What is a deacon?
Deacons in the Catholic Church are ordained ministers. Like the priests and bishops, they have received the Sacrament of Holy Orders in order to serve the Church. The Sacrament of Ordination, like Baptism and Confirmation, imprints a character to conform the recipient to Christ. They are permanent and unrepeatable sacraments. These sacraments change what we are.
In Baptism and Confirmation we become members of the Body of Christ, the Church, and we are spiritually equipped to become Christ’s missionary disciples. The Sacrament of Holy Orders establishes the Sacred Ministry through which Christ continues his presence as head of the Body and shepherd of the flock.
The ministry of deacons, like that of bishops or priests, is primarily directed towards their brothers and sisters in faith. The deacon helps them to grow in holiness and encourages and equips them to become missionary disciples of Jesus Our Saviour. Deacons minister by preaching and teaching, by ministering in the Mass and other sacraments and sacramentals and in pastoral ministry.
At ordination, the bishop gives the deacon the Book of the Gospels saying “Receive the Gospel of Christ, whose herald you now are. Believe what you read, teach what you believe, and practice what you teach.”
So, in a real sense, the deacon is the Herald of Christ and of His Good News.
By Deacon Nick MacFarlane
What do deacons do?
Deacons do many things. In the Church, deacons are normal ministers of Holy Communion and of the Sacraments of Baptism and Marriage. Deacons may be chaplains in schools, hospitals or prisons or in the military or police forces. Deacons are pastoral carers in hospitals or nursing homes. Some are teachers or academics. They may work in pastoral roles in family welfare, in marriage tribunals or marriage enrichment programs or with youth or migrants. Most Australian deacons are not paid for their Church work, so they may also work in secular trades or professions.
All deacons, as ministers of the Church, are ordained to empower and encourage the laypeople to take up their role of being missionary disciples – to help people grow closer to the Lord Jesus and to help them to draw others to Him.
The deacon’s ministry has three facets: ministry of the Word (teaching and preaching), liturgical ministry (assisting at and sometimes presiding at liturgies, sacraments and sacramentals), and pastoral ministry.
When a deacon is present, he normally proclaims the Gospel at Mass because he is ordained to be a Herald of the Gospel, His ministry of the Word also includes preaching at Mass, or at funerals, weddings and baptisms. Deacons may also be teaching and forming people in faith formation programs, the RCIA, sacramental programs or preparing couples for marriage. A deacon may be the animator or ‘chaplain’ of groups like the Legion of Mary or the ‘menALIVE’ ministry to men.
Deacons have a specific liturgical role in the Mass and they can preside over other liturgies, such as the Liturgy of the Hours and Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and Benediction. They are normal minsters of Holy Communion to the sick.
In the Church, priests, deacons and lay people all have complementary roles in the life of the Church and in its mission in the world. The restoration of the diaconate as a permanent ministry in the Church is one of the ways the Holy Spirit is renewing the Church in our time.
By Deacon Nick MacFarlane
Where does the diaconate come from?
Deacons were part of the ordained ministry of the Church from New Testament times, but this ministry fell into disuse for many centuries. Today the restored diaconate brings something new to our Church to meet the challenges of our times.
From the beginning of the Church, the order of deacons grew up in parallel with the order of bishops. The apostles were the prototype bishops, and similarly the seven helpers they ordained in Acts, chapter 6 were the prototype deacons. The New Testament refers in various places to deacons. For instance, in 1 Timothy 3, St Paul gives the ‘selection criteria’ first for bishops (overseers) and then for deacons (ministers).
During the first centuries of the Church, ordained ministry settled into the tri-partite system we know today, with each diocese having a bishop at its head, assisted by priests and deacons. Two famous early deacons were St Lawrence of Rome, who was martyred a few days after his bishop in 258 AD. Another was St Ephrem (306-373AD), a Syriac poet and theologian known as the ‘Harp of the Holy Spirit’, who fought heresies and wrote beautiful hymns.
So for the first millennium of the Church, deacons were a permanent order of ministry, but gradually they became fewer and fewer. One of the later permanent deacons was St Francis of Assisi (1181 – 1226AD), who was ordained a deacon, and was a great preacher.
