The diaconate dates to the earliest days of the Church, and deacons trace their spiritual heritage back through the sixth chapter of Acts.
Now in those days when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists [Greek-speaking Jewish Christians] murmured against the Hebrews [Jewish Christians who spoke Hebrew or Aramaic] because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution. And the Twelve summoned the body of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brethren, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” And what they said pleased the whole multitude, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them.
Acts 6:1-6 (Revised Standard Version)
The word “deacon” doesn’t appear anywhere in these verses, but the Church finds the heart of the deacon’s ministry here. These verses and the chapters that follow are rich in insight about the Church, about deacons, and about the Spirit moving in and guiding both.
It’s interesting to me that the deacon’s ministry is born in discord; two groups of people in the early Church are in conflict about being treated equally in the family of God. These seven men are called to address this conflict and, more broadly, to care for the needs of the faithful as servants of the apostles (the meaning of the Greek root of the word “deacon”).
Note also what happens next. Stephen, “full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people.” (v.8) Called to serve, Stephen is a powerful instrument of the Holy Spirit in ways the apostles probably didn’t anticipate. Eventually he is brought before the high priest and the council in Jerusalem on trumped-up charges, just as Jesus had been. After an impassioned speech to the council, Stephen is stoned, becoming the protomartyr – the first martyr of the faith.
The death of Stephen began a great persecution of the Church in Jerusalem, and many Christians fled the city under the threat of violence. I’m afraid if I had been one of those Christians, I would have been complaining loudly that Stephen should have showed a little less zeal and a little more diplomacy, and not brought this suffering on the Church. But God used this hardship to speed the spread of the Gospel, as believers moved into the surrounding territories and shared their faith.
By the time the First Letter to Timothy was written (probably toward the end of the first century) the ministry of deacon was more established and guidelines were being set. Among these, I Timothy 3:8-13 tells us that deacons should be “serious, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for gain,” and that they “must hold the mystery of faith with a clear conscience.”
As the scriptural record comes to an end, the deacon’s ministry continues. Deacons served the people of God by serving the heirs to the apostles, the bishops. They were commonly entrusted with the earthly possessions of the Church, which they used to further the Church’s work, especially in the charitable care of widows, orphans, and the poor. Church documents from the early centuries call the deacon to obey and respect his bishop and to carry out his wishes to the best of his ability. The deacon in turn is described as being the “ear, mouth, heart, and soul” of the bishop, keeping the bishop informed of the needs of the faithful and helping the bishop guide the Church.
As time passed and the Church grew, it became harder for the bishops to care for their flocks, especially in the sense of being able to preside at the Eucharist and other sacramental celebrations. The bishops began to delegate more and more of these responsibilities to their priests, who shared in the sacramental ministry in a way that deacons didn’t.
Over time, with the changing needs of the Church, the diaconate as a permanent order of ministers essentially disappeared, although one aspect remained and endures to this day. About a year before a man is ordained a priest, he is ordained a deacon. In fact, it’s at his ordination as a deacon that a “future priest” makes his promises of chastity, respect, and obedience to his bishop. There are no sacramental differences between deacons who are on their way to the priesthood and those who aren’t, but, for clarity’s sake, deacons who expect to become priests are sometimes called “transitional deacons” and those who expect to be deacons forever are called “permanent deacons.”
The permanent diaconate, however, fell into disuse and was largely neglected until the latter part of the 19th century, when we begin to see a sort of “theoretical” interest in the full restoration of this ancient order. An important touchstone was reached during the years of World War II, when several priests who were interred in the Nazi concentration camp at Dachau began to try to imagine the needs of the post-war Church and post-war world, and saw the possibility that restoring the permanent diaconate could be a blessing to both Church and world.
Their reflections and the efforts of others after the war laid the groundwork for opening the door to the restoration of the permanent diaconate at the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. With the approval of the pope, the diaconate was opened to single men and to married men who were somewhat older; in practice the great majority of deacons are married or widowed.
A deacon’s authority comes from his bishop, to whom the deacon is responsible. The bishop of each diocese determines if and how deacons will minister within his diocese, within the framework set up by the fathers of the Church in the Second Vatican Council’s “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church.”
It is the deacon’s task, as authorized by the competent authority, to administer Baptism solemnly, to reserve and distribute the Eucharist, to assist at and to bless marriages in the name of the church, to take Viaticum to the dying, to read the Sacred Scripture to the faithful, to instruct and exhort the people, to preside over the worship and the prayer of the faithful, to administer sacramentals, and to officiate at funeral and burial services. Dedicated to works of charity and functions of administration, deacons should recall the admonition of St. Polycarp: “Let them be merciful, and zealous, and let them walk according to the truth of the Lord, who became servant of all.”
Lumen Gentium (1996, Flannery, ed.)
In the ultimate example, deacons are members of the community of faith, called to live in the community of faith as living icons of Christ the servant, whose humility, self-giving, and love are infinite. It’s a sobering proposition, and a charge that must not be received lightly. But, in the power of the Holy Spirit, a deacon’s fidelity to his calling and to the grace of holy orders can call all the faithful more deeply into a life lived in imitation of Christ, who came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.