The Holy See
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The Most Reverend Excellency
Msgr. Roberto O. González Nieves, O.F.M.
Archbishop of San Juan de Puerto Rico

19th February, 2000



The Permanent Diaconate: its Identity, Functions, and Prospects.

Greeting : Pax et bonum.

Venerable brothers in the diaconate, let us love one another to profess unanimously our faith in the Father, in the Son, and in the Holy Ghost: the consubstantial and inseparable Trinity (Greeting of Peace, Byzantine Rite).

Peace be with you.

"I rejoiced with those who said to me, Let us go to the house of the Lord. Our feet are standing in your gates, O Jerusalem" (Psalm 122 [121]:1).

We have come as pilgrims to celebrate the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000. The first 2000 years have elapsed since the Incarnation of the Son of God. He is the door that opens onto the third millennium, the door through which the Church goes towards the Kingdom of Heaven: today is the day of salvation. "This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it" (Psalm 118 [117]:24).

The Jubilee is the "Year of Grace", when our hearts will be purified and renewed. Deacons, let us all come together! Let us go and be purified in the water that springs plentifully from the church. Let our faces be illumined by our Lord to then proclaim joyfully that Jesus is Christ, the Lord. Let us ask him to infuse us with the Holy Spirit so that we can go out of this holy place proclaiming the Gospel. Christ was yesterday! Christ is today! Christ will be forever! His love is eternal! Long live Christ!

Today, he who has personally called us to the ministry of deacons is calling us to experience a new time and history: this is the time of reconciliation. This is the history of salvation. Love that heals everything must prevail in us. Before we can love each other and thus profess our faith, we must know who we are. This is why we shall ask ourselves: where do we come from? who are we? where are we going to?

The Theological Aspect

Where do we come from? It seems to me that in order to better understand the peculiarity of the diaconate within the Church, it is first of all necessary to re-examine a few points about the mystery of the sacramental apostolic ministry, because in it is to be found the diaconate. In other words, my remarks on the permanent diaconate – its identity, functions, and prospects – are based on the apostolic nature of the diaconate. Although the ministry of deacons is basically different from that of priests and bishops, together with them, it expresses the apostolicity of the Church.


The Permanent Diaconate: its Identity

The Laity and Diaconate

Who are we? As stated in the Second Vatican Council's Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen gentium (33): "Gathered together in the People of God and established in the one Body of Christ under one head, the laity--no matter who they are--have, as living members, the vocation of applying to the building up of the Church and to its continual sanctification all the powers which they have received from the goodness of the Creator and from the grace of the Redeemer".

Over the last few decades, the laity have grown in the Church. After the pronouncements of the First Vatican Council on the papacy and those of the Second Vatican Council on the episcopate, the Second Vatican Council itself referred to the laity not only as a subject of theological speculation and as part of the Church's hierarchical apostolate, but also as members of the Church having an evangelising mission across the world. At the end of the first millennium, in the Western Church, the diaconate had already collapsed and only existed as a step in preparation for the presbyterate in many areas. The Second Vatican Council urged all the faithful to help the Church grow.

Today, all over the world, lay brothers of both sexes, as extraordinary ministers, administer Holy Communion inside and outside churches; they read from the lectern, sing and conduct musical passages, say the Universal Prayer and make supplications during ceremonies. There are both lay and ordained ministers who work as clerks in their dioceses, run parishes and are responsible for the works of charity in their dioceses. In missionary territories, there are nuns who administer Baptism solemnly as well as priests and lay brothers who are qualified witnesses in the sacrament of marriage. These and other examples show that the lay faithful are currently participating more fully in the New Evangelisation.

The Restoration of the Diaconate in the Western Church

The Church's pastoral needs have driven the Pope and Bishops to call both lay and ordained brothers to fulfil the duties of teaching and sanctifying. But at an important stage in history, and without taking any functions away from these lay ministries, the Second Vatican Council called for the restoration of the diaconate as a permanent ministry in the Church. A question arises: why should the diaconate be re-established when all its functions can be fulfilled by lay brothers? The British Franciscan of the 14th century, William of Ockham, said the famous sentence known as "Ockham's Razor" (Quodlibeta no. 5.9.1, art.2, ca.1324), which appeals to common sense and rejects eccentricity; in Latin, it states: "entia non sunt multiplicanda sine necessitate"; in other words: why should simple things be complicated? From this point of view, the restoration of the diaconate in the Latin Church seems to duplicate existing and successful ministries.

