Restoration of the Permanent Diaconate
Genesis for Renewal
It is only recently that the question is being raised as to how the proposition to restore the diaconate as a lifetime service, opened to both married and single men, reached the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council. In researching for an answer to this question, I have come to believe that the genesis and inspiration for this proposition took place in cellblock 26 in the concentration camp in Dachau. During the closing years of World War II, a number of priests were incarcerated in Dachau. They had many conversations about the rebuilding of Church and country following the end of the war. Fr. Wilhelm Schamoni kept notes of these conversations. One of the notions that were discussed was the possibility of restoring the diaconate, not as a steppingstone to priesthood but as a lifetime ministry, and opening the diaconate to married men.
When the war ended, Fr. Schamoni expanded these records of conversation into a monograph, which was entitled Familienvater als geweihte Diakone and published in 1953. Two years later this work was translated into English under the title, “Married Men as Ordained Deacons,” and published in London.
Post-World War II Heightened interest in the Diaconate
In the two decades, which preceded the Second Vatican Council, there was considerable writing about the diaconate on the Continent, mostly in German and French. One of the themes, which characterized these writings, was the conclusion that the Church had not succeeded in maintaining its hold on the intellectual and working classes. It was concluded that deacons recruited from these classes would be able to reach and minister to those people whom the Church had been failing to reach. It is interesting to note that the possibility of a diaconate as a permanent, lifetime ministry in the Church was discussed at the First German Liturgical Congress in Frankfurt in 1950.
In 1951, a young social worker, Hannes Kramer, convinced that he had been called by God to the diaconate, formed a diaconate circle (diakonatskreis) with fellow students at the Social Workers Seminar at Freiburg in Breisgau. They met frequently for prayer and to think out basic concepts for the renewal of the diaconate in their own circumstances. They began publishing a newsletter for circulation among the diaconate circles, which were beginning to appear in other centers of German Catholic Life. The young men who made up these circles encouraged their wives and fiancées to join in serious prayer life and striving for holiness in exactly those places where they studied and worked. In this fashion, the proposal to renew the diaconate as a lifetime ministry, opened to both married and single men, given a rebirth in the horror of a wartime concentration camp, began to mature.
During the 1950s, numerous articles appeared in Germany authored by both clergy and laypersons. Those who were working in German Caritas (much like our Catholic Charities in the United States) were very interested in proposals for the renewal of the diaconate, especially in the relationship of a ministerial diaconate with that to which all the baptized are called, one complementing the other. The German theologian Karl Rahner emphasized the necessity for a balanced diaconate, which would be reflected in a multitude of services, depending upon the abilities as well as the preferences of each deacon. By 1956, Rahner had formulated a theological foundation for efforts to restore the diaconate.
Pius XII Stimulates Wider Interest in the Diaconate
In 1957, at the Second World Congress for the Lay Apostolate in Rome, Pope Pius XII spoke about the proposal to restore the diaconate but indicated that he did not believe that the time was ripe for such an undertaking. However, the manner in which the Pope addressed the subject gave encouragement to continued study and even promotion of such a possibility.
In 1959, the International Diaconate Circle was organized with its headquarters in Freiburg. It was there that much work was done in preparing a petition to the Council Fathers for consideration of the proposal to restore the diaconate as a lifetime ministry, opened to both married and single men. In final form the petition was sent to Rome in 1962. It was there that much work was done in the preparation of Diakonia in Christo, a volume of thirty-nine essays on varying aspects of the permanent diaconate, published in German in 1962 and circulated among the Council Fathers.
Vatican Council II Restores Diaconate
By a majority vote of the Council Fathers on October 30, 1963, the restoration of the diaconate as a distinct and permanent order was favored. On November 21, 1964, the restoration of the diaconate, as part of the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, was promulgated.
Three years later, Pope Paul VI, in his Apostolic Letter Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem, established the general norms for restoring the permanent diaconate. The following year, the members of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops petitioned the Holy See to restore the permanent diaconate in this country. Within four months Paul VI acceded to this request. Two months after that, four deacon formation programs had been approved by the Bishops’ Committee on the Permanent Diaconate.
In the twenty years, which followed, there was a phenomenal development. In that time frame, which saw a continuing decline in the number of active priests and religious, there was a steady increase in the number of deacons. From a zero base in 1968, twenty years later the number of deacons is nearing nine thousand, formed in over 155 diocesan programs.
