The Permanent Diaconate
by Jeff Montgomery
The role of the permanent deacon in the life of the Church is an ancient, and at the same time modern, tradition. Ancient, because permanent deacons were very prevalent in the early Church, and modern due to the renewed nature of the deacon's participation in the administering of the sacraments and other activities.
In the early church, deacons were very active in carrying out the mission imparted by Jesus. They were prominent in helping to establish early Christian communities. St. Ignatius of Antioch described the main role of the deacon as "continuing the ministry of Jesus Christ". Over the centuries, due to many different factors, the role of the diaconate gradually became lesser, and gradually disappeared.
The Second Vatican council in 1964 elected to revive the permanent diaconate as a vital part of Church life. In 'The Constitution on the Church', the council says the following about the permanent diaconate:
"Deacons…..receive the imposition of hands not unto the priesthood, but unto a ministry of service."
Through sacramental grace, deacons are dedicated to the people of God, in conjunction with the bishop and priests, in the service of the liturgy, of the Gospel, and of charity. The Council goes on to define additional duties of the deacon:
"It pertains to the office of a deacon, in so far as it may be assigned to him by the competent authority, to administer Baptism solemnly, to be a custodian and distributor of the Eucharist, in the name of the church to assist and to bless marriages, 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 the prayer of the faithful, to administer sacramentals, and to officiate at funeral and burial services."
It is important to note that the Vatican Council did not require every diocese in the world to reinstate the permanent diaconate. They left it up to the local authorities to determine, based on thoughtful and prayerful consideration, whether or not they needed the permanent diaconate. The United States applied to the Vatican in 1968 to get approval to restore the permanent diaconate. The approval was received, and the first class of permanent deacons was ordained in 1972.
There are two categories of deacons within the Catholic Church.A transitional deacon is one who is planning on continuing to his ordination as a priest. The permanent deacon does not take that final step. While the transitional deacon can be said to go on to be ordained into the priesthood, it is accurate to describe the permanent deacon as being ordained into a life of service.
The word 'deacon', itself, derives from the Greek word 'diakonia', which means 'servant'. This life of service is characterized by a devotion to service as directed by the bishop of their diocese. Some deacons serve in parishes alongside the parish priest, and others are asked to serve in other ministries. The life of the deacon symbolizes in a special way the interconnection between the three great areas of Church life - word, sacrament, and service.
As noted above, one of the specific duties of the deacon is to read sacred Scripture to the faithful and instruct them in understanding and applying the Word. The sacramental nature of the deacon's service manifests itself through the administration of the various sacraments: baptism, distributing the Eucharist, assisting and blessing marriages, and officiating at funerals.
The permanent deacon in many cases can bring a unique quality to this ministry - the experience of marriage. Some statistics show that nearly 90% of the permanent diaconate are married men. Through the sacrament of matrimony, the deacon experiences the sacrificial love of this sacrament. It is through this nurturing and sacrificial love that the deacon's wife also becomes involved in his public ministry.
While we mentioned the sacraments in which the deacon participates in an earlier paragraph, it is important to note that a permanent deacon is not conferred with all of the authority of a priest. Deacons cannot celebrate Mass, carry out the anointing of the sick, or absolve sins through confession.
However, in most other areas of parish life the deacon serves in much the same capacity as a priest. With the shortages of priests over the last several years, many deacons have been charged with running the day-to-day operations of a parish, with a visiting priest appearing once a week to celebrate Mass.
The deacon, because of his background and experiences, brings a unique ability to integrate the various aspects of parish life. He is often a father, a husband, has had (or still has) a career outside of the Church, but is now called to serve the Church. In this way, his life experience prepares him to effectively minister in the name of Jesus.
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