The ministry of deacons was so widespread in the early Church that St. Paul went out of his way to encourage the men holding this office to maintain their high standards. The Apostle wrote to Timothy: “Similarly, deacons must be dignified, not deceitful, not addicted to drink, not greedy for sordid gain, holding fast to the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. Moreover, they should be tested first; then, if there is nothing against them, let them serve as deacons.” Deacons, of course, were part of the Church scene from the very first years after Christ’s Ascension. The first reading this coming Sunday reminds worshippers of the tragic death of St. Stephen, who was not only the first Christian martyr, but also, as happily noted by St. Ireneaus, “the first chosen for diaconal service by the Apostles.” Deacons continued for a number of centuries to be integral to Church life. St. Leo the Great praised the Roman deacon and martyr St. Lawrence for being “illustrious not only in the administration of the sacraments but also in the stewardship of the possessions of the Church.” The deacon St. Ephrem served the Church in Syria while the deacon St. Vincent ministered to the Church in Spain. In later centuries the diaconate evolved into a final step toward the priesthood, losing much of its unique character, appearing only as a liturgical function at Solemn High Masses.
The Second Ecumenical Vatican Council happily acknowledged this very ancient diaconal tradition praising in “Lumen Gentium” the third rank of sacred orders, citing its dignity and enumerating its functions. The fathers of the Council acknowledged that many diaconal functions were being well carried out by lay persons. But these fathers also thought it to be “beneficial that those who perform a truly diaconal ministry be strengthened by the imposition of hands, a tradition going back to the Apostles, and be more closely joined to the altar so that they may more effectively carry out their ministry through the sacramental grace of the diaconate.” The deacon, like the priest and the bishop, is adorned with an indelible character and special grace so they may “permanently serve the mysteries of Christ and the Church.”
In 1967 Pope Paul VI in the Apostolic Letter Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem codified the requirements and the responsibilities of the newly revived diaconate. Deacons should be admitted for a time to a special school where they are to learn all that is necessary for worthily fulfilling their ministry. Specific training should be spread over a period of at least three years. Deacons should expect to teach the elements of the Christian religion to children and other faithful, to familiarize people with sacred song, to read the sacred Scripture at gatherings of the faithful, to preach, to administer the sacraments which pertain to them, and to visit the sick. Deacons are also expected to assist the bishop and priests during liturgical actions, to administer baptism solemnly, to reserve the Eucharist, to bring Viaticum to the dying and to impart to the people benediction with the Blessed Sacrament using “the sacred ciborium,” to bless marriages in the name of the Church, to administer sacramentals and to officiate at funeral and burial services, and especially to carry out, in the name of the hierarchy, the duties of charity and the works of social assistance.
Pope Paul found it supremely fitting that permanent deacons recite every day at least part of the Divine Office, as determined by regional bishops. Unmarried men called to the diaconate must be at least 25 years old and are pledged to celibacy. Married men who assume the office of deacon must be 35 years old and attain the full cooperation of their wives. In keeping with the various circumstances of place and time, bishops should be concerned about the proper sustenance of the deacon and his family if he is married.
Catholics in the Diocese of Providence and perhaps throughout the Western world grew up with an abundance of priests and religious sisters and brothers. Three priests in a rectory and a convent with a dozen sisters was not unusual in many Rhode Island parishes. This pre-Vatican II situation has virtually disappeared as the number of priestly and religious vocations has dwindled. Surely it is no accident, in fact, it is certainly providential that the Second Ecumenical Vatican Council not only restored the diaconate but was also the first Council specifically to address the laity’s place in the life of the church. Observers have accordingly noted, some gladly, some sadly, that the Council’s promotion of the renewed diaconate along with the Council’s call for an active participation of the laity in Church life has led to a much wider participation of deacons and laity in the mission of the church as was found in the Acts of Apostles and in the Pauline epistles. God’s Providence continues to turn reversals into advances.