deacon, depending on the particular needs of each parish. It is not the job of a deacon to take the place of anyone within the parish. Rather, the deacon identifies the need, addresses it by finding the right people to fill that need, and then moves on. Since the deacon's role is primarily one of diakonia, the deacon often will be found in hospitals serving as chaplains, organizations serving the poor, prisons, nursing homes, and anywhere the Gospel needs to be taken.
The vast majority of permanent deacons are married men with families. Many, if not most have careers in the professional community. If a man is ordained to the diaconate as a single man, the deacon makes a promise of celibacy that along with a priest is perpetual.
Although for many centuries the deacon ascended to higher orders after ordination to the diaconate, there still exist "transitional" deacons and "permanent" deacons. However, there is no sacramental difference or function between the two. Under normal circumstances, when the permanent deacon path is chosen, the deacon remains in his chosen vocation.
Recently, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops released the National Directory for the Formation, Ministry, and Life of Permanent Deacons in the United States. The purpose of this document was to standardize formation of permanent deacons here in the United States. Normally, there is a three year formation period, which includes academic, spiritual, pastoral, and human dimensions. In addition, there are academic and other prerequisites that need to be met before the applicant is accepted into formation. There is also a one year aspirancy, in order to discern the call to the diaconate. Wives are actively involved in the formation process and play an integral and vital role in the formation of their husbands. The prospective candidate must have his wife's permission to seek ordination.
The presence of deacons in parishes around the country will become I believe, increasingly more important to bringing the missionary mandate by Christ to "come follow me." [xiv] As the shortage of priests is felt in areas around the country, the deacon's role in the parish may become more diverse. We may find more permanent deacons taking on administrative roles within the parish. It will be possible to find a deacon as the permanently assigned "clergy" to a parish and the priest remains the pastor of two or three parishes as "clustering" becomes more common in many dioceses.
However, the deacon's role will always remain one of service. The deacon is not meant to replace or become a "mini priest". Regardless of the number of priests actively serving in any given parish or diocese, the permanent deacon has a distinct and separate role to play. The sacramental sign that the deacon represents within the parish makes the presence of the deacon an essential part of a parish community. It is through the deacon's ministry of charity, that the people in that community of faith should see "Christ the servant."
In the weddings I have witnessed since my ordination, I have always spoken at some point in the homily of the sacramental sign the couple brings to the world. Their union with each other is a real sign to the world of Christ's relationship with the Church. The unique mission of married couples is to the building up of Christ Body, the Church. Both husband and wife become co-creators with God as a result of their self-giving love to one another. The family then becomes a gift to society as a whole. Through the self-giving love of the family, society experiences Christ's saving work of redemption.
Ordained priests as well become the spiritual leaders and shepherds of their flock. By virtue of their ordination, they share in a special way Christ's priesthood, and carry out sacred functions, especially the celebration of the Mass in which the priest offers Christ's sacrifice sacramentaly. As Catholics, it is this sacramental understanding of how Christ uses the many ministries in the Church to sanctify the world.
According to statistics recorded at the Vatican, there were 30,973 permanent deacons serving 131 countries as of 2003. However, the vast majority (20,318) are in the Americas, of which 14,000 serve in the United States. [xv] The vast majority are married men. The minimum age for ordination to the permanent diaconate is thirty five. Like bishops and priests, deacons may not run for any public office. Most deacons hold full-time secular jobs supporting their families. The permanent deacon usually does not hold a paid position in the church. However, the Church is beginning to see an increasing number of permanent deacons being employed in parishes as parish administrators, Christian service directors, pastoral associates, and religious education directors. These men are often of retirement age, have fulfilled their family obligation in raising children, and are in a position to begin a second career, often at substantially less income.
Over the years, I have observed many good deacons who have served the church so faithfully, usually ministering unnoticed. Many of these men have had a tremendous amount of influence in my life. When I first began to see permanent deacons on the altar serving along with the priest, like so many other people, I was not sure exactly who these men were or the role they played. When I began to sense my own call to a vocation in the Church, the role of the deacon gradually became more noticeable to me. My growing awareness to serve the Church, along with an examination of my talents, eventually led me to the decision to explore the possibility of being a permanent deacon. Even at the time of application to the diocese, I realize how little I knew about the meaning of what it means to be a permanent deacon. St. Catherine of Siena once said about vocations, "When we are whom we are called to be, we will set the world ablaze".[xvi] One will know if they are in the vocation which God intended them to be when they experience both a joy in that experience, and a sense of sacrifice at the same time. True ministry, if it is be authentic, must call something forth from us. It will also bring us joy, confident that we are where God wants us to be. In turn, that will bring you great peace.
My life is very different than it was ten years ago. My ministry requires much of my time, and sends me to places and to people I once thought were not important. It gives me great joy, but also calls for sacrifice as well. Most importantly, I can see God working in these events and in these people when I take the time and look for Him.
The presence of deacons should remind us of the Church's call to charity. A fitting conclusion then, comes from a quote from the Rite of Ordination for the Deacon:
"Like the men the apostles chose for works of charity, you should be men of good reputation, filled with wisdom and the Holy Spirit. Show before God and mankind that you are above every suspicion of blame, true ministers of Christ and of God's mysteries, men firmly rooted in faith. Never turn away from the hope which the Gospel offers; now you must not only listen to God's word but also preach it. Hold the mystery of faith with a clear conscience. Express in action what you proclaim by word of mouth. Then the people of Christ, brought to life by the Spirit, will be an offering God accepts. Finally, on the last day, when you go to meet the Lord, you will hear him say "Well done, good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of your Lord." [xvii]
Deacon Michael Chesley was ordained for the Archdiocese of Detroit in 2005. He is assigned to St. Patrick Catholic Church, in White Lake, Mi. His ministry also includes prison chaplaincy, and is a member of the Archdiocese of Detroit formation team for Permanent Deacons. Deacon Michael Chesley is an Alumni of Sacred Heart Major Seminary. He resides in Wixom, Mi. with his faithful dog, Francis.
[i] Confraternity of Christian Doctrine. Board of Trustees, Catholic Church. National Conference of Catholic Bishops & United States Catholic Conference. Administrative Board. (1996, c1986). The New American Bible : Translated from the original languages with critical use of all the ancient sources and the revised New Testament. Confraternity of Christian Doctrine.
[v] Apostolic Letter Containing Norms for the Order of Diaconate; Paul VI, Ad Pascendum, 15 Aug. 1972.
[vi] VATICAN COUNCIL II, Volume 1: The Concilliar and Post Conciliar Documents, (Costello Publishing Co, Inc Third Print, 1996). Lumen Gentium, 29.
[vii] Congregation for Catholic Education; Congregation of the Clergy; Directory for the Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons. ( Libreria Editrice Vaticana 1998), Chapter III.
[viii] National Directory for the Formation, Ministry, and Life of Permanent Deacons in the United States. (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, D.C. 2005.
[x] The Rites of the Catholic Church as Revised by the Second Vatican Council; Volume II, (The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota, 1991). Chapter II, Ordination of a Deacon; page 35-36.
[xi] GIRM. Pge. 72.
[xii] Directory for the Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons.
[xiii] National Directory. 20.
[xiv] Matt 19:21
[xvi] Catholic Book of Quotations, (Our Sunday Visitor, Inc. Huntington, Indiana, 2004).
[xvii] Rite of Ordination. Volume II.30