From the beginning of the church, deacons were ordained to serve widows, orphans and the poor, in today’s terms, those who live on the margins.
The scriptural basis for the implementation of the order is usually attributed to Acts 6:1-7. In this passage, the apostles appoint and lay hands on seven men to care for Greek widows and orphans
The role of the deacon in the leadership of the early church is theologically supported by letters of instruction from St. Ignatius of Antioch who was martyred c.107. In his letter to the Magnesians, Ignatius writes of the role of the bishop, the priests, “and the deacons (who are so dear to me) having entrusted to them the ministry of Jesus Christ.”
For the next 500 years the role of the deacon as a permanent order was well established. In his article “Deacons Yesterday and Today,” Duane L.C.M. Galles writes: “By the end of the ancient world the deacon was the bishop’s assistant, serving as his ‘eyes and ears,’ taking care of church property as well as administrative matters.
One measure of the importance of the deacon in the early church is the number of deacons elected pope in the early Middle Ages. Of the 37 men elected pope between 432 and 684 A.D., only three are known to have been ordained to priest before their election to the Chair of Peter.”
By the early middle ages, the diaconate had become an intermediate step for those seeking ordination to the priesthood. The Roman practice of “cursus honorum,” or rising through the ranks, is thought to have been the rationale for the diaconate moving from a permanent order to a transitional order.
Although the 16th century Council of Trent suggested a renewal of the diaconate as a permanent and separate order, it was not acted upon until Vatican ll, when a restoration of the diaconate was called for as a permanent level of Holy Orders.
Pope Paul VI implemented this decree in 1967 in the Apostolic Letter “Diaconatus Ordinem.” The document reestablished the diaconate as a permanent order, opened to married men who were married at the time of ordination and who had the written consent of their spouses.
In the “National Directory for the Formation, Ministry, and Life of Permanent Deacons in the United States,” the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops defines the clerical state and charism of the deacon lived out in word, sacrament and charity. It says:
As a cleric, “the deacon is a cleric who is ordained to ‘diakonia,’ namely, a service to God’s people in communion with the bishop and his body of priests.”
As herald of the Gospel, “the deacon participates as an evangelizer and teacher in the Church’s mission of heralding the word. In the liturgy of the word … the deacon proclaims the Gospel. He may preach by virtue of ordination. …The deacon also strives to transmit the word in his professional life either explicitly or merely by his active presence in places where public opinion is formed and ethical norms are applied. … Witnessing the Word in his own life, the deacon leads people to their practice of charity and justice.”
In his liturgical ministry, “the ministry of the deacon is a visible, grace-filled sign of the integral connection between sharing at the Lord’s Eucharistic table and serving the many hungers felt so keenly by all God’s children. In the deacon’s liturgical ministry, as in a mirror, the Church sees a reflection of her own diaconal character and is reminded of her mission to serve as Jesus did.”
In his service, “the deacon is a specific sacramental sign … of Christ the Servant. His role is to ‘express the needs and desires of the Christian communities’ and to be ‘a driving force for service, or diakonia,’ an essential part of the mission of the Church … In a world hungry and thirsty for convincing signs of the compassion and liberating love of God, the deacon sacramentalizes the mission of the Church in his words and deeds, responding to the master’s command of service and providing real-life examples of how to carry it out.”
In 1976, the first men from the Archdiocese of Louisville were ordained to the diaconate as a permanent state.
Today there are 114 active deacons serving our archdiocese. These men understand that serving as deacon is a response to their baptismal call to emulate Christ who “came not to be served, but to serve.”
Deacon Dennis M. Nash is the director of the Office of the Diaconate for the Archdiocese of Louisville