Scholastic philosophers claimed that "the self is before it acts". No one does what one cannot and no one gives what one has not. The lay "self" can potentially do all the above-mentioned things (and even more) in its lay state. Therefore, my question is: what does diaconal ordination add to lay brothers? Why should they be ordained and endowed with a sacramental character if their office apparently does not need to be ordained nor to be sacramental? These arguments follow the business rationale, which can also be defined as pragmatism.

It is a Mystery

Our Lord said that "the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light" (Lk 16:8). He praised managers, not their methods. But here we are faced with a mystery, not a business deal.

The Diaconate, Presbyterate, and Laity

The diaconate is re-instituted at this time in history, not to replace the presbyterate, not to threat the laity, but to act as a herald: the angel of Evaghelismos, that is to say of Annunciation. It is a new Gabriel who proclaims the Good News of Salvation! "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you" (Lk 1:35). By receiving the laying on of hands, deacons are established as ordained ministers who, without being priests, are not lay, and without being lay, are not priests, and yet are ordained ministers; nor are they Bishops.

When Gabriel foretold the birth of Jesus, Mary, the Mother of God, asked: "How will this be?". She asked the question not because she did not believe, but because she did not understand. When the angel spoke to her, he did not give her long explanations, nor did he say many words. She did not say many words either. She simply answered: "I am the Lord's servant. May it be to me as you have said" (Lk 1:38). The council Fathers restored the diaconate in the Western Church because they believed that the Church needed this ministry in such a context as described above, between the laity and the presbyterate, like a Bishop's missing arm. The diaconate is not an artificial arm: it is a living arm in whose veins flows the blood of Christ the Servant, the Son of the Lord's servant.

The deacon replies to the council decree. "Here am I. Send me!" (Is. 6:8). He replies because he believes he will accomplish what the Council has established. Although theology is not conclusive about the diaconate, the faith in its revealed nature is not in question.

As said above, the institution of the diaconate dates to the New Testament. We are all familiar with the protomartyr, the protodeacon Saint Stephen. In the Acts of the Apostles, Saint Luke wrote that the apostles laid their hands on "seven men […] known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom" and entrusted them to take care of the Greek widows. They too were Greek and released the apostles from their worldly concerns so that they could devote themselves to prayer and preaching (Acts 6:3).

Deacon comes from the Greek word ‘diakonia’, which is used about a hundred times in the New Testament, with the following double meaning: ministry/minister or service/servant (John N. Collins, Diakonia, Oxford University Press, 1990, page 3).

In the early years of Christianity, the diaconate established itself as a well-defined office. In his letter to Philippians, written around 57, Saint Paul referred to deacons as an order in the Church (Phil 1:11). He also dealt with them in detail in his first letter to Timothy (1 Tim 3:8-10; 12-13).

A Unique Sacramental Help

Like Saint Stephen, the protomartyr who preached before the Sanhedrin, and Saint Philip who catechised the Ethiopian eunuch, deacons had devoted themselves right from the start solely to serving the Eucharist. The Holy Order ordains deacons to the ministry of Christ the Servant. "The deacon is invested with the sacrament of Order to serve as a minister in the sanctification of the Christian community, in conjunction with the bishop and his body of priests. To the episcopal ministry and, subordinately, to the priestly ministry, deacons provide a sacramental help, which is therefore intrinsic, fundamental, and unique. Obviously, his service at the altar – having its origin in the sacrament of Order – basically differs from any other liturgical ministry that priests may entrust to the lay faithful. Deacon liturgical ministry also differs from ordained priestly ministry" (Directorium, N. 28; Lumen gentium, 29). A deacon is not a priest, his ministry consists in serving.

Saint Ignatius of Antioch wrote (ca. A.D. 105): "[…] the deacons, being ministers of the mysteries of Jesus Chris […] are not ministers of meat and drink, but servants of the Church of God" (Ad Trall. 3,1). He then added that the bishop plays the role of the Eternal Father in the Church and deacons should be respected even as Jesus Christ. This respect stems from their service to the Church.