It would be difficult to find a single category of human needs that are not being met by deacons, often with the collaboration of wife and even family.
The above is an excerpt from “The Permanent Deacon in the Church Today,” written by Deacon Samuel Michael Taub, Executive Director of the secretariat of the Bishops’ Committee for the Permanent Diaconate of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. (1984-1988) Copyright 1989 by The Order of St. Benedict, Inc.
Diocese of Orlando Embraces the Call to the Permanent Diaconate
The Office of the Permanent Diaconate was established in conjunction with the Pastoral Ministries Office in l978. Father Frank Smith was the first director and since then there have been six subsequent directors leading to the appointment of Deacon Dave Gray as the Director of the Permanent Diaconate in 2008. The first class of Deacons was ordained in l982.
Pope John Paul II on the Permanent Diaconate
“…You represent a great and visible sign of the working of the Holy Spirit in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, which provided for the restoration of the Permanent Diaconate in the Church. The wisdom of that provision is evident in your presence in such numbers today and in the fruitfulness of your ministries. With the whole Church I give thanks to God for the call you have received and for your generous response. For the majority of you are married, this response has been made possible by the love and support and collaboration of your wives. It is a great encouragement to know that in the United States over the past two decades almost eight thousand permanent deacons have been ordained for the service of the Gospel.”
By Pope John Paul II from extracts of address to three thousand deacons and wives assembled in Ford Auditorium, Detroit, Michigan on September 19, 1987.
In 2005, there were about fifteen thousand deacons in the United States and over thirty thousand deacons in the world.
Pope Benedict XVI on the Diaconate
So let us lift our gaze upward! And with great humility and confidence, let us ask the Spirit to enable us each day to grow in the holiness that will make us living stones in the temple which he is even now raising up in the midst of our world. If we are to be true forces of unity, let us be the first to seek inner reconciliation through penance. Let us forgive the wrongs we have suffered and put aside all anger and contention. Let us be the first to demonstrate the humility and purity of heart which are required to approach the splendor of God’s truth. In fidelity to the deposit of faith entrusted to the Apostles (cf. 1 Tim 6:20), let us be joyful witnesses of the transforming power of the Gospel! — Pope Benedict XVI, in his homily to priests, deacons and religious at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, April 19, 2008.
USCCB and the Diaconate
In their “Conclusion” to the recently published National Directory, for the Formation, Ministry, and Life of Permanent Deacons in the United States, the members of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops wrote:
Paragraph 292. It is the desire of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops that, as implemented in accord with local or regional resources, this Directory will provide a sure directive for promoting harmony and unity in diaconal formation and ministry throughout the United States and its territorial sees.In so doing, this Directory will ensure a certain uniformity in the identity, selection, and formation of deacons, as well as provide for more clearly defined pastoral objectives in diaconal ministries.
Paragraph 293. This Directory is presented to the diaconal communities in the United States as a tangible expression of the Conference’s gratitude to them for their dedicated ministry to God’s People. It is also intended to challenge and encourage them to be, with greater dedication and clarity, the Sacrament of Jesus – – the Servant Christ to a Servant Church.
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops web site contains invaluable information about the Catholic Church in the U.S. The Committee on the Diaconate has a home page that contains additional information about deacons. Some interesting pages on their site include:
Frequently Asked Questions about Deacons
Role of a Deacon
The origins of the permanent diaconate are found in scripture beginning with the selection of the first seven deacons (Acts 6:1-6) and Saint Paul’s outline of the qualification of those who would be called to serve others as deacons (1 Tim 3:8-13). For me, the real example and testimony of who the deacon is can be found by looking at the Church’s first martyr, St. Stephen.
St. Stephen was one of the first seven deacons. He began to serve the poor and preach to the people about Jesus. More and more people joined the Christians. The high priests of the temple were jealous of St. Stephen’s successes, and accused him of blasphemy – telling lies about God. They took him in front of a judge, just like they did Jesus.
At the trial, St. Stephen kept on teaching about Jesus. He told the judges that they were hard-hearted murderers of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. When the crowd heard this, everyone became so angry that they stopped the trial, dragged St. Stephen outside and threw rocks at him. St. Stephen forgave the people who were stoning him, and asked God not to punish the people. Then he said, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” and died. St. Stephen was the first Christian martyr, the first person to die because he loved Jesus so much that he wouldn’t stop talking about Him.
