Cardinal John Henry Newman in his articulation of theological development pointed out that the seeds sown by Christ in the Church develop over time; so too with the diaconate. Newman pointed out that with any theological idea “In time it enters upon strange territory; points of controversy alter their bearing; parties rise and around it; dangers and hopes appear in new relations; and old principles reappear under new forms. It changes with them in order to remain the same. In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often”. (Newman, 1878) The history of the diaconate is such an idea, with this era brining new opportunities as the Church rediscovers the possibilities of the office of deacon. Just as for the Church, so too for individuals who are called to the diaconate, it means an organic change and the possibility of deepening one’s sacramental commitment as the Lord may wish.
The Scriptural Basis for the Diaconate
According to the constant tradition of the Catholic Church, the narrative of Acts 6:1-6, describes the first institution of the office of deacon. From her earliest times the Church has placed immense value on the notion of selfless service “one to another” so much so that from the womb of the infant church there arose an order of men directly responsible for the daily ministration. Throughout the Old Testament it is seen that the servant is usually a slave who belongs to another as “his money” (Ex. 21:21), a notion that placed lord over slave where one is without mercy on the other unless family or religion binds them. This restricted understanding of ‘love of neighbour’ was the focus of Jesus parable of the Good Samaritan. His answer to the Jewish lawyer’s question, set out the Christian notion of universal love, the universal love of the New Covenant that “the love of Christ compels us” to imitate (2Cor 5:14). This parable marked the pivotal moment when Christ revealed that true Samaritan charity involves putting others before oneself and extending mercy to all out of concern for the others fulfilment and without the expectation of a return act of charity.
The Disciples of Christ even unto the Last Supper still had no firm grasp on the meaning of this universal unrestricted love even though they had lived with its personified example for some years. Perhaps a good example of this is when Jesus “removed his outer garments and, taking a towel, wrapped it around his waist; he then poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet.” (Jn 13:5) There was no response from any but Peter who, when attended to by Christ, responded “You shall never wash my feet.”(Jn13:8) Perhaps this response was provoked by an understanding that what he was witnessing from Jesus was servitude and not the unrestricted and love motivated service that is the model of the paradoxical kingdom of God.
It was only after Jesus had ascended to Heaven and sent the Holy Spirit among the early Church, strengthening them in mission and reminding them of all He had taught them, that we see Christian ‘diakonia’ in action in the mindset of Peter when, turning to the crippled man he said “gold and silver I have none, but what I have I will give you”. (Acts 3:6) As their mission grew so did the demands of the ‘office’ to the point where it was no longer possible to exercise the daily distribution without overlooking some who depended on it. Exercising their mission of charity, serving at tables, also infringed upon their duty to the word of God. When this was realized the Church gathered and agreed to choose from among the followers seven men who would take charge of the daily ministration or ‘diakonia’. Thus seven were chosen for a specific ministry to the poor; among them Stephen, “a man full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom” (Acts 6:3). It is clear to see that from the example of St Stephen, that these proto-deacons exercised their mission and discharged their office to the marginalised both in holiness and justice. The title of ‘deacon’ does not actually appear until St Paul’s letter to the Philippians. In his opening sentence, he greets "all the holy ones at Philippi, with their bishops and deacons in Christ Jesus.” (Phil 1:1). It is important to remember that Paul addresses bishops and deacons only because in the early Church, the successors to the apostles, the bishops, celebrated the Mass. It was only when their work load increased that the bishops began to ask the council administrator they had appointed to teach, celebrate Mass, and baptize.
The Basis for the Diaconate in Historical Tradition
The first mention of a maturing of the office of deacon from that concerned with material distributions to one concerned with the mysteries of Christ occurs in chapter 15 of the Didache where it states “Appoint therefore to yourselves bishops and deacons worthy of the Lord, men who are meek and not lovers of money, and true and approved; for unto you they also perform the service of the prophets and teachers.” Indeed in this particular document it is clear to see that the three orders of Bishop, Presbyter and Deacon are already considered most necessary to the life of the Church. St Ignatius of Antioch in his letter to the Trallians again refers to this maturing of office when he states: “And those likewise who are deacons of the mysteries of Jesus Christ must please all men in all ways. For they are not deacons of meats and drinks but servants of the Church of God.” (Ad Tral 2:3).