The Three-fold Diaconal Ministry

There are three diaconal ministries. Deacons are ordained to the ministries of the word, of the liturgy, and of charity. It is a three-fold ministry because in the person of the deacon, these three offices are concentric. What I mean is that they turn around the pivot of Christ the Servant in the person of the deacon. You cannot draw a circle without first fixing the centre where you will lay your compasses. A circle is defined by its centre, just as the three-fold diaconal ministry is defined by Christ the Servant.



The Episcopate and Diaconate

Referring to the episcopate as the acme of the sacred ministry (as well as its fullness), the Second Vatican Council placed bishops at the core of the life of their particular Churches. Priests and deacons are their arms, although they have different functions.

As the Episcopal Consecration Prayer is delivered, two deacons hold the Holy Gospel open above the head of the priest who is about to be consecrated bishop. At the end of the consecration and after anointing the new bishop's head with the holy chrism, the consecrating bishop takes the Gospel and hands it over to the new bishop with the following words: "Receive the Gospel and preach the word of God, with all your patience and willingness to teach" (Episcopal Consecration Prayer, Spain).

The Holy Spirit, symbolised by the chrism, is the vital force that vivifies the word of the Gospel to be preached by the new bishop. Just as the Father manifested himself to the world in his Son, the bishop will act through the power of divine life that is the Holy Ghost. The new bishop, whom Christ has called by his name, full of the Holy Spirit like the apostles on the day of Pentecost, will follow his example and prepares to preach the Good News in a dying world that is waiting for the vivifying word.

According to the consecration rite – this is the first aspect of deacon ministry – deacons are entrusted with the ministry of the word. After calling "the Holy Spirit" upon ordinands, the bishop goes on praying "so that, fortified by your grace through the seven gifts, they will fulfil their ministry with faith". (Consecration Prayer). After wearing the stole and the dalmatic, each of them is handed over the Holy Gospel by the bishop, with these words: "Receive Christ's Gospel of which you have been made the herald; turn what you read into living faith, teach what has become living faith inside you and accomplish what you have taught" (Ordination Rite).

It is important to stress the similarity between the two (episcopal and diaconal) ordination rites, which have the handing over of the Gospel in common. In both rites, the Holy Spirit is called upon ordinands to kindle the preaching of the Gospel in them. This is not a mere coincidence. In the episcopal, priestly, and diaconal ordinations of the Byzantine rite, the same formula is used for the three consecration services: the words "bishop", "priest", or "deacon" are interchanged depending on the service. I have already mentioned the mystery of the sacramental apostolic ministry, whose starting point is the continuation of Christ's mission. The office of bishops, successors of the apostles, is to proclaim the Gospel. Priests share this office with their Bishop. By contrast, deacons, who do not receive priestly ordination, are conferred the office of preaching the Gospel to the assembly of the faithful in their diaconal ordination as ministers of Christ the Servant. Moreover, deacons must turn the Gospel into living faith, teach it and accomplish it.

Just as the episcopate is the fullness of priesthood, it is also the fullness of the diaconate. On some special days, during the Eucharist, the Bishop wears the dalmatic under his chasuble, and during the Mass of the Lord's Supper he performs the footwashing ritual wearing the dalmatic as Christ the Servant did.

The Word of God Spoken by Deacons

If we consider its growth and sociobiological evolution, when a human being is born, the first thing it does is breathing in order to survive. Later on, it must be alive when it thinks. In order to convey one's thoughts, however, one must speak and to be able to speak one must be alive and breathing. Without breathing, one not only cannot live, but cannot speak: one cannot stop breathing and speak simultaneously. Either words are said while breathing or they simply cannot be said.

In the sacramental order, the Word was made man by the power of the Holy Spirit. The Mother of God is said to have conceived the Incarnate Word "by the power" of the Holy Spirit. She said Fiat, (let it be to me)! Her Fiat, full of the Holy Spirit, announced the new creation. Mary conceived her son just in her womb as in her mind and heart, because the Holy Spirit is the vital force, the Immortal Saint, the divine leaven; without it, no human being can exist, nor can it understand the word of God in its mind and effectively preach it by word. In the Spirit's wings dwells the Word that expands the Heavenly Kingdom in order to renew all things (Ap 21:5).

