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Degrees Of Holy Orders — Diaconate

November 11, 2017 Our Catholic Faith No Comments


In examining the first two degrees of Holy Orders over the past two weeks, we saw that episcopal Ordination confers the fullness of the sacrament. Through reception of the grace of the Holy Spirit, “in an eminent and visible manner, [bishops] take the place of Christ himself, teacher, shepherd, and priest, and act as his representative” (Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC], n. 1558).
Likewise, we saw that priests, by Ordination to the second rank of Holy Orders (the presbyterate), become “co-workers of the episcopal order for the proper fulfillment of the apostolic mission that had been entrusted to it by Christ” (CCC, n. 1562).
Even though priests depend on bishops in the exercise of their own proper power, they share in his sacerdotal or priestly dignity. Indeed, the Catechism places great emphasis on the unity of the bishop and his priests — together they constitute a unique sacerdotal college dedicated to a variety of duties in solicitous care for the faithful entrusted to them. Drawing continual strength from the Eucharist, the bishop and all his priests “are bound together by an intimate sacramental brotherhood” (CCC, n. 1568).
The bishop considers his priests “his co-workers, his sons, his brothers, and his friends, and they in return owe him love and obedience” (CCC, n. 1567).
Ordination to the priesthood confers upon the recipient of the sacrament most especially the power to offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and to forgive sins. The priest also receives the power to administer the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick to the sick and dying as well as the spiritual power to confirm under certain circumstances. But, as we saw in earlier installments, the bishop is the ordinary minister of Confirmation and only a bishop has the power to ordain.
The Catechism now addresses the diaconate, the degree of Holy Orders which the Vatican II fathers introduce in Lumen Gentium (LG) with the following words: “At a lower level of the hierarchy are deacons, upon whom hands are imposed ‘not unto the priesthood, but unto a ministry of service’” (n. 29 § 1).
In fact, the words deacon and diaconate convey the lived emphasis of men in this degree of ordained ministry. Both are derived from the Greek word diaconia — which means “service,” or “to serve,” or “to render selfless service unto.”
As Christoph Cardinal Schönborn explains in volume 2 of Living the Catechism of the Catholic Church: The Sacraments, “The deacon represents Christ, not as High Priest (which is why he does not offer the Sacrifice of the Mass), but as the One who came ‘not to be served but to serve’ (Mark 10:45)” (p. 126).
In other words, through sacramental Ordination a deacon is permanently and publicly configured in a unique way to Christ the Servant. As expressed by Deacon William T. Ditewig, Ph.D., in his informative and concisely written work entitled 101 Questions and Answers on Deacons (QAD), “The deacon has a profound responsibility to pour out his own life in service to others, just as Christ did” (p. 12).
From early times, deacons have had a “special attachment to the bishop in the tasks of his diakonia” (CCC, n. 1569).
The inauguration of the Order of Deacons is traditionally traced back to the sixth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles (see Acts 6:1-6). The seven men (including the proto-martyr Stephen) whom the apostles “prayed and laid their hands upon” (Acts 6:6), were set aside to take over the charitable distribution of food and the other material needs of the rapidly growing number of Christian followers, thus enabling the apostles to devote themselves to preaching and celebrating the Eucharist.
Although some dispute if this biblical account represents the actual origin of the diaconate (since the seven men are not explicitly referred to as deacons), their ministry was very much in accord with the spirit of the diaconal ministry as it took shape in the Church.
Another scriptural indication of the prominent role played by deacons in the early Church is found in St. Paul’s sketch of the exemplary behavior demanded of them:
“Deacons must be serious, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for gain; they must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience…and be tested first;…those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and also great confidence in the faith which is in Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 3:8-13).
Yet another indicator from the Apostle to the Gentiles of the esteem held for deacons during apostolic times occurs in his salutation to the Philippians: “To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons” (Phil. 1:1).
In the early centuries of the Church, deacons were regarded as having a special relationship to bishops. One early Christian document (Didascalia Apostolorum or “Teachings of the Apostles”) describes deacons as being “the eyes and ears, the mouth, heart, and soul of the bishop.” In fact, Deacon Ditewig reports that deacons were often raised to the office of bishop, a practice that was discontinued around the sixth century (cf. QAD, p. 18).
The functioning of the Order of Deacons in the early Church is also attested to in the Didache (“Teaching of the Twelve Apostles,” written late in the first century) and the writings of St. Ignatius of Antioch, St. Clement of Rome, St. Polycarp, and other early Church fathers. Such great saints as St. Lawrence (d. 258), St. Ephrem of Edessa (d. 373), and St. Francis of Assisi (d. 1226) served the Church as deacons.
During the second half of the first millennium, for a variety of reasons “the order of deacons became, at least in the Latin Church, a temporary or transitional stage that a man went through on his way to ordination as a priest” (QAD, p. 15). Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ, likewise states: “By the end of the Middle Ages…[the diaconate] had been, in practice, reduced to the temporary status of a man prior to his priestly ordination” (Basic Catholic Catechism Course [BCCC], p. 189).
The Eastern Church, however, continuously maintained the permanent diaconate.
Earnest dialogue about a possible renewal of the permanent diaconate in the Western Church began during World War II. In 1957 Pope Pius XII formally acknowledged the growing interest in its reestablishment during an address to the Apostolate of the Laity, but stated his belief that the idea “at least today is not yet ripe” (QAD, p. 20).
A fertile seed, however, had been planted prior to the beginning of Vatican II. The council fathers determined, most assuredly through the promptings of the Holy Spirit, that “the diaconate can in the future be restored as a proper and permanent rank of the hierarchy” (LG, n. 29 § 2).
Pope Paul VI subsequently implemented its renewal in 1967 with the apostolic letter Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem, thus establishing the pathway for the permanent deacon’s service to more truly reflect the practice of the early Church.
As a direct result of this reform, in today’s Latin Rite the diaconate takes one of two forms: transitional or permanent. The transitional form is for men who hope to be ordained to the presbyterate. Only single men who assume the obligation of lifelong celibacy can be admitted to this intermediate state, which usually lasts from six months to a year as the candidate makes final preparations for the presbyterate (cf. 1983 Code of Canon Law [CIC], canon 1037).
The permanent deaconate, on the other hand, is a lifetime commitment and may be entered into by both married and single men. Once ordained, however, a single deacon may never marry; should the spouse of a married deacon die, he must then remain single and celibate thereafter (the only exception requires a dispensation from the Holy See [see CIC, canon 1078 § 2 1] which would be granted only for a very grave reason).
A married man must have completed his 35th year of age and have the consent of his wife in order to be admitted into the permanent diaconate (see CIC, canon 1031 § 2).


