Office of deacon restored by Vatican II

By Msgr Michael Flannery
The diaconate developed gradually in the early church. We have its foundation in the Acts of the Apostles: 6:1-6. Stephen was one of the first deacons chosen for the ministry of service to widows. We are all called to a ministry of service, but this is especially so for a deacon.
The Didache, an ancient manuscript, mentions that deacons assisted with administration in the church and speaks of them as being men of integrity. Ignatius of Antioch speaks of the fully developed order of bishop, priest and deacon. The pre-Nicene period was the golden era of the diaconate. We find deacons running dioceses as administrators and attending councils of the church. Deacons became very powerful and even assigned priests to parishes.
A deacon comes directly under a bishop. As in the Acts of the Apostles, when the diaconate was first set up, it came under the apostles and it was a way for the apostles to ensure that the social ministry was carried out giving the apostles time to peach the word of God.
The developing role of the priest as celebrant of the Eucharist hinted at the diaconate decline. The Council of Nicea stated: “Let deacons remain in their proper place, knowing that they are ministers of the bishop and less than presbyters.”
Pope Leo the Great named deacons as ambassadors. There began a growing friction between the deacons and the priests over liturgical roles. Eventually, it was reduced to a stepping stone on the way to the priesthood. By the 10th century deacons were a temporary and ceremonial order of the hierarchy in the west. An order from the Council of Trent to restore the diaconate was never implemented. .
The movement for the restoration of the diaconate began in Freidburg, Germany in 1951. During Vatican II, a petition was sent to the council fathers for the restoration of the diaconate in July 1959. Central America, South America, Thailand and Eastern Europe favored it. Africa, the United States, Spain, Italy and Portugal opposed it, but the petition passed.
Deacons would be ordinary minsters of Baptism and Holy Communion and preside over some liturgical services. Strangely enough there are very few permanent deacons in Central America, South America, Thailand and Eastern Europe. World-wide, there are 39,564 active permanent deacons and there are more than 15,000 active permanent deacons in the U.S. One third of all the permanent deacons in the world are in the U.S. Yet initially, the American bishops did not favor it.
In our theology, the church is a priestly community. It is the sacrament of Christ’s presence in the world. Christ is the Eternal Priest and all priestly functions come from Christ. There is the priesthood of the laity and the priesthood of the ordained ministry. Priesthood and diaconal service are both hierarchical participations in the priesthood that have been transmitted through the bishops. The episcopacy is the fullness of the hierarchical priesthood and the priest and deacon are sharers in that fullness of power. Deacons and priests are assembled around the bishop and support him in his work.
The bishop is the successor of the apostles, the priest performs sacerdotal functions and the deacon diaconal functions. Deacons are not substitutes for the shortage of priests, but in their own right play a vital and a specific role in the church’s apostolate.
Deacons are not less than priests. They have a vital role to play in the apostolate. The Constitution on The Church states: “Deacons have a threefold ministry of word, liturgy and charity.”
1) The ministry of the Word: In the rite of ordination of a deacon, the bishop places the Book of the Gospels into the hands of the deacon and says: “Receive the Gospel of Christ, whose herald you are. Believe what you read, teach what you believe and practice what you teach.” The deacon is authorized to preside over the Liturgy of the Word and over public prayers of the people.
2) In the ministry of liturgy: A deacon is authorized by the church to administer baptism solemnly, to distribute Holy Communion, to preside over marriages, to bring Viaticum to the dying, to read sacred scriptures to the faithful, to administer sacramentals and to officiate at funerals.
3) Ministry of charity: The Constitution on the Church states: “They are ordained not unto priesthood but ordained unto ministry, their diaconal service is far reaching.” It includes not only ministry to the poor, but ministry of the temporalities of the church.
(Msgr. Michael Flannery, a retired priest of the Diocese of Jackson, is the former Judicial Vicar and currently assists in the Tribunal.)