As described above, when the ordaining Bishop performs the "traditio istrumentorum" of diaconal ordination, his words resounds: "you have been made the herald" of Christ's Gospel. The Latin text states: "Accipe Evangelium Christi, cuius praeco effectus es…". The word praeco should be underlined. (We are familiar with the preacher's office. The verb is "to preach"; on the night of holy Easter, the deacon announces the "praeconium pascale" and a bishop is preconized, meaning that he is formed, announced). Through his ordination, a deacon becomes the praeco of the Gospel. This word is translated as "messenger" in the Spanish text and "herald" in the English one. The English translation is more adequate because it expresses the official task of announcing. The apostles were sent forth by Christ, who was the herald represented by them: in the New Testament, Shaliah means that the person sent represents the sending person. Deacons partake in this office.

When he is ordained, a deacon is commanded by his Bishop, the successor of the apostles, to preach the Gospel. This brings about a change deep in his being. The deacon's physical breath is now inspired by the Holy Spirit so that what he will preach and teach will not sound like a mere human voice. From that moment on, the deacon's preaching and teaching must be the voice of Christ, true God and true man.


From a merely human viewpoint, for deacons to be the means that echo the word of God, it is necessary that they receive both human and spiritual training, both theological and practical training: they must acquire the skills to speak in public, to preach and teach. As catechists, they must know the Bible, but not as a teacher would: they should be able to experience its precepts and put them into practice on the various occasions of the faithful's lives. Of course, the ministry of the word implicitly compels them to know the Gospel, to proclaim it, experience it, and disseminate it.

The seven gifts of the Holy Spirit that is conferred through ordination are wisdom, understanding, knowledge, piety, counsel, fortitude, and fear of the Lord (Is 11:2-4). The Spirit affects human nature. Therefore training is important so that these gifts may produce rich fruits in the deacon.

It should be stressed that many deacons are engaged in baptismal and pre-marriage catechesis. This is not their only activity. Deacons, as ministers of the word, embody the word itself in the service of the liturgy and of charity.

The Ministry of the Liturgy

The deacon manifests his diakonía to the Church when it is sacramentally expressed through the liturgy. His actions and liturgical behaviour are integral parts of the latter and not just decorations. Each Christian has the right and the duty to differently partake in the liturgy… "When performing their tasks, anyone, both officers or mere faithful, should do only what it’s up to them" (SC n.28). As a matter of fact, Church and the liturgy are not fully apart; the Church, both from a particular and a universal point of view, is present in the liturgy, being it its sacrament. There is no church without the liturgy and there is no liturgy without the Church. The Universal Church exists and survives through the liturgy. We are Catholic, live members of the Universal Church, since we celebrate and participate in its total reality.

It is extremely important for the deacon to know his office in the liturgy; to be intelligent like the rubrics as well as flexible in order to adjust to multiple situations, such as the different interpretations that are sometimes given by parish churches. The deacon is responsible for the provision of a good service in the face of the Church, that is present in the congregation, since he must only do what he is asked to do. He must be the voice of prayers and the needs of the faithful on the altar. This way he shall spread the Gospel among the people and say the prayers of his office.

Serving without presiding

There are people that tend to limit the deacon’s liturgical function to the sacrament of Baptism or Marriage, as well as to other things that the deacon "can" do, therefore forgetting the office that defines the diaconate, that is to say serving without presiding, by facilitating and not obscuring their ministries. The deacon shall serve the congregation, the celebrant and the other ministries shall look after every detail, without making anybody be aware of this.

The deacon "helps" both inside and outside the liturgy. During celebrations, he "assists the priest, always standing by his side, he serves the missal and the chalice on the altar if no other minister is present, and performs their functions if necessary" (Rules of the Roman Missal, 127). What is true to Mass is true as well to the other rites of the Church.

The deacon must assist the celebrant, he must know "when", "how" and "why" the celebrant does or says that particular thing in that particular moment. The deacon must be "the celebrant’s right hand" with dignity, humbleness and efficiency. Should he not perform his function properly, he would end up "disturbing" and undermining the fluidity of ceremonies.

The introduction to the Spanish edition of the General Ordination of the Roman Missal – Spain (Andrès Pardo, OSB. Consorcio de Editores, 1978) reads that "the real master or director of the celebration must be a minister having a function to perform within the framework of the latter, that is to say the deacon, who cannot be play a merely decorative role or simply assist the main celebrant" (Introduction to the Roman Missal. Spain).

Should this prove to be true, we could wonder why the majority of current deacons play a marginal role in the Roman liturgy. It seems now necessary to analyse the causes and the circumstances that contributed to the creation of such a diaconal inertia. We’ll try to do it chronologically, when possible.

