A friend of mine, a permanent deacon, said recently that he spends most of his time tucked between the priesthood and the laity, serving both but different from both. It’s a special vocation, and it calls for unusually mature and committed men.
He’s right. Deacons, like priests and bishops, belong to the clergy. They’re no longer laymen. In fact, all priests and bishops, including the Holy Father, remain deacons, even as they are ordained into the priesthood or episcopacy. (They also, obviously, remain part of the baptized faithful.)
But a permanent deacon — as opposed to a “transitional” deacon preparing for priesthood — will also frequently have a wife, children and a regular job. In most ways, permanent deacons share the same joys and sorrows as any layperson. We may know these men as our married neighbors, soccer coach, fathers, or celibate co-workers.
Deacons receive the sacrament of orders to the order of deacons when a bishop lays hands on them and prays a prayer of consecration. Just as in baptism and confirmation, deacons receive an indelible character, marking them forever and enabling them to live in a specific configuration to Christ. They receive special sacramental graces to assist the “bishop and his priests as ministers of the word, of the altar, and of charity” (Homily from “Ordination of Deacons”).
Deacons may seem new since Vatican II, but they actually trace their ministry to the earliest days of the Church in Jerusalem. In the Acts of the Apostles, deacons were called to assist the Apostles through works of charity. In fact, the Greek root of the word “deacon” — diakonos — means servant. In the witness of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, and St. Philip’s evangelizing of the Ethiopian, we see the vital role deacons played in serving the faithful and spreading the Gospel.
Over the centuries, as the Church grew, the order of deacons faded into a step just before priestly ordination. Even today, candidates for the priesthood receive their diaconal ordination and serve for a time as deacons before continuing on to the priesthood.
But the many new pastoral demands of the modern world led the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council to revive the permanent diaconate as a special ministry of service.
“After the priest, in virtue of the sacred ordination he has received, the deacon has first place among those who minister in the celebration of the Eucharist” (General Instruction on the Roman Missal, 94). We can see this in the distinctive vestments the deacon wears at Mass. He’ll always wear a long white alb and a stole that is fastened on the right. On more festive occasions, the deacon may also wear the dalmatic, a liturgical outer garment.
Some duties of the deacon seem to cross over between those of the priest and those of the laity during Mass. The priest has the responsibility to preach, but he may entrust the deacon to give the homily. Portions of the Mass dialogue also belong to the deacon. If no deacon is present, the celebrant fills the role. While the deacon is the usual minister to announce the general intercessions, laypersons may do so occasionally for a good reason. Laypersons who serve as extraordinary ministers of holy Communion may also purify Communion vessels and give viaticum, but as an “ordinary minister of holy Communion,” these functions belong to the deacon when he is present.
Since he is ordained into Christ’s ministry in a unique way, only the deacon may assist the celebrant at the “fraction rite” or breaking of the bread, and he may also distribute the precious blood into additional chalices. At the same time, his identity as a member of the body of Christ is reaffirmed since the deacon receives holy Communion from the hand of the priest, who represents Christ the Head of the Body.
Deacons may also preside at Communion services in the absence of a priest, and at public prayer and some blessings; assist at and bless marriages; and lead rites of burial. They also serve parishes and dioceses in many key administrative roles.
Of 113 parishes in the Archdiocese of Denver, 74 have 105 deacons assisting our priests and serving the lay faithful. These are extraordinary men whose witness is a great blessing for our Church. So just as I asked you to remember the priests of Northern Colorado in your prayers, now I ask you to keep our deacons in your daily thoughts and prayers as well.
They’ve answered a demanding call to a divine vocation, and their lives give service to God and to His people.