The renewal of the permanent diaconate is one of the greatest legacies of the Second Vatican Council. The service of deacons in the Church is documented from apostolic times. A strong tradition, attested by St. Irenaeus, sees the origin of the diaconate in the institution of the “seven” mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles.
Thus, at the initial grade of sacred hierarchy are deacons, whose ministry has always been greatly esteemed in the Church. St. Paul refers to the deacons and bishops in his letters to the Philippians and to Timothy. He lists the qualities and virtues they should possess. He underlines that the ministry of deacons is nothing other than the ministry of service of Jesus Christ.
Up to the fifth century the diaconate flourished in the Church. But after this period, it experienced, for various reasons, a slow decline, which ended in its surviving only as an intermediate stage for candidates preparing for the priesthood.
The restoration of the diaconate came about during the Second Vatican Council. “At the lower level of the hierarchy are deacons, upon whom hands are imposed ‘not unto the priesthood, but unto a ministry of service.’”
Then, on June 18, 1967, Blessed Pope Paul VI implemented this decree in his Apostolic letter, Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem, in which he re-established the permanent diaconate in the Latin Church: “not to be considered as a step towards the priesthood, but by its own character, as indelible, with its grace, to enrich all those who are called to it, and could dedicate their time to the ‘mysteries of Christ and His Church,’ in a stable manner.”
Therefore, a Deacon is a man, single or married, that is called to be the Sacramental Presence of Christ who serves, and by the virtue of the imposition of hands, and the Prayer of Consecration, is configured in Christ through the Holy Spirit, with a gift and a permanent promise to participate in a special way, of the mission and the grace of Christ that came “to serve and not to be served”. Christ, throughout the life and service of a deacon, continues to serve his own, touching their lives and responding to their needs as he did during his ministry on earth.
Therefore, a Deacon is a man of faith called by the Church to serve God and God’s people as an official representative of the Church in loving service to others. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, he is a witness to Christ the Servant and has been “configured to Christ” by the Holy Spirit with a permanent promise and gift called “an indelible character.”
The deacon’s service in and to the Church is seen clearly when the bishop alone lays hands on the candidates “thus signifying the Deacon’s special attachment to the Bishop in the tasks of his “diakonia.”
Deacons share in Christ’s mission and grace in a special way. The sacrament of Holy Orders marks them with an imprint (“character”) which cannot be removed and which configures them to Christ, who made himself the “deacon” or servant of all.
Among other tasks, it is the task of deacons to assist the bishop and priests in the celebration of the divine mysteries, above all the Eucharist, in the distribution of Holy Communion, in assisting at and blessing marriages, in the proclamation of the Gospel and preaching, in presiding over funerals, and in dedicating themselves to the various ministries of charity.”
Deacons promise to live out the charism of service to God’s people through the Word, Sacrament, Charity, and Justice for the rest of their lives. The role of the deacon is to proclaim by his life the Church’s call to serve the needs of others. The deacon is the animator and promoter of what the community of faith must be as a community of service.
By ordination, the deacon: a) is empowered by the Holy Spirit to live a life of diaconal service, b) is publicly acknowledged by the Church as one called by the Spirit for the good of the entire community of believers, c) is united in a fraternity of service and sacramental ministry to the bishop and all ordained priests and deacons, d) is publicly commissioned by the Church to communicate God’s word and announce His Kingdom in and through the Church.
Whether married or single, the majority of deacons continue to support themselves through their own profession or occupation. By continuing in their occupation, deacons have the opportunity to bring the presence of Christ to the marketplace in a unique way. They become a valuable sign and symbol of Christ and the Church serving the world, thereby helping to eliminate any separation between the Church and the world. Ordinarily, deacons offer their ministry freely to the Church and receive no monetary compensation for their service.
Deacons are called to live a threefold ministry of service. This service can be summarized in the following way:
Service to the Word of God: The deacon is called to be a man of deep prayer, becoming familiar with and a living witness to the Word of God in his ministry, among his family and in the workplace. He is to love, preach and teach the Sacred Scriptures from the pulpit and in his daily life. A deacon is also called to teach and catechize his fellow Catholics and help prepare those seeking to receive the sacraments, most especially adults seeking entry into the Catholic family of faith.
Service to the Eucharist: Every deacon is called to serve the sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood by his proper participation at the Liturgy, his love and reverence of the Blessed Sacrament and his willingness to bring the Eucharist to those who are sick and unable to join the community of faith in Sunday worship. By virtue of his ordination, a deacon may preside at a number of liturgical services, including the baptism of infants, witness marriages, conduct funeral wakes, lead Exposition and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament and assist at the Eucharist. Each deacon must also cultivate a profound love and reverence for the sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood. Such a Eucharistic spirituality is essential in the ministries described above.
Service on behalf of Justice, Charity and Peace: Deacons serve as Christ’s heralds of hope and love to the poor, disabled, needy, lonely, young, forgotten and society’s outcasts. Through their living witness and service, they promote works of mercy, justice, reconciliation and peace. In this most important aspect of diaconal service, each deacon must strive to challenge fellow believers to address the social needs of the poor (i.e., materially and spiritually poor) and seek to meet them.
In the Diocese of Brooklyn and Queens, after five years of discernment and formation, a man is ordained to the Permanent Diaconate by the Diocesan Bishop and he is assigned to a parish where he will minister alongside the pastor, priests, deacon(s), religious and laity responsible for the pastoral care of its parishioners.
Currently in our diocese we have 185 active deacons from different ethnic backgrounds, languages and professions serving in parishes or diocesan agencies. The Diocese also has a good number of retired deacons who are still active in many different ministries in their parish.
The multi-ethnicity of the diaconate is a great gift to the Diocesan Church as each deacon brings his own gifts and talents to ordained ministry and with the grace of God continue to build God’s Kingdom among us.