Firstly: even if the diaconate disappeared almost totally from the Western Church within one millennium, the Latin liturgy has maintained the diaconal office in almost all church ceremonies. Obviously, the diaconate did not become extinct within the Church. However, since most of the times no deacons were available, their role was played by presbyters, who used to wear the dalmatic. In accordance with the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, the presbyters were not allowed to wear diaconal vestments, but they were entitled to wear sacerdotal paraments, since they could perform the diaconal function, especially during celebrations presided by the bishop.

"The presbyters that take part in episcopal celebrations are asked to do only what is up to them; if there are no deacons they could replace them but they could not wear diaconal vestments" (Ceremonial of the Bishops. Proclaimed by Pope John Paul II. Latin-American Episcopal Council 1991, No. 21 and 22).

Ten years have elapsed between the end of the age-old Solemn Mass, with a deacon and a subdeacon, and the restoration of the diaconal order. Apparently this period has been long enough to make the clerical community forget about the "mass said by three priests", having such an intense diaconal minister. The diaconal office was reintroduced, but their minister within liturgy was already unknown to many or appeared dramatically limited. Ten years meant much more than an entire millennium. The rubrics of renewed rites were undoubtedly few. Only the new Ceremonial of the Bishops, which was promulgated in 1991, has cast light on many uncertainties or wrongly interpreted points. That is why we must look at the Ceremonial.

Secondly: the post-council reform formally establishes lay participation in many liturgical services (see Directorium, No. 41) dating from the days preceding the pontificate of Pope John XXIII, which have their origins in the so-called "dialogue mass" (during mass, the congregation used to answer in Latin, as the altar-boy previously did, and to read the Ordinary in Latin together with the celebrant) as well as in the "community mass" (during mass, the congregation used to sing a vernacular paraphrase from the Ordinary of the Mass) supported by the liturgical movement. By way of example, that is how the expression Universal Prayer of the faithful was created. Lacking the deacon and in the absence of a presbyter wearing a dalmatic, who could perform his task, the orations of this Universal Prayer were given to laymen. Currently, this procedure has become very common even if, as you may know, the ideal minister should be the deacon, as established in the rubrics (C.E. 25).

As in the case of the Universal Prayer, the same happens to other functions that are truly diaconal. For example, proclaiming the admonitions in front of the congregation (Ceremonial of the Bishops, 26), serving the celebrant on the altar both with the book and the chalice (ibd. 25).

Thirdly: the diaconate is restored in a world that ignores its meaning. In addition to this, when a deacon is sent to a parish church that has never had such a ministry before, it seems as if he "deprives" or "steals" other peoples’ offices, such as the celebrant, the admonisher, the censer, the altar-boys, the extraordinary ministers of the Holy Communion and anyone else who is serving mass. His presence is apparently a threat to recently established ministers, which have however become age-old and traditional. Then somebody could say: "this has always been up to the reader, why should now a deacon take his place?"

It must be born in mind that during Solemn Mass the celebrant used to read in a low voice the Introit, the Kyrie, the Gloria, the Epistle, the Gradual, the Hallelujah, the Gospel, the Creed, the Antiphon to the Offertory, the Sanctus, the Agnus Dei and the Antiphon to the Communion, just to mention some parts of the Mass. That is what the celebrant used to do while the choir and the congregation said their parts in Latin and the subdeacon read the epistle. The celebrant reads the Gospel softly and then the deacon (a prelate wearing the dalmatic) solemnly declaims the Gospel. Some liturgists considered that the role played by the celebrant was the only one necessary and that the functions of the other ministries and the congregation were superfluous. To them, the most important thing was that the celebrant did everything. As a result, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy repeats an age-old but neglected principle: "anyone, both minister or mere faithful, shall do anything that is up to him while doing his office" (SC, 28).

By performing his liturgical function, the deacon must do his office and only his office. To do so, the deacon must know his office well. Furthermore, what is true for the deacon is also true for the presbyter and the other ministries. There are still celebrants that do not understand the liturgical presence of the deacon, who serves without presiding. Unfortunately, there are still people who use this expression: "glorified altar-boy".

