Ministry comes in two parts, according to Saint Paul: gifts (charismata, which originate with the Holy Spirit) and service (diakonia, the service we offer to God and others). Obviously we can’t control who gets the gifts, which include prophecy, teaching, healing, and leadership, among others. But who gets to serve is easy: We all do, each according to our station in life and in the church.
Deacons have been serving in their unique way since the generation after Jesus. Their originally independent office faded after the first few centuries as the role of priests and bishops expanded and became more formalized. After that period and until the Second Vatican Council, the diaconate was simply one of four transitional stepping stones to priesthood: acolyte, lector, deacon, priest. The permanent diaconate, as an independent office, was restored to the church by Pope Paul VI in 1967. That makes it seem like a “new” position and it’s why a lot of us are unsure what deacons do.
So first, an outline of deacons and their territory. The distinction between transitional and permanent diaconate remains: One is a stage toward priesthood, the other an arrival at a final position. Those training for the permanent diaconate may be celibate or married men over the age of 35—if married, the wife must agree to her husband’s ordination and participate in his training. After the proper theological and pastoral training, one is ordained a deacon. This makes him a sharer in the teaching authority of the church. If the local bishop allows, he may preach. His liturgical responsibilities include baptizing, distributing Holy Communion (including and especially to the dying), presiding at Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, officiating at marriages, presiding at funerals and burials, and leading worship (but not the Mass, which is reserved to the priesthood).
In addition, deacons have led the community especially in ministry to the disadvantaged. Theological arguments have been advanced in favor of expanding their ministry to the sick to include anointing and hearing confessions. The precedent of history has also been used to argue for expanding candidacy to include women. At present no action has been taken on these recommendations.
• Isaiah 42:1-7; Matthew 20:25-28; 25:31-46; Luke 22:27; John 13:1-17; Acts 6:1-6; Romans 16:1-2; 1 Corinthians 12:4-6; Ephesians 4:11-12; 1 Timothy 3:8-10, 13
• The Emerging Diaconate: Servant Leaders in a Servant Church by William T. Ditewig (Paulist Press, 2007)
• Deacons and the Church by Owen F. Cummings (Paulist Press, 2004)