Starting in the Middle Ages the diaconate of the Catholic Church began to become one stage in a man’s journey to ordination as a priest. Until that time a man might be ordained as a deacon with no thought of his ever going on to become a priest.
This transformation of the diaconate into a transitional ministry was not true of the Orthodox churches, nor is it thought to be true of the Eastern Catholic churches that returned into union with Rome after the Union of Brest.
The idea of ordaining married men to the diaconate in the Catholic Church emerged before the Second World War and picked up momentum after the war and up to the Second Vatican Council, which decided to re-introduce what it called the permanent diaconate.
Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, gives two primary reasons for this decision: the recognition of the diaconate as a divinely inspired part of the hierarchy that was recognized by the early Church; the necessity of responding to pastoral needs that had resulted from a shortage of priests.
Rome’s decision to define deacons as either permanent or transitional has created an artificial distinction that creates the perception of two separate diaconates, one for married men who remain in the office and the other for celibate men who go on to become priests.
This has created the appearance of the married deacon as lesser than the celibate, who is only a deacon for a very short time, and places the married deacon in a kind of no man’s land between priests and laity.
Despite this and other problems, the Catholic Church, for the most part, has held true to the traditional definition of the diaconate’s sacramentality and the deacon’s ministry. Putting this into practice, however, has been uneven.
In fundamental Vatican documents on the diaconate, compiled, and published in the Compendium on the Diaconate, Rome consistently has defined the diaconate as sacramental and essential to the Church’s tripartite priesthood. The Vatican also consistently has defined the deacon’s ministry as consisting of service of Liturgy, service of Word, and service of Charity.
Although some have challenged the sacramentality of the diaconate, Rome cites both Scripture and Tradition in support of the sacramental nature of the office, which the Eastern Churches also accepts.
The sacramental nature of the diaconate derives from Acts 6 when the apostles laid their hands upon seven men, including Stephen and Philip, said to be full of faith and the Holy Spirit and so ordained them to serve.
Some have attempted to narrowly define the service of these first deacons, but this contradicts what we soon learn of Stephen and Philip’s service as deacons in what follows in Scripture.
In Rome’s documents, while the deacon is not a priest and he is not ordained to the priesthood, he serves in one of the offices of the tripartite sacramental priesthood of bishop, priest, and deacon.
The deacon is ordained through the laying on of hands by a bishop to serve the bishop and the priest or priests of a particular parish in a particular diocese. Through his ordination, the deacon is called to live as an icon of Jesus Christ.
Tradition supports the sacramentality of the diaconate, as well as the office as being part of the priesthood. In the early Church, deacons are shown to be ministers of a local church and companions of presbyter-bishops.
In his Letter to the Corinthians, Clement of Rome (circa 96 AD) says the bishops and deacons of the Church are nothing new. They belong to an order that is the will of God, and they are like the bishops and deacons written of in Isaiah 60:17.
In his Letter to the Trallians, Ignatius of Antioch (70-107 AD) states that deacons “are not ministers of meat and drink, but servants of the Church of God.”
The deacon, Ignatius says further, is an essential part of the Church:
“… let all reverence the deacons as an appointment of Jesus Christ, and the bishop as Jesus Christ, who is the Son of the Father, and the presbyters [Sanhedrin] of God, and assembly of the Apostles. Apart from these, there is no Church.”
Harmony in the Church, he writes in his Letter to the Christians of Magnesia, depends on unity with bishop, presbyter, and deacon.
While a servant, the deacon is not an adult altar server or a lay person with a special commitment to the Church whose primary purpose is serving the poor. He is a cleric who receives sacramental grace through ordination, and once ordained he is no longer a layperson.
This is an important distinction that some of the faithful, in both the Western and Eastern churches, seem not to understand.
The deacon’s primary purpose is his service in Liturgy, although in the Western church you would not know this in practice. Some mistakenly place charitable acts above all else, which throws the deacon’s ministry out of balance. The Eastern churches retain the balance, although in parishes influenced by Rome some have begun to place charity above liturgy.
Confusion about the deacon’s role in liturgy can be seen with the distribution of the Eucharist in some parishes. Western deacons are ordinary ministers of the Eucharist, yet at some parishes you will see lay persons, who are extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist, distribute the Sacred Body while the deacon distributes the Sacred Blood.
This is the result of a mistaken application of the belief that the deacon has a special relationship to the chalice when both Sacred Body and Sacred Blood are distributed. This is true only when clergy distribute the Eucharist. Once lay ministers become involved, the deacon takes precedence.
A deacon’s distributing the Sacred Body rather than the Sacred Blood when necessary in no way diminishes the Sacred Blood. Instead, the deacon standing side by side with the priest, each distributing the Sacred Body, presents the deacon as a full part of the priesthood.
The truth that some in the Catholic Church do not wish to face is that to retain the sacredness of the Eucharist only clergy should distribute the Sacred Body and Blood except in truly extraordinary cases. To have extraordinary ministers distributing Eucharist every Sunday means they are no longer extraordinary. They have become ordinary.
This diminishment of the clergy and irreverence toward the Sacred Body and Blood of Our Lord is the result of the elevation of the laity since Vatican II as a mistaken answer to cries of elitism, clericalism, and sexism. The laity has a place in liturgy, but it should not be at the expense of the Eucharist, the liturgy, or the clergy, as unfortunately is the case in far too many Western church parishes.
Eastern churches have avoided this problem, since the priest is the ordinary minister of the Eucharist and deacons are considered extraordinary ministers. If priest and deacon are serving, the deacon would distribute Eucharist only if needed. This tends to be rare. And it is extremely rare for a lay person to distribute the Eucharist.
In serving at liturgy, deacons proclaim the Gospel, preach if allowed, offer the intercessory prayers, help prepare the gifts, and distribute the Eucharist if needed. This is true in both East and West.
Among his duties of Word outside of liturgy, the deacon serves in a pastoral role, evangelizes, preaches, teaches, leads prayer services, among other activities. Western deacons have some additional duties Eastern do not; for example, baptizing and marrying.
Deacons also are called to perform charitable acts. Spiritual acts of mercy take precedence over corporal works of mercy, although some in the Church have reversed this order and emphasize charity, or the flesh over the soul and spirit. This, too, diminishes the diaconate.
If deacons are to truly answer their call to be servants of the Church, you will see many more serving as spiritual directors or catechists and leading more prayer services of the liturgy of the hours. You also might see deacons serving more often in administrative roles in parishes or dioceses.
The Church requires deacons who serve alongside the priests and the bishops, who are fully part of the clergy, who in their ministry put Liturgy first, who bring the Word into the world, who perform spiritual and corporal acts of mercy according to their particular call. Along with this, the Church requires deacons who are men of prayer and who live as true icons of Jesus Christ.
We will have a diminished diaconate in the Church as long as deacons are thought to be either permanent or transitional, as no different from the laity, and as not a true part of the priesthood. And with a diminished diaconate, we will continue to have a lack of appropriate reverence toward the Eucharist and throughout liturgy, and a diminished Church.