Fourthly: a minister that is not mentioned in any of the rubrics, institutions and orientations of current rites succeeded in surviving the reforms of the Second Vatican Council: this is the Master of Ceremonies, who is apparently so powerful to undermine the role played by other ministers, especially the deacon.

The Ceremonial of the Bishops proposes that the master of ceremonies had the task to co-ordinate, organise, preside ceremonies as a preparation to the latter. However, number 35 reads: "he should suitably co-ordinate what to say with the cantors, the assistants, the ministries and the celebrants. During the celebration, the Master of Ceremonies must maintain an absolute reserve, he must not say anything superfluous, he must not take the place of the deacons or those who serve and assist the celebrant". It must be said that the ceremonial mentions his role only in numbers 34 – 37 out of the total 1210.

As a bishop, I can truly say that it is very useful for a bishop to have a master of ceremonies by his side, who knows exactly "how" and "why" something is needed, both during celebrations in cathedrals and churches; he makes things easier, makes the bishop feel more confident, and therefore one cuts a fine figure. I consider that not only could a deacon (as stated in number 36 of the Ceremonial) play the role of the master of ceremonies, but also the bishop could choose a few deacons to "stand by his side" and two "deacons-assistants" (previously called deacons of honour) could do their office, one on the right and one on the left. These deacons "assistants" look after the Bishop (No. 26). When the bishop visits a church, his "assistants", who perfectly know their office, go with him; for example, the moment of the mitre, the pastoral, the missal, the holy water, etc. while the deacons (or the deacon) who act as "ministers" are those who do their office as in any mass, that is to say declaim the gospel, serve the chalice and the missal. Those who go to the ambo and read the Universal Prayer and the admonitions are also considered "ministers" (No. 25 and 26). As I said before, there are many charisms among the deacons and some of them shall prove more suitable "assistants" to the bishop, other "ministers" can play their proper roles.

We must ask the Lord for a truce, the proverbial peace of God, during which the masters of ceremonies and the deacons could clasp in an embrace of peace, harmony, love and mutual respect.

There exist other reasons and circumstances that make the office of the deacon be limited and reduced to a passive actor within the liturgy. It is necessary for the faithful and the clergymen – including some deacons – to be catechised about the identity and the office of the deacon. In the mind of many people there is a shift from laity to priesthood. There is much talk about laic ecclesiastic ministries. Where should the deacons be put? Let’s hear more often in the prayers of the faithful: "for sacerdotal, diaconal and religious vocations". Even the deacon is "called" by God.

The Ministry of Charity

First of all a clarification: there are some people who reduce the diaconate to the ministry of charity and this ministry is limited to its mere social function. This is a danger we should consider not to have a limited concept of diaconate. There are some deacons who have a special charism for the ministry of social action within charity, however the diaconate could not be simply reduced to its social action. There are deacons that have been trained for social action and think that all the rest comes second or third. People say that the deacon must not serve on the altar. The diaconate cannot and must not be limited to social services.

The other Side of the Question

When charity is referred to, it immediately brings love to mind, "God is love" (1 Jn 4:16). It is pleasing to think that deacons are ministers of love because love plays a central role in Christian life: ubi caritas est vera, Deus ibi est, which means "where affection is true, God is there". In addition to the ministries of the word and of the liturgy, deacons are also conferred the "ministry of charity". The "first deacons" appointed by the apostles - Saint Stephen was one of them – were called to this ministry. From the situation described in Acts 6, it is clear that deacons are called to this ministry: as an integral part of their office, as long as it has existed in the Western Church, deacons have always been dedicated to works of charity and solicitous towards the needy. Saint Lawrence, archdeacon of Rome, was a martyr of charity as well as the patron saint of deacons who are particularly engaged in this office of love for the poorest, who are the Church's most precious treasure.

The Church will always have a preferential option for the poor and the outcast. The whole Church is responsible for the diakonia of charity. The fact that this deacon service is sacramentally linked to the proclamation of the Gospel and the celebration of the liturgy shows that charity, to which all Christians have been called, has its origin in Christ, in the mystery of his incarnation, death, and resurrection. This office, which the episcopal order especially confers upon deacons, is their right and duty (Cf. Decree Apostolicam actuositatem, 8). Deacons possess this treasure, which was founded by the apostles. If modern society eliminated poverty completely, there would always be room for charity and deacons would be there.