When a man is ordained as a permanent deacon, he becomes a permanent and public member of the clergy. As such, there is an intense period of discernment and formation for those who consider this state of life. A period of formation of no less than three years in a program defined by the Conference of Bishops must be completed (cf. CIC, canon 236 2).
Furthermore, “the formation of deacons involves four essential dimensions: the human, the spiritual, the intellectual, and the pastoral” (QAD, p. 39), which were developed from Pope St. John Paul II’s 1981 apostolic exhortation Pastores Dabo Vobis (ibid., cf. p. 40).
As summarized by Fr. Hardon, the powers conferred on a permanent deacon primarily consist of the following: administer Baptism solemnly, act as an ordinary minister of Holy Communion, assist at the altar during Holy Mass, witness marriages in the name of the Church (outside of Mass), proclaim the Gospel and preach homilies, bring Viaticum to the sick and dying, officiate at funeral and burial services (outside of Mass), preside over worship services (e.g., benediction of the Blessed Sacrament), and administer sacramentals (cf. BCCC, p. 190).
As an ordained, official presence of the Catholic Church in the broader community, deacons provide a unique witness in the workplace, marketplace, and family (cf. QAD, pp. 45-47). There are currently over 15,000 active permanent deacons in the United States and over 90 percent are married.

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(Don Fier serves on the board of directors for The Catholic Servant, a Minneapolis-based monthly publication. He and his wife are the parents of seven children. Fier is a 2009 graduate of Ave Maria University’s Institute for Pastoral Theology. He is a consecrated Marian catechist.)

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