Who is a deacon and what does he do? How to become a deacon? Let’s find out more about this figure that has always been present in the Catholic Church, and has important and solemn duties during celebrations.
The word ‘deacon’ comes from the Greek word diàkonos, servant, but it would be reductive to consider such men assisting priests during celebrations as just a mere ‘servant’. In this article, we will try to deepen the subject and to explain the path to become a deacon to those who want to undertake this commitment of faith.
We can consider the deacon as a man that chooses to live halfway between a lay and a priestly status. In fact, even though he belongs to the ecclesiastic order, the deacon is not a priest. It is true that the diaconate can be the first step towards priesthood, and in such case, it is called transitional diaconate, but a deacon can choose to stay such forever and offer his services under that specific role, in that case, it is called permanent diaconate.
The presence of figures that can be associated with deacons is documented since the Apostles time, but the Vatican Council II established the laws and methods of diaconate once and for all, through the dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium.
Within the ecclesiastic ministry, the deacon is the so-called first level. In fact, starting from the Second Vatican Council, the modern organization of the Church defined three degrees that summon all those who have been ordained: the first level is the Diaconate, the second is Priesthood and the third is the Episcopate.
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On the first level, we find deacons, who offer their services to priests and bishops. They can administer the Sacrament of Baptism. They work as assistants during the celebration of weddings and as coordinators for the ministry of charity; they have the authority to preach the Word of God.
On the second level, we find priests, also called presbyters. They also work along with bishops, but unlike deacons, they can administer all Sacraments except for holy orders, they can impart Eucharistic blessings and distribute the Eucharist to the faithful. They must obey to bishops and accept the duties they are given, from the ministry of a parish to missionary work. Of course, they also preach the Word of God.
On the third and highest level, we find bishops, considered as the successors of the Apostles. Their powers cover all three ministries: munus propheticum or munus docendi (ministry of education), munus regalis or munus regendi (ministry of pastoral government), and munus sacerdotalis or munus liturgicum (ministry of sanctification).
Originally, there were also women deacons, who helped bishops baptizing women and offered their services for them. Their duties were probably not comparable to those of men deacons; in fact, at the end of the XI century, the figure of women deacons was removed. Pope Francis, on May 12 2016, declared that he wanted to “build an official commission to help study the matter” of deaconesses. However, as of today it is not possible for women to access such position.
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What does a deacon do?
Concerning the deacon’s duties, the Vatican Council II defined the triad “diaconia of the liturgy, of the word and of charity“. In the above-mentioned dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium, we can read, among other things, that the deacon must serve “the people of God, in communion with the bishop and his group of priests” (Lumen Gentium 29).
The bishop is the one who establishes the mandate of a deacon.
The deacon assists the priest or the bishop during the Mass, for example by performing the service at the chalice and at the book, annunciating the intentions of universal prayer, helping in the distribution of the Communion. In addition, he must purify and put back the holy vase. He can read the Gospel and the sermon, and in general, he can practice the ministry of the Word.
Outside the Mass, the deacon can celebrate the Sacrament of Baptism.
In the Latin ritual, and only if delegated by the priest, he can celebrate marriages.
He can also bless people, places and objects, and administer sacraments in general. He can also take part in the Rite of the Funeral and take the viaticum to dying people.
As we said, he cannot administer the Eucharistic blessing, nor administer the communion, but he can keep and distribute the Eucharist.
One or more deacons can often take care of charity works and structures for the diocese or the parish.
How to become a permanent deacon
Those who want to become permanent deacons must go through a path of spiritual, human, pastoral and intellectual education, which must be at least five years long. Such step requires a huge commitment, study and spirit of sacrifice, and must be taken with the awareness of the time and energy that the person can put into it, along with the work and care for his own family, should there be one.
During this period, the aspiring deacon must dedicate himself to theological studies as well and must absolutely serve the parish communities. He will also need to possess a high school diploma.
The document Basic norms for the formation of permanent deacons, edited by the Congregation for Catholic Education and Congregation for the Clergy, sums up all of the regulations that are necessary to educate a deacon.
Of course, the aspiring deacon must be baptized. If he was baptized as an adult, at least 5 years must have passed.