Sometime the deacon is seen as a helper for his pastor – simply picking up ministerial roles that there aren’t enough priests these days to perform. This view does not reflect the nature of the deacon who is called to be the Sacramental sign of the servant as Christ is the servant to all. As the Sacramental sign, the deacon’s ministry is always present – in his home, at his parish and where he works in the secular world. His ministry is often described as three legs of a stool – if one is missing the stool will be out of balance. The deacon should always be seen in one of these three-fold ministries:
- Ministry of Charity and Justice– Deacon as Witness and Guide At the very heart of the diaconate is his calling to be a servant of the mysteries of Christ, and of our brothers and sisters. For this reason, each deacon must be involved in one or more ministries in the community as a direct response to Christ’s call for each of us to feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, visit the sick and those in prison (Matthew 25:35-36). Since the ministry of service is every baptized Catholics’ responsibility the deacon encourages others to participate in these ministries as a witness and guide.
- Ministry of the Word– Deacon as Evangelizer and Teacher The deacon as an evangelizer and teacher calls others to live a life of true Christian discipleship as he calls others to be the best person that Christ has called them to be. He proclaims the Word of God in such a way that he first witnesses its empowerment in his own life.
- Ministry of Liturgy– Deacon as Sanctifier The ministry of the deacon is a visible grace-filled sign of the integral connection between sharing of the Lord’s Eucharistic table and serving the many hungers felt so keenly by all God’s children. This means he is to be in love with all of God’s people and to serve each of them with joy. He is called to be a Holy person who encourages others to be holy by his life.
As the deacon ministers at home, in the parish and at the office you should be able to recognize him by how he lives his life in four different areas:
- Human Dimension– a deacon’s personality should be as a bridge and not an obstacle for others as they journey with Jesus Christ. His character must be centered on humility and the needs of others. His life must reflect the fruits of the spirit (Galatians 5:22) – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
- Spiritual Dimension– a deacon “puts on the mind of Christ”. He is configured sacramentally to Christ the Servant. A deacon’s spirituality is grounded in the attitudes of Christ.
- Academic Dimension– a deacon preaches the Gospel of Jesus Christ primarily through his walk in life. He must have a good foundational understanding of Catholic teaching, embrace this teaching, and be living in communion with the Catholic Church.
- Pastoral Dimension– the ordained deacon is Christ the Servant. The deacon must live the life of an authentic disciple of Jesus, who came to serve and not be served.
Finally, the Deacon is an ordained minister configured to Christ’s consecration and mission – “a sacred minister and a member of the hierarchy.” The Deacon is called to distinct identity and integrity in the Church – a cleric who is ordained to diakonia, namely, a service to God’s People in communion with the bishop and his body of priests.
Call and Character
Three fold Ministry of the Deacon – The Sacrament of Holy Orders marks deacons “with an imprint (‘character’) which cannot be removed and which configures them to Christ, who made himself the ‘deacon’ or servant of all.” “The principal function of the deacon, therefore, is to collaborate with the bishop and the priests in the exercise of a ministry which is not of their own wisdom but of the Word of God, calling all to conversion and holiness.”
National Directory for the Formation, Ministry, and Life of Permanent Deacons in the United States, paragraphs 27-38
Ministry of the Word – Deacon as Evangelizer and Teacher – The Deacon is the herald of the Word. Ministry of the word includes catechetical instruction, religious formation of candidates and families preparing for the reception of the sacraments; leadership roles in retreats, and counseling and spiritual direction; proclaiming the word and preaching. 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.”
- Because the deacon sacramentalizes service, he should proclaim the word in such a way that he first witnesses its (the Word’s) empowerment in his own life. Then he can effectively challenge others to practice the Church’s ministry of charity and justice in the social environments in which people live their baptismal vocation.
- In the many formal and informal ways the deacon leads the community, he calls them to reflect on their communion and mission in Jesus Christ, especially impelling the community of believers to live lives of service.
- By his own faithful practice of the spiritual and corporal works of mercy, the deacon “by word and example . . . should work so that all the faithful, in imitation of Christ, may place themselves at the constant service of their brothers and sisters.”
Ministry of Liturgy – Deacon as Sanctifier – The ministry of the deacon is a visible grace-filled sign of the integral connection between sharing of the Lord’s Eucharistic table serving the many hungers felt so keenly by all God’s children. In the deacon’s liturgical ministry, the Church sees a reflection of her own diaconal character and is reminded to serve as Jesus did.
- 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.
