A service particularly of the poor, widows, orphans, pilgrims, and strangers, organized by the Church in a systematic fashion. The term "diaconia" has special reference to established centers, particularly in Rome and Italy from the 8th century. Almsgiving, together with prayer and fasting, had been a primary function of Christian life from the beginning. The Acts of the Apostles described the selection of deacons to care for the economic needs of the Hellenistic widows and orphans in the primitive Christian community at Jerusalem (6.1–7). The early Church documents indicate that the deacon assisted the bishop in the administration of the Church's goods and the care of the poor, as well as in certain liturgical functions (Shepherd of Hermas, Vis. 3.5.1; Trad. Ap. 16). In the 2d and 3d centuries the deacon cared for the sick, widows, orphans, catechumens, sinners, the imprisoned, and strangers, as well as the discipline of the church services (Test. Dom. 1.34; Cyprian, Epistolae 15.1; 50; 52). In the 3d century in Rome, Pope Fabian divided the city into seven regions for administrative purposes and put a deacon in charge of each (Lib. pont. 5), and cornelius (251–253) spoke of caring for 1,500 widows and indigents in his letter to Fabius of Antioch (Eusebius, Hist. eccl. 6.43.2). The Church in Carthage was likewise divided into regions presided over by deacons (Dictionnaire d'archéologie chrétienne et de liturgie, ed. F. Cabrol, H. Leclercq, and H. I. Marrou, 15 v. (Paris 1907–53) 2.2:2270–71); there is evidence for a similar development in other Churches (Elvira, c.77).
John cassian described the diaconia or service of the poor rendered by the monks of Egypt, who applied gifts of the faithful or their own earnings in alms (Coll. 21.8; 18.7). There is evidence that during the 5th and 6th centuries there was a gradual changeover from the state-supplied annona or food distribution in both the Orient and the West; and in the East the care for the poor was associated with the Metanoia monasteries, usually out-side the city, which provided for cleanliness as well as for feeding the needy. In 5th-century Egypt, the diaconia of Komos Apollonopolis Heptakomias received its supplies from the local bishop, and there were diaconiae connected with monasteries in the Thebaid and the Metanoia at Alexandria (522–585), as is indicated by papyri recently discovered at Aphroditopolis.
The popes took charge of providing for the poor and abandoned in Rome long before they were forced to assume political power. Pope gelasius i (492–496) liberated the city from the peril of famine (Lib. pont. 1:255); Boniface II (530–532) likewise fed the population (Inscrip Lat Christ Vet 987), and the people of Rome cried after vigilius i was abducted by the Byzantine soldiers: "May the famine go with you" (Lib. pont. 1:297). In 554, with the Pragmatic Sanction of justinian i, provision for the annona at Rome included the sending of grain in October each year by the governor of Sicily and its reception in the public granary (sitoricium ). Under benedict I (575–579), Emperor Justin II sent supply ships from Egypt to Rome because of the famine (Lib. pont. 1:308).
gregory i (590–604) suggested that the rich make testamentary provision for the poor by contributing to the diaconia at Pesaro (Epistolae 5.25) and blamed the pretorian prefect of Italy for failing to provide the customary annona or supplies for the diaconiae of Naples (Epistolae 10.8). He appointed a certain Johannes Religiosus as overseer of the tables of the poor and put him in charge of the diaconia (Epistolae 11.17). Church, state and citizenry were involved in this religious work, and at Rome the Lateran was the center. The pope used the revenues of the papal patrimony for this.
Under popes Benedict II (684–685), John V (685–686), Conon (686–687), and Gregory II (715–731), monasteries of Greek monks fleeing iconoclastic persecution were introduced into Rome and given charge of the diaconiae (Lib. pont. 1:364, 367, 369, 465). Under Adrian I (772–795) there were 16 such posts (ibid. 1:504); and with the founding of those of St. Adrian and of SS. Cosmas and Damian, the pope increased the number to 18. In the vita of Leo III (795–816) a catalogue of these diaconiae is supplied (ibid. 2:18).
The Eustathius inscription in the church of S. Maria in Cosmedin indicated that a priest said daily Mass and received three solidi for this service in the diaconia (Ord. Rom. 1.4). The diaconate churches were turned over to the diaconia, and oratories connected with the monastic diaconiae were turned into churches to which Pope paul i (757–767) allowed the bones of the martyrs to be brought from the catacombs (Lib. pont. 1:465). Pope Adrian closed the gap between the ancient diaconate and the diaconia. In each monastery a dispensator or pater was in charge, and he used the personnel of the monastery for the care of the poor. Abandoned buildings were reemployed. S. Maria in Cosmedin occupied the porticus of an ancient grain depot or statio annonae; St. Theodore's was located in the ancient granary of Agrippina.
The diaconia itself consisted of an oratory or church where the poor were gathered for religious services, a monastery of monks in charge, and a depot or granary where the monks (diaconitae ) distributed food and alms. On certain days the poor formed in procession and sang hymns on their way to the baths. The city's revenue, as well as papal patrimony, was turned to this use. Benedict II distributed to each cleric, each monastery of the diaconia, and each mansoniarius, 30 librae of gold; and john v (685) gave a similar sum for religious cult, the poor, and the sanctuaries. When the supply of grains from Egypt was cut off by the Saracen invaders, Popes Martin I and Adeodatus (672–676) obtained fiscal exemptions from Constantinople for the papal patrimonies in Lucania, Sicily, and Calabria. The Byzantine emperor leo iii took revenge on Pope gregory iii for his anti-iconoclast stand by occupying Calabria (Lib. pont. 1:442); and za chary i demanded compensation from the emperor (ibid. 1:433). Meanwhile the popes had organized the supply of the city from Formia, Anzio, and the confines of Etruria. In a prosperous year, Eugene II (824–827) ordered a general distribution of food to all his subjects.
In Naples, S. Andrea ad Nidum served as a diaconia under Pope Gregory II; and S. Januarius ad ulmum was used as a center of distribution by Bishop Agnellus of Naples at the end of the 7th century. He delegated 210 tritici mediorum and 210 hornas of wine annually for distribution by the monastery and ordered soap to be given out at Christmas and Easter [Monumenta Germaniae Historica: Scriptores rerum Langobardicarum (Berlin 1826–) 418]. There is a record that in 721 or 736 a church of SS. John and Paul was being used as a diaconia. At Cremona in 686 the archpriest of St. Mary's, with his brethren, constructed an oratory (oratorium ) and a hospital (xenodochium ) for the sick and pilgrims, as well as for the care of the poor. At Lucca in 729 the Archpriest Sigismund also built an oratory and hospital for strangers and the distribution of alms. This custom carried on into the Middle Ages and is noted both in the itineraria and in the records of pilgrimages.
Bibliography: a. kalsbach, Scientia sacra: Theologische Festgabe … Kardinal Schulte, ed. c. feckes (Cologne 1935) 71–84; Reallexikon für Antike und Christentum, ed. t. klauser [Stuttgart 1941 (1950)– ] 3:909–917. j. lestocquoy, Revista di archeologia cristiana 7 (1930) 261–298. h. i. marrou, Mélanges d'archéologie et d'histoire 57 (1940) 95–142, Oriental origin. o. bertolini, Archivio della società romana di storia patria 70 (1947) 1–145. r. vielliard, Recherches sur les origines de la Rome chrétienne (Mâcon 1941; repr. Rome 1959) 116–128.
[f. x. murphy/eds.]