He must be at least 25 years old if unmarried, 35 years old if he’s married. In fact, while the candidates for transitional diaconate must be strictly unmarried, permanent deacons can be married at the moment they are ordained. So, can a deacon get married? No, he cannot; if the aspiring deacon is not already married when he is ordained, he will not be allowed to get married afterwards and will have to respect celibacy. In case the aspiring deacon is already married, the Church will have to recognize his marriage and protect it.
He must provide several documents, included the certificate of Baptism, the confirmation of his marriage, a recent picture of himself and one of his wife, a letter of consent from his wife, a letter of presentation, medical reports, transcription of his course of studies, a background check and the certificate of legal residence.
In addition, the dean of the structure where the aspiring deacon took his education and studies will have to write an accurate report about his progress during the five canonical years.
The jobs of the Deacon within the parish
Since the basic requirement for a deacon is charity, his duties within the parish will be related mainly to such practice. Imitating Christ-servant, the deacon will have to be an example for all faithful and always be at the service of his brothers, especially the most needy and suffering. He will always have to be committed in a service of charity, Christian education, animation of pastoral structures, especially those involving young, adult and sick people.
He will have to spread the Word of God among the faithful, organizing and promoting family groups and meetings about the Scriptures. He will also offer advice and help to catechists.
He will have to promote liturgical participation by contributing to the formation of Readers, Acolytes and ministers, guiding the Extraordinary Ministers. He can also participate in the organization and management of the parish choir.
The married deacon and his family
If a married man decides to become a deacon, he must make sure that his family is ready to support him in his choice unconditionally. In fact, the commitment required by such duty in terms of time, but most of all of conduct, cannot be isolated from a serene family situation. This commitment will surely not exclude his family. On the contrary, thanks to that, the deacon is able to offer an authentic proof of family life, which works as an example and model for other families. A married deacon can show his family as a proof of the sanctity of marriage, of the virtue of marital chastity. Plus, if his wife and children approve, he can involve them in his services for the parish and the community, creating some sort of “diaconal family”. We must think that the deacon is and always will be a man. As such, since he can also be a husband and a father, he can be a proof of a higher sensitivity and empathic skill compared to other families, especially in the most delicate situations that may imply contact with children, young and old people.
The preparation of a deacon
We already mentioned that the aspiring deacon must go through a path of human, spiritual, doctrinal and pastoral education.
Concerning his human education, the deacon will have to cultivate the necessary virtues that allow him to become an example and vehicle between the faithful and Christ. Love, respect, loyalty, consistency, obedience, humility. Most of all, he must be a mature person with a strong inner balance, so that he can face any situation with resolution and self-confidence. He must be able to relate to others, always looking cordial and available. If he’s married, his marriage will have to be strong and enlightened by all of the virtues and joys of a Christian marriage.
The spiritual education of a deacon is related to the discovery of Christ’s love and its sharing as service and propensity towards others. A deacon must learn to give himself without hesitations, putting selfishness aside. The Eucharist, which he will have to be often part of, will give him strength and nourishment for such work of love. In addition, the deacon will have to nourish his spirit with readings and studies about the Word of God, and through his personal and family practice of the Liturgy of the Hours.
His theological education must be adequate for the duties he will have to perform, and as complete as possible. Besides reading and studying the Gospel, he will have to understand the study of the works of the Fathers, a solid theological and moral base, the accurate study of Liturgy and the Teaching of the Church.
Pastoral education will come on its own thanks to the participation in the parish community and the exchange with other already ordained deacons. According to his personal sensitivity and his inclination, the deacon will choose what pastoral environment he will put his energy in, compatibly with the duties the bishop will assign him.
Wishes to a newly ordained deacon. What could be the best gift?
A friend or relative embracing the sacerdotal path is always a reason for joy. Diaconate is not an exception. If someone you know and love chose to undertake this hard and demanding path, he will surely be happy to know that you are with him and support him. What better occasion than his ordaining to give him something special?
A typical gift for a future deacon is the stole, which he can use during celebrations when he will assist the priest on the altar. He will need a few, of different colors, according to the liturgical occasion. In addition, a surplis or an alb can be useful and appreciated gifts.
Alternatively, you can opt for a sacred book, such as the Liturgy of the Hours, maybe a prestigious edition.
An always-appreciated gift is a crucifix that the deacon can wear every day, or a sacred image he can keep at home and remind him of his commitment at any moment: a picture, a sacred icon, a statue or a cross.