The English word "deacon" is derived from the Greek διάκονος, which means originally "servant," and then "helper." The term was also used among pagan Greeks to designate the holder of a cultic office, but in the Christian community it acquired a new significance. This article first treats the role and nature of the deacon's office in the early Church, then provides a brief survey of its development as a transitional stage in preparation for presbyteral ordination and, finally discusses the renewal of the order of deacons in the wake of the Second Vatican Council. This last section includes a summary of theological reflections, canon law, and norms that guide the formation and life of deacons.
Early Church. The earliest certain written use of διάκονος as the title of a specific office in the Church is found in Phil 1.1, where from the context it is clear that the special meaning of the term was already known.
Origin. This office apparently arose in the earliest days of the Church in Jerusalem. As the number of Christians in Jerusalem increased, the Greek-speaking Christians, or hellenists, began to complain against the "Hebrews," or Aramaic-speaking Christians, "that their widows were being neglected in the daily ministration." The Apostles, not wishing to "forsake the word of God and serve at tables," selected seven men "of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom," to attend to this less important task. After the Apostles "had prayed, they laid their hands upon them." The seven bore Greek names, and probably the title given them, "deacons," was also Greek in origin (Acts 6.1–7). Philip, one of the seven, who later lived in Caesarea of Palestine, was also known as "the Evangelist" (Acts 21.8), a title that is also mentioned in Eph 4.11 and 2 Tm 4.5. In the latter passage the work of Timothy (not one of the seven) as an "evangelist" is called his διακονία. Another of the seven, Stephen, was soon arrested and put to death by the Jews because of the success of his wonder-working and preaching among the Jews who came from the diaspora, in other words, among those who at least in great part were Greek-speaking (Acts 6.8–13; 7.5460). Philip preached and baptized (Acts 8.4–14, 26–40), but "the laying on of hands" was reserved to the Apostles (Acts8.14–17).
It is disputed whether the term διάκονος, as used in Acts 6, designates exactly the same thing as the later ecclesiastical office of deacon. The nature of the work of Stephen and Philip would seem to indicate that it did; yet the confinement of their activity to those who were not Palestinian Jews by origin, at least in Jerusalem, would appear to militate against the interpretation of the term in its technical sense; nevertheless, Philip preached to other than Hellenistic Jews in Samaria (Acts 8.5). Deacons are mentioned together with the bishops, but after them in Phil 1.1 and 1 Tim 3.1–13. While the qualities expected in a deacon were superior to those of laymen, they were of a lesser order than those desired in a bishop or presbyter (cf. 1 Tm 3.8–13 with 1 Tm 3.1–7 and Ti1.5–9). Their office was that of serving (1 Tm 3.10); yet it is implied that they shared in the power of ruling the Church (1 Tm 3.12). From the pastoral epistles it appears that the deacons together with the bishop and the presbyters made up the hierarchy of the local churches in which Timothy and Titus labored; from these epistles it is clear that the deacons were subject to the other officials, and this also seems to be taught elsewhere (Phil 1.1).
Functions and duties. As the Church became organized administratively, deacons emerged as a distinct class. The patristic writings of the first few centuries indicate that deacons had achieved a recognized status within the hierarchy of the Church. St. Clement of Rome, when writing to the church at Corinth (42.4.) in a.d.. 96, speaks of bishops and deacons as first fruits of the Apostles. Throughout the letters of St. Ignatius of Antioch, deacons are presented as constituting the lowest order of a threefold hierarchy, subordinate to bishops and priests. The same role is assigned to deacons by St. Polycarp (d. 156) in his letter to the Philippians (5.2–3). As he notes the qualities required in deacons, Polycarp says that they are servants of God and Christ, not of men.
Over the centuries the duties and privileges varied and at times were very extensive. In early centuries, not only did the deacon assist the priest at Mass and other liturgical services, but also kept order and gave signals for the conduct of the faithful during services, and pronounced the dismissal (as our Ite, missa est ) for various categories of people at Mass. According to Cyprian (Epist. 18.1) and several ecclesiastical synods, deacons were empowered to reconcile with the Church sinners at the point of death. Whether this involved sacramental absolution or not is still controverted (see Miller Fund Lit 461–463). The protection and care of the poor, originally entrusted to deacons, developed in later times to wider responsibilities in the government of the Church. In some places they had more or less complete control over the goods of the Church. They served as official inspectors for the local bishop, counselors of popes and bishops, and papal emissaries to kings and councils. Until the promulgation of the Code of Canon Law in 1917, a deacon could hold the position of pastor.
