By Fr. Anthony Aneke
A little retrospection of the office of deacon in the Church seems to precede even the New Testament. When you take a glance at the Prayer of Ordination for deacons the “sons of Levi” are recalled. Here, Moses, instructed by God, established an order of men, the Levites, who represented the people in service to the priests and to minister in the former tabernacle of the Old Covenant (Numbers 18:2-6).
Technically, the word “deacon” is derived from the Greek words diakonia, service, and diakonos, variously translated as servant, helper, attendant, or minister. This term is employed in this sense both in the Septuagint (though only in the book of Esther) and in the New Testament. But in Apostolic times, the word began to acquire a more definite and technical meaning. For instance, Phil 1:1 acknowledges the evolving concept of diaconal ministry in the early Church, and 1 Tim 3:8-10,12-13 lists the necessary qualifications for the office of deacon once it had become more formally established.
Early Ecclesiastical History
From the tradition of the Church, the narrative of Acts 6:1-6, which serves to introduce the account of the martyrdom of St. Stephen, describes the first institution of the office of deacon. The Apostles, in order to meet the complaints of the Hellenistic Jews that, “their widows were neglected in the daily ministrations” (diakonia), called together the multitude of the disciples and said: It is not reason that we should leave the word of God and serve (diakonein) tables. Wherefore, brethren, look ye out seven men of good reputation, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business. But we will give ourselves continuously to prayer, and to the ministry of the word (te diakonia tou logou). And the saying was liked by all the multitude. And they chose Stephen, a man full of faith, and of the Holy Ghost (with six others who are named). These they placed “before the Apostles; and they, praying, imposed hands upon them.”
It is necessary to point out that on the ground that the Seven are not expressly called deacons and that some of them (e.g. St. Stephen, and later Phillip (Acts 21:8) preached and ranked next to the Apostles, Protestant commentators have constantly raised objections against the identification of this choice of the Seven with the institution of the diaconate. But apart from the fact that the tradition among the Fathers is both unanimous and early — e.g. St. Irenaeus speaks of St. Stephen as the first deacon — the similarity between the functions of the Seven who served the tables and those of the early deacons is most striking. St. Paul describes the particular qualifications needed for a man to be appointed to the office of deacon (1 Tim 3:8-13). We can ascertain from other texts of the New Testament that deacons in the early Church preached (St. Stephen, Acts 6-7), baptized (St. Philip, Acts 8), and served the early Church community. With the spread of the faith in the early Church, deacons began to have a liturgical function.
Emphasized throughout the Gospels, the Greek word that became the designation for the office of deacon, diakonia, was grounded in Jesus Christ himself. Jesus offered himself in total service to the Father:
For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me. (John 6:38)
But I am among you as one who serves (diakonia). (Luke 22:27)
He emptied himself, taking the form of a slave… he humbled himself. (Philippians 2:7-8)
In conformity to Jesus the Servant, an essential character of the Church is to be a servant of God and his people. The deacon is an icon of this servanthood in the midst of the Church.
In the early Church, the deacon assisted the bishop during the sacred liturgy, administration, and distribution of alms to the poor. St. Ignatius of Antioch, in the early second century, considered a Church without the orders of Bishop, Priest, and Deacon unthinkable. In his Letter to the Trallians he wrote:
Let everyone revere the deacons as Jesus Christ, the Bishop as the image of the Father, and the presbyters as the senate of God and the assembly of the apostles. For without them one cannot speak of the Church. (3.1)
Evolution of the diaconate: Permanent and Transition deacon
As the order of deacon became more prominent throughout the early centuries of the Church, the deacon became the functional arm of the local Bishop. He assisted the diocesan Bishop during the sacred liturgy, exercised responsibility for the temporal affairs and goods of the Church, and distributed alms to the poor. As the diocesan Bishop’s advisor, legal representative and confidant, he was often the logical choice to succeed the diocesan bishop upon his death, after receiving priestly and episcopal ordination.
After the 5th century, the diaconate begins to experience a gradual decline in the West. By 400 A.D. some factors contributed to the decline of the diaconate as a permanent order within the Latin Church. Social changes within the Church led to the development of monasteries and religious orders that assumed responsibility for charitable institutions, further contributing to a reduction in the need for deacons who had formerly ministered to these needs. Over the centuries that followed, many factors contributed to a chain of events that, by 800 A.D., resulted in the diaconate being reduced to a transitional step toward the priesthood in the Latin Church. Since the order of Deacon had apostolic roots going back to the New Testament, it could not simple be abolished in the Church. The solution at the time was to make it a step (transitional stage) toward the priesthood.
In Germany during the 1950s, a proposal was stirring to restore the diaconate as a permanent order within the Latin Church. In the 1960s, the father of the Second Vatican Council proposed to the universal Church that the ministry of the deacon came from the Apostles, and as such, should be restored as a permanent order in the Church. Lumen Gentium states: the diaconate can in the future be restored as a proper and permanent rank of the hierarchy. (Lumen Gentium, 29)
The permanent diaconate was formally restored by Pope Paul VI in 1967, and it has grown steadily since. On June 18, 1967, Pope Paul VI issued the apostolic letter Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem, a document that re-established the permanent diaconate for the Latin Church. Assigned once again to the permanent diaconate were his traditional ministries of: administering baptism; being an ordinary minister of Holy Communion; witnessing of marriages; bringing viaticum to the dying; proclaiming the Sacred Scriptures; exhorting and instructing the people; officiating at funeral rites; and being dedicated to charitable works.
The diaconate, deacon, is conferred by a Bishop by the laying on of hands. He is an ordained minister of the Catholic Church. There are three groups of ordained ministers in the Church: bishops, presbyters (priests) and deacons. Deacons are ordained as a sacramental sign to the Church and to the world of Christ, who came “to serve and not to be served.”
The entire Church is called by Christ to serve, and the deacon, by virtue of his sacramental ordination and through his various ministries, is to be a servant in a Servant-Church. All ordained ministers in the Church are called to functions of Word, Sacrament, and Charity, but Bishops, presbyters and deacons exercise these functions in various ways. As ministers of Word, deacons proclaim the Gospel, preach, and teach in the name of the Church. As ministers of Sacrament, deacons baptize, lead the faithful in prayer, witness marriages, and conduct wake and funeral services as ministers of Charity, deacons are leaders in identifying the needs of others, then marshaling the Church’s resources to meet those needs. Deacons are also dedicated to eliminating the injustices or inequities that cause such needs. But no matter what specific functions a deacon performs, they flow from his sacramental identity. In other words, it is not only WHAT a deacon does, but WHO a deacon is, that is important.