But by then there were very few deacons. The Council of Trent called for the restoration of the diaconate as a permanent order of ministry, no doubt influenced by one of its leading lights, Cardinal Reginald Pole (1500 – 1558) who was a deacon. However, nothing was done until the Second Vatican Council finally restored the diaconate as a permanent order of ministry.
Vatican II taught us that Christ, through the Holy Spirit, provides the three ordained ministries of bishop, priest and deacon to the Church as one of the gifts that constitutes her inner nature and that she is incomplete without the ministry of deacons (Lumen Gentium 20, 29). It also permitted married men to be ordained deacons. Worldwide there are now some 47,000 permanent deacons in the Church.
By Deacon Nick MacFarlane
The gift of the diaconate
When considering the relatively recent restoration of the permanent diaconate to the ministry of the Catholic Church, we are often reminded that deacons are not there to make up for a shortage of priests.
Actually, I believe the diaconate has been restored in our days to address a much more profound lack in the Church in the West – a lack of active and committed lay people. Knowing the challenges that we would face in the decades since Vatican II, the Holy Spirit has raised up deacons in the Church as ministers of the New Evangelisation.
As ministers ordained with a deep experience of the life of the missionary disciple in the modern world, and of the challenges of Christian marriage and parenting, they are well-placed to encourage, form and empower lay people to become missionary disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ. It would not be the first time that has happened. The Book of Acts tells us something very similar happened in the early church.
The first Christians were all Jews, most of them were Aramaic speakers from the Holy Land. They were joined by some Greek-speaking Jews who came from the Greek cities of the Near-East. These were the ones who heard Peter preaching at Pentecost and were moved to be baptised. However, these Greek-speaking converts, especially the widows amongst them, were missing out on formation as disciples of Jesus because of the barriers of language and culture.
The Apostles, guided by the Holy Spirit, ordained seven Greek-speaking “men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and of wisdom” (Acts 6:3) to minister the Good News to this growing number of Greek-speaking converts. The following chapters of Acts show how these ‘proto-deacons’, particularly Stephen and Philip, evangelised many Greek-speakers. Eventually, this work blossomed into the mission to the Greek-speakers who were not Jews – the mission to the Gentiles, which established the early Church all through the Eastern Mediterranean.
In a culture most hostile to Christ and His Way, the early deacons and the many committed lay disciples to whom they ministered laid the foundations for the spectacular spread of the Gospel. The pagan culture of the Greco-Roman world was eventually overcome by the missionary disciples of Jesus. Let us pray that in our day the Church may be graced by deacons who will likewise be Heralds of Christ and encourage many lay people to do likewise.
By Deacon Nick MacFarlane
Discernment and formation of diaconal vocations
For anyone considering a vocation to the diaconate, two questions immediately arise: How is such a vocation to be discerned? And what formation would be required?
The discernment of a vocation to the diaconate rests principally with the man himself and his bishop. Both parties are assisted in their discernment. The man himself will be helped in his discernment by those close to him, especially his family. If he is married, it is essential that his wife discerns the call with him. No married man may be ordained without his wife’s explicit consent. The bishop is also assisted in his discernment by the man’s parish priest and by others he appoints to help in the process of discernment and formation.
The discernment of a diaconal vocation takes several years, from before the first inquiry through the time of exploration of the vocation and then through the time of formation. There are several stages. After initial enquiry, the man may ask his bishop to approve the commencement of formal formation. At this point, the man becomes an ‘aspirant’ typically for three or four years. Towards the end of his formation, again with the bishop’s concurrence, he may be enrolled as a ‘candidate for ordination’ and then eventually, should he and his bishop agree that he has a true vocation and is ready to become a deacon, he is ordained by his bishop.
During his time of formation, an aspirant to the diaconate typically undertakes four years of formation. In addition to academic study of theology (usually a university degree), he will also participate in a program conducted by the Archdiocese (typically one Saturday a month) fostering his personal growth, deepening his spiritual life and equipping him with skills in areas like pastoral care, preaching, administration of the sacraments and the other liturgical roles of a deacon. If married, his wife is encouraged to also take part in this time of formation.
Let us all continue to pray that our part of the Church will be blessed with more deacons and enriched by their ministry.
By Deacon Nick MacFarlane