Imposition of hands and sacramental character. That the order of deacon is of divine institution is clearly implied in the teaching of the Council of Trent, which condemns those who deny that in the Catholic Church there is a hierarchy, instituted by divine ordination, consisting of bishops, priests, and ministers (H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum 1776). The word "ministers" has reference at least to deacons, though some theologians have held that the subdiaconate and some, if not all, of the minor orders represent a division of the order of diaconate. The apostolic constitution Sacramentum Ordinis of Pius XII (Nov. 30, 1947) teaches clearly that deacons, no less than priests and bishops, receive the Sacrament of Holy Orders by the imposition of hands (ibid. 3859).
Essential Ceremony. The same constitution Sacramentum Ordinis (ibid. 3860) settled a controversy regarding the rite necessary for the diaconate, as well as that for priestly ordination and episcopal consecration. Formerly it was held by some that not only the imposition of hands, but also the presenting and accepting of the book of Gospels was necessary for the validity of the diaconate. The Sacramentum Ordinis clearly states, however, that for ordination to the diaconate the matter is the single imposition of the hand of the bishop that occurs in the rite of ordination. The formula for this Order is the Preface, the words essential for validity being the words Emitte in eum [or eos ], quaesumus Domine,…roboretur, which are to be spoken not sung. Words of similar meaning have always been found in association with the imposition of hands. On the other hand, the words Accipe Spiritum Sanctum, ad robur, which in the present ritual accompany the imposition of the bishop's hand, represent a more recent addition to the ceremony of ordination.
At one time theologians questioned whether or not ordination to the diaconate conveyed the sacramental character. Once they reached a common consensus that the diaconate is a Sacrament, they followed with corresponding unanimity the opinion that it also imprints the sacramental character, by which the deacon becomes associated with Christ in His ministry and receives special sacred powers in his own right.
Renewal of the diaconate. The Council of Nicea (325 a.d.) in restricting the role of deacons in the eucharistic celebration stated that "they are the ministers of the bishop and the inferiors of the presbyters" (c. 18). Similarly, in 692 the Council in Trullo (c. 7) stressed the inferior place of deacons in the hierarchy, as did the Council of Toledo in the West (633 a.d.). In medieval times their influence continue to diminish to the point that the diaconate came to be considered merely a transitional stage in preparation for ordination to the priesthood. From time to time, efforts were made to restore the order of deacons to its original role. A proposal to this end was made at the Council of Trent, but it came to naught. In Germany in the 19th century the matter continued to be discussed, but it was only in the 20th century that the efforts began to bear fruit. Following the experience of many church leaders in the Dachau concentration camp during World War II, a vigorous movement got underway to renew the Church to meet the pastoral needs of the contemporary world. The diaconate was seen as an opportunity to provide a sacramental recognition of diakonia as a constitutive element of Church. When in 1957 Pope Pius XII responded publicly that "the time is not yet ripe" for the restoration, he declared that deacons with priests and bishops formed the Church's hierarchy and asked bishops and theologians to continue their investigations into the possibilities for a renewal of the order [Acta Apostolicae Sedis 49 (1957) 924–925].
