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Deacons Serve the Kingdom of God

General Audience — October 6, 1993

In addition to presbyters, in the Church there is another category of ministers with specific tasks and charisms, as the Council of Trent recalls when it discusses the sacrament of Orders: "In the Catholic Church there is a hierarchy established by divine ordinance, which includes bishops, presbyters and ministers" (DS 1776). The New Testament books already attest to the presence of ministers, "deacons," who gradually formed a distinct category from the presbyteroi and episcopoi. One need only recall that Paul addressed his greeting to the bishops and ministers of Philippi (cf. Phil 1:1). The First Letter to Timothy lists the qualities that deacons should have, with the recommendation that they be tested before they are entrusted with their functions. They must be dignified and honest, faithful in marriage, and must manage their children and households well, "holding fast to the mystery of faith with a clear conscience" (cf. 1 Tim 3:8-13).

The Acts of the Apostles (6:1-6) speaks of seven "ministers" for service at table. Although the question of a sacramental ordination of deacons is not clear from the text, a long tradition has interpreted the episode as the first evidence of the institution of deacons. By the end of the first century or the beginning of the second, the deacon's place, at least in some churches, was already well established as a rank in the ministerial hierarchy.

An important witness is given especially by St. Ignatius of Antioch, according to whom the Christian community lives under the authority of a bishop, surrounded by presbyters and deacons. "There is only one Eucharist, one body of the Lord, one chalice, one altar, just as there is only one bishop with the college of presbyters and deacons, fellow servants" (Ad Philad., 4, 1). In Ignatius' letters, deacons are always mentioned as a lower rank in the ministerial hierarchy. A deacon is praised for "being subject to the bishop as to the grace of God, and to the presbyter as to the law of Jesus Christ" (Ad Magnes., 6, 1). As "ministers of the mysteries of Jesus Christ," deacons must "in every way be pleasing to all" (Ad Trall., 2, 3). When Ignatius urges Christians to obey the bishop and the priests, he adds: "Respect the deacons as God's commandment" (Ad Smyrn., 8, 1).

We find other witnesses in St. Polycarp of Smyrna [1] , St. Justin [2] , Tertullian [3] , St. Cyprian [4] , and later in St. Augustine [5] .

In the early centuries the deacon carried out liturgical functions. In the Eucharistic celebration he read or chanted the epistle and the Gospel; he brought the offerings of the faithful to the celebrant; he distributed Communion and brought it to those absent; he was responsible for the orderliness of the ceremonies and at the end dismissed the assembly. In addition, he prepared catechumens for Baptism, instructed them and assisted the priest in administering this sacrament. In certain circumstances he himself baptized and preached. He also shared in the administration of ecclesiastical property and cared for the poor, widows, orphans and prisoners.

In Tradition there are witnesses to the distinction between the deacon's functions and those of the priest. For example, St. Hippolytus states (second to third century) that the deacon is ordained "not to the priesthood, but for service to the bishop, to do what he commands" [6] . Actually, according to the Church's mind and practice, the diaconate belongs to the sacrament of Orders, but is not part of the priesthood and does not entail functions proper to priests.

With the passage of time, the presbyterate in the West assumed almost exclusive importance in relation to the diaconate, which was reduced to being merely a step on the way to the priesthood. This is not the place to retrace the historical process and explain the reasons for these changes. It is rather a question of pointing out that, on the basis of ancient teaching, the awareness of the diaconate's importance for the Church became greater and greater in theological and pastoral circles, as did the appropriateness of reestablishing it as an Order and permanent state of life. Pope Pius XII also referred to this in his address to the Second World Congress of the Lay Apostolate (October 5, l957). He stated that although the idea of reintroducing the diaconate as a function distinct from the priesthood was not yet ripe, it could become such. In any case the diaconate was to be put in the context of the hierarchical ministry determined by the most ancient tradition.

The time was ripe at the Second Vatican Council, which considered the proposals of the preceding years and decided on its reestablishment (cf. LG 29). Pope Paul VI later implemented the decision, determining the complete canonical and liturgical discipline for this Order [7] .

There were two main reasons for the theologians' proposals and the conciliar and papal decisions. First of all, it was considered fitting that certain charitable services, guaranteed in a stable way by laymen conscious of being called to the Church's Gospel mission, should be concretely expressed in a form recognized by virtue of an official consecration. It was also necessary to provide for the scarcity of priests, as well as to assist them in many responsibilities not directly connected to their pastoral ministry. Some saw the permanent diaconate as a bridge between pastors and the faithful.

Clearly, the Holy Spirit, who has the leading role in the Church's life, was mysteriously working through these reasons connected with historical circumstances and pastoral perspectives. He was bringing about a new realization of the complete picture of the hierarchy, traditionally composed of bishops, priests and deacons. Thus a revitalization of Christian communities was fostered, making them more like those founded by the apostles which flourished in the early centuries, always under the impulse of the Paraclete, as the Acts of the Apostles attest.

A deeply felt need in the decision to reestablish the permanent diaconate was and is that of a greater and more direct presence of Church ministers in the various spheres of the family, work, school, etc., in addition to existing pastoral structures. Among other things, this fact explains why the Council, while not totally rejecting the idea of celibacy for deacons, permitted this Order to be conferred on "mature married men." It was a prudent, realistic approach, chosen for reasons that can be easily understood by anyone familiar with different people's ages and concrete situations according to the level of maturity reached. For the same reason it was then decided, in applying the Council's provisions, that the diaconate would be conferred on married men under certain conditions: they would be at least thirty-five years of age and have their wife's consent, be of good character and reputation, and receive an adequate doctrinal and pastoral preparation given either by institutes or priests specially chosen for this purpose [8] .

However, it should be noted that the Council maintained the ideal of a diaconate open to younger men who would devote themselves totally to the Lord, with the commitment to celibacy as well. It is a life of "evangelical perfection," which can be understood, chosen and loved by generous men who want to serve the kingdom of God in the world, without entering the priesthood to which they do not feel called. Nevertheless, they receive a consecration that guarantees and institutionalizes their special service to the Church through the conferral of sacramental grace. These men are not lacking today. Certain provisions were given for them: for ordination to the diaconate they must be at least twenty-five years of age and receive formation for at least three years in a special institute, "where they are tested, trained to live a truly evangelical life and prepared to carry out effectively their own specific functions" [9] . These provisions show the importance the Church puts on the diaconate and her desire that this ordination occur after due consideration and on a sound basis. But they are also a sign of the ancient yet ever new ideal of dedicating oneself to the kingdom of God, which the Church takes from the Gospel and raises as a banner especially before young people in our time too.

[1]   Ad Phil., 5, 2

[2]   Apol., I, 65, 5; 67; 5

[3]   De Bapt., 17, 1

[4]   Epist., 15 and 16

[5]   De cat. rud., I, c. 1, 1

[6]   SCh, 11, p. 39; cf. Constitutiones Aegypt., III, 2: ed. Funk, Didascalia, p. 103; Statuta Ecclesiae Ant., 37-41; Mansi 3, 954

[7]   cf. Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem, June 18, l967; Pontificalis Romani Recognitio, June 17, l968; Ad Pascendum, August 15, l972

[8]   cf. Paul VI, SDO 11-15: Ench. Vat., II, 1381-1385

[9]   cf. SDO 5-9: Ench. Vat., II, 1375-1379