A Brief History of the Permanent Diaconate

From the earliest days of the Christian Church the deacon has been intimately associated with the ministry of the Bishop and Priests. In the primitive Church of the Apostolic and Post Apostolic age, as witnessed to in the Christian Scriptures, the deacon was described as a minister in the liturgicalassembly and preacher of the word. The deacon prepared catechumens for entrance into the Church and was a dispenser of aid and food to the poor and distressed. The very term “Diakonia”announces the central characteristic of this Order, the deacon is called to service. The witness of Saint Irenaeus already understood the apostolic appointment of the “seven” men in Acts 6: 1-6 to take care of the Greek speaking widows and orphans as the institution of the diaconate. Saint Paul refers to deacons in his exhortation in Philippians (1:1) and Saint Timothy lists the qualities and virtues which all deacons are expected to possess and exercise in their ministry (Tim 3:8-13).

The witness of the Fathers of the Church certainly acknowledges the importance of the diaconal ministry in the early Church. Saint Ignatius of Antioch says that it would be impossible to have the Church without bishops, priests and deacons. He speaks of the deacon sharing in the ministry of Christ. The deacon is a minister of the Church of God. In the Patristic Age the deacon continued to assist the bishop in the administration of the community, performing the sacred rites, and providing charity.

After the fifth century there was a steady decline in the permanent diaconate in the Latin Church. From the early Middle Ages the diaconate remained only as a traditional order that men received as part of their preparation for ordination to the sacred priesthood. There were occasional exceptions to this rule hover, Saint Francis of Assisi, for example, was ordained a deacon but not a priest. In the sixteenth century the Council of Trent directed that the permanent diaconate should be restored to the Latin Church but this directive was not carried into effect. The reality was that the permanent character of this Order was abandoned by the Latin Church for many centuries.

The permanent character of the Order, however, was restored and renewed when the Second Vatican Council (October 30, 1963) called for the reestablishment of the ministry of the Permanent Deacon for the Universal Church. On 18 June 1967, Pope Paul VI carried out the desire of the Council when he published the Apostolic Letter Sacrum diaconatuus ordinem in which he reestablished the permanent diaconate in the Latin Church.  The Council, in its Dogmatic Constitution of the Church (Lumen Gentium 29), echoes the ancient image and concerns of the New Testament when it speaks of the ministry and nature of the diaconate:

At the lower end of the hierarchy are deacons, upon whom hands are imposed ‘not unto the priesthood, but unto a ministry of service.’ For strengthened by sacramental grace, in communion with the bishop and his group of priests, they serve the People of God in the ministry of the liturgy, of the Word, and of charity. It is the duty of the deacon, to the extent that he has been authorized by competent authority, to administer baptism solemnly, to be custodian and dispenser of the Eucharist, to assist at and bless marriages in the name of the Church, to bring viaticum to the dying, to read the Sacred Scriptures to the faithful, to instruct and exhort the people, to preside at the worship and prayer of the faithful, to administer sacramentals, and to officiate at funeral and burial services. Dedicated to duties of charity and of administration, let deacons be mindful of the admonition of Blessed Polycarp: ‘Be merciful, diligent, walking according to the truth of the Lord, who became the servant of all’(Lumen Gentium #29).”

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