In the preparatory stages before Vatican II, 90 specific proposals, many signed en bloc, were submitted to the Vatican, representing the desires of hundreds of bishops from many parts of the world for the restoration of the diaconate as a permanent order. In September of 1964 the council voted to revive the diaconate, including the possibility of ordaining mature married men. The council echoed the Church's ancient practice by describing the deacon as a special minister of Christ and the Church in liturgy, word, and charity. Specifically the council stated, "Strengthened by sacramental grace, deacons are dedicated to the People of God, in conjunction with the bishop and his body of priests, in the service of the liturgy, of the Gospel and of works of charity" (Lumen gentium 29). The council allowed for the specific roles and theology of the diaconate to be discerned as pastoral experience was gained. The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church endorsed the teaching of Pius XII and the majority of theologians that the diaconate was sacramental and that deacons belonged properly to the Church's hierarchy. "The diaconate can in the future be restored as a proper and permanent rank of the hierarchy. It pertains to the proper territorial bodies of bishops to decide with the approval of the supreme Pontiff whether and where it is opportune for such deacons to be appointed for the care of souls." Pope Paul VI implemented the council's decision through his motu proprio Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem, which provided "certain and definite norms" for the restoration [AAS 59 (1967) 697–704].
The United States bishops were among the first to respond. In April of 1968 the National Conference of Catholic Bishops petitioned the Holy See for permission to revive the permanent diaconate in the United States; in August of 1968 that permission was received. Since that time more than 13,000 deacons have been ordained in the United States, with more than 2,600 candidates in formation. Approximately 93% are married. As of 1998, there were approximately 26,000 deacons serving in 129 countries around the world.
Toward a theology of the diaconate. In recognizing diakonia as a constitute element in the Church, Vatican II gave the diaconate new significance as a permanent order within a broader context of a renewal of all ministry in the church. No longer is it seen as a transitional stage en route to ordination to the presbyterate. The implications, however, of Vatican II's emphasis on the sacramental nature of the Church, the nature and role of all the baptized in the life of the Church and the world, and the relationship between local churches and the universal Church need further exploration. "The almost total disappearance of the permanent diaconate from the Church of the West for more than a millennium has certainly made it more difficult to understand the profound reality of this ministry" [Congregation for Catholic Education, Basic Norms for the Formation of Permanent Deacons (Vatican City 1998) 3.] Nonetheless, several essential elements toward a theology of the diaconate have emerged.
First, the deacon participates in the apostolic ministry of the bishop, reflecting the ancient teaching that the deacon is ordained "not unto the priesthood, but to the ministry of the bishop." This is evidenced in the deacon's ordination, in which the bishop alone lays hands upon the ordinand. Just as the bishop enjoys a unique relationship with his presbyters, who share in priestly ministry with him, so too the bishop enjoys a unique sacramental bond with his deacons, who share in his diaconate. Second, since ordination is a participation in the apostolic ministry, diaconal ordination involves a permanent and public commitment to servant-leadership. The ordination of a deacon recognizes the diaconal nature of the church herself, and the deacon sacramentalizes this reality. Third, the diakonia of the Church is a three-fold function of Word, Sacrament, and Charity. There is a fundamental unity in this tripartite function; this expects and demands a balanced approach to ministry on the part of the deacon, and all of it – Word, Sacrament, and Charity—is to be permeated by a commitment to charity and justice. In the words of Pope Paul VI, echoed repeatedly in official statements ever since, the deacon is to be "a driving force (animatore ) for the Church's service or diakonia toward local Christian communities, and as a sign or sacrament of the Lord Christ himself, who 'came not to be served but to serve"' [Paul VI, Ad Pascendum (Aug. 15, 1972), Introduction].
In summary, the theology of the diaconate is concerned less with what the deacon does than with who he is, with his special relationship to the Church and world. In the person of Christ and the Church, the deacon sacramentalizes the inherent link between the worship of God and the loving care of others, thereby binding the Church's service to all people more visibly and more closely to the Gospel and the Eucharist. Through his ordination, the deacon is a sign to all God's people of what all Christians are called to be: leaders of God's people in their service to their neighbors. The deacon, because he is an ordained minister in the very midst of the world, brings the Church's ordained ministry to every dimension of human life—from the workplace and marketplace, to home and school, and to hospital, nursing home and prison.
