Role becoming more important
Deacons are personification of sacred within secular
For the first few hundred years of Christianity the diaconate flourished within communities.
The ministry and office of the deacon was closely connected with that of the bishop. The deacon was charged with responding to the spiritual and material needs identified by the bishop as being urgent within his Christian community. Thus deacons provided care to the most vulnerable and marginalized, and were also entrusted with the financial resources and administrative responsibilities to meet those needs. Unfortunately, and for reasons too complex to articulate here, the diaconate eventually became solely a stepping stone to the priesthood.
The practice of the diaconate as being ‘permanent’ in character and expression disappeared entirely within the Roman Catholic Church by the Middle Ages.
With great wisdom and insight the Second Vatican Council declared in its ‘Dogmatic Constitution on the Church’ that the “diaconate can in the future be restored as a proper and permanent rank of the hierarchy.” In 1967 Pope Paul VI issued an apostolic letter promulgating the general norms for restoring the permanent diaconate.
On June 18, 2017, the Church will mark the 50th anniversary of that restoration. Over those years there has been steady growth.
There are today over 45,000 permanent deacons globally and their numbers are projected to continue to increase by more than a thousand per year. The Diocese of Antigonish ordained its first permanent deacons in 2011 with another group ordained the following year. There are currently several men in formation.
But what is a permanent deacon? How is he distinct from a priest, or is he merely a mini priest? It is far too simplistic to distinguish one from the other by means of function alone. A deacon receives the sacrament of Holy Orders as does a priest or bishop. The diaconate, however, does not share in the priestly orders.
Bishops and priests are constituted in mission and capacity to act in the person of Christ the Head. Not so with a deacon. He is constituted in mission and capacity to act in the person of Christ the Servant. This is his raison d’être.
Catholics are most familiar with the deacon at liturgical celebrations where he assists the priest or bishop. However, the liturgical functions of the deacon, while necessary and appropriate, are secondary. The deacon must first and foremost be of Christian service in the wider society through his family life, secular occupation, and a specific outreach ministry on behalf of the bishop and Church.
In our diocese you will find deacons ministering in hospitals, long-term care facilities, and to the homeless and imprisoned; essentially wherever you find people on the periphery of society.
The deacon becomes the insertion point of the Church into the world beyond the church doors. His purpose at the altar is to bring the needs of the excluded and forgotten to the faith community gathered at worship. The deacon’s task is not to present religion as an ideology opposed to all things worldly; rather he is to be the personification of the sacred within the secular as an agent of evangelization, inclusion, and engagement.
Historically, the roots of the diaconate are to be found in the first century with the choosing, by the apostles and the Christian community in Jerusalem, of seven men to address a problem.
Widows of a certain sociocultural background were being excluded in the daily distribution of food. Those seven men ensured that fairness was restored. They are considered the first deacons. Every deacon today stands on their shoulders as an icon of Christ the Servant made visible in Church, culture and society. With a growth rate far exceeding that of the priesthood, the future efficacy of the Church’s mission and ministry may well depend on this ancient and esteemed order.
Robert Coleman Diocesan Voices