- Strengthened by sacramental grace, the deacon is dedicated to the people of God, in conjunction with the bishop and his body of priests, in a service of the liturgy of the word and of charity.
- During the celebration of the Eucharistic liturgy, the deacon participates in specific penitential rites as designated in the Roman Missal. He properly proclaims the Gospel. He may preach the homily in accord with the provisions of Canon Law. He voices the needs of the people in the General Intercessions, needs with which he should have a particular and personal familiarity from the circumstances of his ministry of charity. The deacon assists the presider and other ministers in accepting the offerings of the people—symbolic of his traditional role in receiving and distributing the resources of the community among those in need—and he helps to prepare the gifts for sacrifice. During the celebration he helps the faithful participate more fully, consciously, and actively in the Eucharistic sacrifice, may extend the invitation of peace, and serves as an ordinary minister of Communion.
- Deacons have a special responsibility for the distribution of the cup. Finally, he dismisses the community at the end of the Eucharistic liturgy. Other liturgical roles for which the deacon is authorized include those of solemnly baptizing, witnessing marriages, bringing viaticum to the dying, and presiding over funerals and burials. The deacon can preside at the liturgies of the word and communion services in the absence of a priest. He may officiate at celebrations of the Liturgy of the Hours and at exposition and benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. He can conduct public rites of blessing, offer prayer services for the sick and dying, and administer the Church’s sacramentals, as designated in the Book of Blessings.
Ministry of Charity and Justice – Deacon as Witness and Guide – The deacon’s ministry, as Pope John Paul II has said, “is the Church’s service sacramentalized”. At the very heart of the diaconate is the calling to be a servant of the mysteries of Christ, and of our brothers and sisters. The deacon’s service in the Church’s ministry of charity and justice is integral to his service in the Church’s ministry of word and liturgy. The three fold diaconate ministry represents a unity in service: the ministry of the word leads to the ministry of the altar, which in turn prompts the transformation of life by the liturgy, resulting in charity. As a participant in the one ecclesiastical ministry, the deacon is a specific sacramental sign in the Church of Christ the servant. The role of the deacon is to express the needs and desires of the Christian Communities and to be a driving force for service, or diaconia, which is an essential part of the mission of the Church.
(Candidates in formation, as well as permanent deacons upon ordination) … are charged to shape a way of life always according to the example of Christ and to imitate Christ who came not to be served but to serve. Therefore, deacons are called to a simple lifestyle that embodies Church teaching and embraces humility in word and action. Simplicity of life enables a cleric “to stand beside the underprivileged, to practice solidarity with their efforts to create a more just society, to be more sensitive and capable of understanding and discerning realities involving the economic and social aspects of life, and to promote a preferential option for the poor.” The prophetic significance of this lifestyle, “so urgently needed in affluent and consumeristic societies,” is its important witness in animating the diakonia of every Christian to serve “especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted.”
National Directory for the Formation, Ministry, and Life of Permanent Deacons in the United States, paragraph 64
Permanent deacons are public people
– reflecting virtuous lives (moral integrity and transparency)
Permanent deacons are public people in constant view of inquisitive minds. Many times, whether in good taste or not, they are placed under a microscope by the viewing public. Their example of living a virtuous life, both in word and deed, is keenly observed. By being called to a life of visible virtue in the image of Christ and in communion with Church teaching, candidates in formation and the ordained must reflect openly the official teachings of the Church. This especially includes the call to observe all marriage laws of the Church, be teachers and living examples of correct positive natural law and Catholic Christian moral teaching, and faithfully observe the call to chastity within both the married and single state—lives of moral integrity and transparency.
When one reflects upon the Order of Deacons, it is worthwhile to recall the words from the ordination ritual of deacons:
Like those once chosen by the Apostles for the ministry of charity, you should be men of good reputation, filled with wisdom and the Holy Spirit. Firmly rooted and grounded in faith, you are to show yourselves chaste and beyond reproach before God and man, as is proper for the ministers of Christ and the stewards of God’s mysteries. Never allow yourselves to be turned away from the hope offered by the Gospel. Now you are not only hearers of this Gospel but also its ministers. Holding the mystery of faith with a clear conscience, express by your actions the Word of God which your lips proclaim, so that the Christian people, brought to life by the Spirit, may be a pure offering accepted by God. Then on the last day, when you go out to meet the Lord you will be able to hear him say, “Well done, good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of your Lord.”
National Directory for the Formation, Ministry, and Life of Permanent Deacons in the United States, paragraph 40.