The 1983 Code of Canon Law. The 1983 Code of Canon Law incorporated the norms established by Pope Paul VI in his motu proprio Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem (1967) and Ad Pascendum (1972). The revised code includes deacons in the ranks of the clergy (c. 1008, c.1009). They serve as ministers of the word (cc. 757, 764,776), as ordinary ministers of Baptism (c. 861 §1), and as an assisting minister in the Eucharistic celebration (c. 835 §3). He is an ordinary minister for the distribution of communion (c. 910 §1), for exposition and benediction of the Blessed Sacrament (c. 943), and those blessings expressly permitted him by law (cc. 1168, 1169 §3). He may be delegated by the local ordinary or pastor to assist at and bless marriages (c. 1108). When expressly empowered to do so, the deacon my dispense from universal or particular laws (c. 89); he may also, under very strict conditions, dispense from some matrimonial impediments (cc. 1079–1081). Deacons may officiate at funeral rites (cc. 1176–1185), preside at the celebration of the liturgy of the hours, at services of the Word, at services for Sundays and feast days, where no Mass is possible (cc. 1173, 1248 §2). The deacon may be assigned the pastoral care of a parish, under the direction of a canonical pastor (c. 517 §2). Deacons may serve as judges (c. 1421), promoters of justice, defenders of the bond, and auditors or relators (cc. 1428 §2, 1435). The deacon may also serve as chancellor since that office is not restricted to priests [William H. Woestman, OMI, The Sacrament of Orders and the Clerical State (Ottawa 1999), 387–388].
Formation and life of deacons. In 1998, the Congregation for Catholic Education and the Congregation for Clergy issued two documents on the diaconate. Basic Norms for the Formation of Permanent Deacons and the Directory for the Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons "are intended as a response to a widely felt need to clarify and regulate the diversity of approaches adopted in experiments conducted up to now, whether at the level of discernment and training or at that of active ministry and ongoing formation. In this way it will be possible to ensure a certain stability of approach…." [Congregation for Catholic Education and Congregation for the Clergy, Joint Declaration and Introduction (Vatican City 1998)]. Regional conferences of bishops are to use these documents in the preparation of their own regional or national standards for the formation, ministry, and life of permanent deacons in their jurisdictions.
Throughout both documents, there is emphasis on the sacramental identity of the deacon from which specific diaconal functions flow. In many areas, since practical experience with the diaconate was lacking, the local church had focused, sometimes exclusively, on what deacons were supposed to do, rather than on who deacons were supposed to be. The Vatican documents, as well as other recent statements from Pope John Paul II, attempt to reverse that tendency. While the functions of deacons described in these documents are consistent with previous canonical and theological statements, this greater appreciation of the sacramental nature and identity of the diaconate prior to its functionality is a significant development.
Based on this sacramental identity, "it is important that deacons fully exercise their ministry, in preaching, in the liturgy, and in charity to the extent that circumstances permit. They should not be relegated to marginal duties, be made merely to act as substitutes, nor discharge duties normally entrusted to non-ordained members of the faithful" [Congregation for the Clergy, Directory 40]. Particular emphasis is placed on the various dimensions of formation for diaconal ministry, from the discernment and selection process for candidates, through candidate formation and ongoing formation following ordination.
The only distinction made between unmarried and married candidates for ordination to the permanent diaconate is in the promise of celibacy made by unmarried candidates during the ordination rite. In the 1990 Roman Pontifical, this promise is included with a number of other promises that all the ordinands (married and unmarried) make prior to the ordination itself. The ongoing development of a theology of diaconate will have to be sensitive to the states of life of the ordinand. In the vast majority of cases, the deacon will live and minister within the framework of marriage and family, speaking to the mutuality of the sacraments of matrimony and order. On the other hand, the theology of diaconate must also address the situation of celibate permanent deacons who, while sharing in the charism of celibacy with most in the presbyterate, nonetheless share in a vastly different order than presbyters. In addition, should a married deacon's wife die, the normative practice is for the deacon to remain celibate thereafter. The question of adequate formation of married candidates for the eventual possibility of living a celibate state of life is a continuing challenge.
In June of 2000, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) approved a National Directory for the Formation, Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons in the United States. This comprehensive document replaced the Guidelines for the Formation of Permanent Deacons in the United States published in 1984. The new document applies the concerns of the Basic Norms and the Directory provided by the Vatican to the unique requirements and pastoral needs of the United States. It offers a systematic review of all aspects of the diaconal ministry, from discernment through post-ordination issues, including a series of basic standards for formation for every level and dimension of the formation process.