Charity begins at home. Deacons should set an example in their homes and families. They should set an example through their daily lives, as well as through the preaching of the Gospel by word and deed. They should set an example through the office of the liturgy, which is full of charity and love. They should live on personal and intimate prayer.

Our encounter with God, who is love, leads to our loving encounter with our neighbour. Therefore, deacons must be familiar with the faithful's needs, which should be included in the Universal Prayer, in the liturgy of the mass and of the Hours, as well as in their personal prayers. The needs of their fellow-deacons and the whole clergy should equally be known to them. They should voice their neighbour's needs before the hierarchical Church, bearing in mind all material, spiritual, and cultural needs, as well as the needs of piety and popular traditions: in other words, all human needs.

They should especially show their Christian love to prelates, give moral and spiritual support to their bishops. They should do so even when they do not receive the support they need from their fellow-clergymen. They must bear in mind the Teacher's words: "the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve" (Mk 10:45). Deacons' generosity toward their bishops and priests must emulate that of the deacon Jesus Christ.

I beg my brethren in the episcopate to help deacons gain access to those institutions that demand their loving presence. I am referring to hospitals and prisons, which are sometimes made little accessible by governments.

Deacons should search for those public and private agencies as well as religious communities whose purpose is providing help in different situations of human need. Deacons will thus serve as bridges to these agencies and will co-operate with them.

They should train associations and lay (especially young) groups adequately so that, full of Christ's love, they will visit and help people in need and work for the poor.

Lastly, deacons are agents of justice and peace because, through their ministry of charity, they are responsible for constantly promoting the search for the Kingdom of God and justice. Deacons have been ordained and consecrated to be sacraments, living and effective signs of Christ's ministry and service in the Church. Deacons must always bear in mind that they are the visible signs of Christ the Servant in this world.

The Church's "Preferential Option for the Poor "

Faced with the victims of injustice, through this option, the Church tries to show evidence of its solidarity, which is the result of its encounter with Jesus. This solidarity is not something "added" to the life of faith, but its consequence within the framework of the history of conversion and communion founded by this encounter. In other words, the diakonia of charity cannot be separated from the diakonia of the word and of the liturgy because they all have the same origin in the paschal mystery.

It seems to me that deacons, the ministers of the altar, are the best representation of the relationship between the Eucharist (conversion and communion) and the struggle for social justice.

For hundreds of years, deacons have managed the worldly goods of Christian communities and have been engaged in works of charity. The patron of deacons, Saint Stephen, is an example. Now I would like to remind you that also St. Stephen is an outstanding example of diakonia: the person charged with managing the apostles' goods was Judas Iscariot … therefore, the supreme model of the deacon must be Christ, solely Christ: Christ, the Father's Servant, the Redeemer of mankind. In their "management" work, deacons must be aware of whom their model is and whom they are serving: Christ is the head and the Church is the body. Deacons must not be themselves, because Christ must be the One who lives in their bodies for "now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love" (1 Cor 13:13).

The three-fold Ministry: Conclusions

The three offices of the deacon ministry have been analysed separately. I shall now emphasise that deacons are endowed with special charisms so that they can use one rather than the other. This is human nature. However, this does not mean that the Church must ordain deacons who are only preachers, or liturgists, or almoners. One office does not exclude the others: these are three concentric offices and each deacon must fulfil them according to his calling, with a sense of proportion and, above all, acting in the person of Christ.

Future Prospects

So far, the elements that make up a permanent deacon's identity have been examined.

I have also made reference to some deacon functions. The offices of the word, of the liturgy, and of charity have been dealt with together with their respective functions.

I shall now describe a few prospects that, in my opinion, Holy Mother Church envisages for the diaconate. For obvious reasons, after being absent for a millennium, and being restored by the Second Vatican Council, the permanent diaconate has not been fully understood nor accepted by everybody.

We have come here to get rid of the old. We have come to the holy sepulchres of the apostles Peter and Paul to come into contact again with the source of our identity. We want to get rid of our past to create our being anew. We want to be reborn in a new ministry, whether episcopal, priestly, or diaconal, here in the womb of our mother Church, which gives birth to the diaconal ministry.

The diaconate is part of the sacramental apostolic ministry. Therefore, today we can find out the future prospects of the diaconate. We have seen its past experience and present problems as well. What are its future prospects? What is the meaning of the personal encounter with Christ the Servant, made flesh now that we are with him?