As the Christian community grew and the number of Eucharistic celebrations increased, it became impossible for the Bishop to preside at every celebration and so the Deacon was given the task of carrying portions of the Body of Christ consecrated by the bishop to those absent and to the outlying churches to be dropped into the chalices at the various Eucharistic liturgies as a visible sign of unity. Deacons became very important in the early Church because of their relation to the bishop. As one ancient description says, they were “the eyes and ears, heart and soul of the bishop” (cited in Ditewig, 2004) in the community, informing him of who was in need and the special concerns of the people. The ancient form of basilica churches reflected this relationship, with the bishop’s chair in the apse, flanked by his deacons and surrounded by semi-circular tiers of benches for the presbyters. By the end of the first century or the beginning of the second, the deacon's place, at least in some churches, was already well established as a rank in the ministerial hierarchy. This is voiced by Ignatius of Antioch when he states “let all men respect the deacons as Jesus Christ, even as they should respect the bishop as being a type of the Father and the presbyters as the council of God and as the college of Apostles. Apart from these there is not even the name of a church.” (Ad Trall 3.1). The power of the Deacon continued to increase throughout the middle ages until “he had charge of church administration and of the care of the poor and thus held the purse” (Galles, 1995) which in turn caused some deacons to exercise “their office ill, and plundered the livelihood of widows and orphans, and made gain for themselves from the ministrations” (Hermas, Similitudes 9.26.2.)
The Basis for the Diaconate in Conciliar Teaching
From the documents of the Council of Nicea, it was clear to see that the glory days of the diaconate were over as it reduced and restricted the work of the order of deacons and elevated the presbyterate. For many reasons, mainly to do with power of office and confusion of roles, “what started out as mystery… ended up as administration” (Vanier, 1989), and steered the office away from its raison d’être and the example of Christ. The order of deacon lost much over the next two centuries, narrowed to a liturgical position and became a mere apprenticeship to priesthood lasting only a few months.
The 23rd session of the Council of Trent, 1562 recognized only the transitional diaconate and whilst there were proposals to restore the permanent diaconate, they were not implemented. Over the next four centuries, the diaconate remained as a transitional state yet the desire to reintroduce the office once again surfaced, when Pope Pius XII in his Apostolic Constitution “Sacramentum Ordinis”, 1947 spoke of the diaconate as part of Holy Orders. Ten years later he expressed the desire again in an address to the second world congress of the Lay Apostolate, but noted that the time was “not yet ripe”. (AAS 49, 1957) In 1963, the Second Vatican Council decree, Lumen Gentium, officially supported the desire of those bishops who wanted permanent deacons to be ordained “where such would lead to the good of souls.” (LG, 1964) Furthermore it proposed that “Deacons … receive the imposition of hands "not unto the priesthood, but unto the ministry." For, strengthened by sacramental grace they are dedicated to the People of God, in conjunction with the bishops and his body of priests, in the service of the liturgy, of the Gospel and of works of charity.” (LG, 29). In 1967 Pope Paul VI decreed through the apostolic letter, “Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem” that “the diaconate is to be instituted as a proper and permanent rank of the hierarchy”. This letter was issued in response to the Second Vatican Council’s request for its restoration. Ultimately, the Council addressed the permanent deacon in six different documents. Diaconate formation programs began to appear in various dioceses throughout the world starting in 1968 until, almost ten years ago, in October 2000, the Irish Catholic Bishops Conference through the Clergy Commission Memorandum (2000, cited in McKeown, 2010) decided "in the light of the pastoral needs of the Church in Ireland” that the time was now right for the restoration of the permanent diaconate.
As we can see from the above reference in Lumen Gentium, the ministry of the deacon is typically described as a three-fold ministry: a servant of Charity, the Word and the Altar, something that has recently been confirmed by Pope Benedict XVI when by the Moto Proprio “Omnium in Mentem” some canons of the 1983 code of Canon Law were modified. A new paragraph was added to canon 1009 which clarified and focused on the role of the Deacon. It states "Those who are constituted in the order of the episcopate or the presbyterate receive the mission and capacity to act in the person of Christ the Head, whereas deacons are empowered to serve the People of God in the ministries of the liturgy, the word and charity". The Deacon is to be seen not only as a link between Altar and world, between the spiritual and the secular, but a bridge linking hope with the hopeless; a window that offers a glimpse in on what St Bernard of Clairvaux called “the invisible realities” of our faith. By virtue of his ordination and his sharing in the vocations to the temporal world with the laity, he is urged to seize every opportunity to set up the rule of love wherever he is. By doing so, he kindles and tends the flame of love without which the world cannot live. Service that leads an individual to focus beyond the present temporal realities, through a personal experience of the love of God incarnate, gives also to the receiver a peace that the world cannot give since “wherever love prevails and, in its dominion, heals, there is manifested a lustrous sign of the world to come.” (Schmauss, 1961). It is in this way that the Deacon will work to bring the laity into the missionary activity of the Church. The permanent Deacon, indeed the entire Christian community, with trust and hope in God, must strive to become again a community of people who are ready to serve in the same way that their teacher and Lord served, because, without this service, there is no real community.
Múlier, ecce fílius tuus, Totus Tuus! Fergal