Although many of us are accustomed to deacons serving in our communities, a permanent diaconate is a very new experience for those of us in the Western Church. Despite references to deacons in the Christian scriptures, and the profound witness of the deacons of the early Church such as St. Lawrence whom we remember today, men called to ordained ministry were often prepared for the priesthood and not for the diaconate. One was ordained deacon for a transitional period of time, typically six months to a year before ordination to the priesthood.
In the 20th century leading scholars and clergy began to reflect more deeply on the ministry of deacon. While there was a ceremonial presence of a deacon and subdeacon at solemn masses, those ministerial roles were fulfilled by priests. Rare was the occasion that a parish or religious community would have a man serving as a deacon.
The renewed appreciation of the central role of the diaconate led the bishops of the Second Vatican Council to call for a restoration of the permanent diaconate. The bishops turned to writings of the Scriptures and the writings of the early Church to understand the role of deacons in the life of the Church. Passages such as Acts 6 and the witness of saints like Sts. Stephen and Lawrence, speak of the essential role of deacons of proclaiming the Word of God through the Church’s ministry to the poor and those in need. Theirs was a ministry entirely of service to the gospel.
In the early 1970s, local churches from around the world ordained the first men to the permanent diaconate. In addition to fulfilling the ministerial role of deacon at Mass, and celebrating the sacraments of Baptism and Marriage, the deacons’ mandate was to once again serve as stewards of the Church’s treasure – to serve those women and men in need of the Church’s tender care. Although deacons do not share in the ministerial priesthood of Christ as bishops and priests do, they are called to help and serve the bishop and his presbyterate in their ministry to the Church.*
As we celebrate the feast of Saint Lawrence today, let us remember the vital ministry of deacons in ensuring that all might share of the riches and goodness of God. Let us pray, too, for all men who serve as deacons and for those discerning God’s call to the diaconate.
-Don Beyers, Marketing Manager
* Catechism of the Catholic Church, §1554.
For further reading about the permanent diaconate and its development in one Canadian diocese, we recommend you read Servants of All: A History of the Permanent Diaconate in the Archdiocese of Toronto 1972-2007 by Michael Power.