This encounter reveals that our ministry is as ancient as the Church itself. It also shows that we are waking up after two thousand years of profound sleep. Would it be wise to recover everything that others have done in our place throughout these centuries? No, it would not be a good idea. Today, others do what deacons used to do in ancient times, because the apostolic ministry has entrusted them to replace deacons. There is no point in recovering or creating new areas for the "new" diaconal ministry. A general conversion is required: we shall be reinstated so that we can combine our efforts. There is plenty of work. There is so much work that it can be shared out among all the ministers called: some were hired early, others later (cf. Mt 20:1).

We all understand that God's thoughts are not the same as ours. Now it is his turn to call us at this time of grace, at any time. Everything comes from him, nothing from us. It is time for conversion.

Our three ministries are unchanged: we should develop them without looking for new and different ones. Hence: let deacons be ministers of the Word in the liturgy and through the mass-media. Let them be catechists in parishes, in prisons and in public life. Let deacons be ministers of the liturgy in all its parts: both those they preside over, and those they do not. Let them fulfil their service without imposing themselves, as is desirable. Let them help in every celebration so that communion with Christ and his Church may be strengthened. Let their liturgical ministry affect the beauty and fluency of ceremonies, knowing that these are the best contexts for the encounter between God, humankind, and individual men. Let them preside over this encounter in the splendour of the liturgy, full of beauty, holiness, and truth.

The charity they practice in the preaching of the Gospel and in liturgical celebrations be sincere love. This love is showered on the neediest ones and practised in the most hidden ways, which are only known to God, because it is in the persons of the poor and the outcast that Christ himself suffers.

The Word is whispered in the silence of our nothing: it is Christ, who is calling each of us by his name saying "follow me".

The consecration prayer of diaconal ordination starts by these words: "Listen to us, Almighty God who share out responsibilities and ministries and point our offices out to each of us; immutable as you are, you renew and order all things; thanks to your eternal providence, you foresee everything and allow what is necessary at any time, through your Son and our Lord Jesus Christ, who is your Word, Wisdom, and Fortitude". Now I shall tell you, in this historical moment of jubilee, that God – our Father, our wise Creator – has called you to be pioneers, to be the heralds of this clerical state at the end and at the beginning of two millennia. The Church is looking at you and if providence supports your ministry, the diaconal office will be a blessing to the Church. You have been entrusted with the office of the diaconate in the Church that is preparing to reveal God through the New Evangelisation. Therefore, you are playing a major role in God's plans for salvation. You are the deacons of God, the deacons of the New Evangelisation.

Since many of you work in factories, firms, government offices, while others are workers, or teachers in catholic or state schools, and others run their own family businesses, you can get very close to the lay faithful. This is why the Church expects you to practice the virtues that the apostles were searching and found in the first seven deacons. Let us hope that you all will be men of good reputation, dedicated to helping the needy, that you will be virtuous heads of your families, so that you can be the light of the world and the salt of the earth, continuing the mission of announcing Christ to the world.

You have been called to know, protect, and make the most of your diaconal identity. The Church expects all of you to accomplish your ministry with integrity and to be equally dedicated to the offices of the word, of the liturgy, and of charity.

In current times, when unrestrained consumerism, the materialism of society and the loss of values have caused the spreading of a culture of death, your vocation singles you out as the bishop's irreplaceable arms. Your diaconal ministry, together with the priestly office, is absolutely necessary for the conversion process that we need so much.

Since many of you have received the sacrament of marriage and God has blessed many of you with the birth of sons and daughters, your diaconal ministry gives you the opportunity to be evidence of true families in the world. You must make efforts for your families to be real household churches, being good spouses as Christ is to his Church. It is in your families that you should primarily accomplish the offices of the word, of the liturgy, and of charity.

The Decree "Ad gentes" (no. 16) of the Second Vatican Council refers to the possibility that a Christian community be entrusted to the care of a deacon on behalf of his parish priest or Bishop. This means that somewhere, owing to distance or to the lack of priests, the Bishop may ask a deacon to run his parish community as appointed minister, fulfilling this office in order to promote Christ's mission.

"As each one has received a gift, minister it to one another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God. If anyone speaks, let him speak as the oracles of God. If anyone ministers, let him do it as with the ability which God supplies, that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom belong the glory and the dominion forever and ever. Amen". (1 Pt 4, 10-11)