Bibliography: pius xii, "Sacramentum Ordinis" (Apostolic Constitution, Nov. 30, 1947) Acta Apostolicae Sedis 40 (1948) 5–7. h. leclercq, Dictionnaire d'archéologie chrétienne (Paris 1907–53) 4.1:738–746. t. klauser, Reallexikon für Antike und Christentum, ed. t. klauser (Stuttgart 1941) 3:888–909. n. mitchell, Mission and Ministry: History and Theology in the Sacrament of Order (Wilmington, Del. 1982). j. m. barnett, The Diaconate: A Full and Equal Order (2d ed.; New York 1995) j. a. komonchak, "The Permanent Diaconate and the Variety of Ministries in the Church," Diaconal Quarterly 3, no. 3 (1977) 15–23; 3, no. 4 (1977) 29–40; 4, no. 1 (1978) 13–25.
[j. j. o'rourke/
t. j. riley/
w. t. ditewig]
The office of deacon has a long history in the Christian church. In the New Testament, deacons were included in the list of church leaders along with bishops or presbyters. Deacons were charged with caring for the poor, collecting offerings, and serving the church. The Greek word diaconos means "servant" and is used to describe a church leader (Phil 1:1). As church offices evolved, the diaconate came to be both a lifetime office for some and an early stage on the way to full ordination to the priesthood. Deacons were charged with gathering and distributing alms to the poor and needy. In the Middle Ages the office of archdeacon represented the chief among deacons, a post often identifying an assistant to the bishop.
Among Roman Catholics, Vatican II returned the twofold nature of the deacon's office, permitting life tenure for deacons, even allowing them to be married if the marriage is prior to ordination. These lay members assist the clergy in caring for the needs of parishioners. While they cannot consecrate the sacraments, they can distribute the Eucharist in churches, homes, and hospitals where no priest is available. The office of deacon also remains an early stage on the way to full ordination as a priest.
Protestants have made wide use of the deacon's office. For many communions—Episcopal, Lutheran, and Methodist, for example—the deacon's office is usually an early step on the way to ordination as a priest or pastor. In those traditions it also may be a permanent office. In Roman Catholic, Anglican, Swedish Lutheran, and Orthodox communions the deacon is ordained in the presence of a bishop and with the laying on of hands. Presbyterians number deacons among their four offices along with pastors, teachers, and elders. Among Baptists, deacons and pastors are the two ordained officers of the church. The diaconate is a lay office, serving in some churches as a type of governing board and in others as a group of spiritual caregivers. During the 1980s and 1990s many Baptist leaders urged churches to emphasize the servant role of deacons. Some congregations developed "deacon family ministry" plans by which individual deacons had specific spiritual care for specific segments of the membership. Some Baptist churches formally ordain deacons with the laying on of hands, a ceremony also used in the ordination of official clergy. Others simply elect deacons without a service of ordination.
In some Baptist churches the question of the ordination of women as deacons remains controversial. The local autonomy of congregations means that some Baptist churches choose to ordain women deacons while others reject the practice. Opponents insist that there is no biblical precedent for the practice, citing certain texts that call for the silence of women in church, and their subordinate role in church leadership. Those who ordain women deacons note various roles for women in the New Testament church, including that of servant, or diaconos. They also note that some of the earliest Baptist churches utilized women's services as deacons or deaconesses in the seventeenth century.
Abbott, Walter M., ed. Documents of Vatican II. 1966.
Deweese, C. W. The Emerging Role of Deacons. 1979.
Bill J. Leonard
dea·con / ˈdēkən/ • n. (in Catholic, Anglican, and Orthodox churches) an ordained minister of an order ranking below that of priest. ∎ (in some Protestant churches) a lay officer appointed to assist a minister, esp. in secular affairs. • v. [tr.] appoint or ordain as a deacon. DERIVATIVES: dea·con·ship / -ˌship/ n.
The word is recorded from Old English (in form diacon) and comes via ecclesiastical Latin from Greek diakonos ‘servant’, in ecclesiastical Greek ‘Christian minister’.
Revd Dr John R. Guy
Hence deaconess XVI.