(Acts 6:1-7; 1Pet.2:4-9; Jn.14:1-12)
In the early days of the Church, the apostles couldn’t meet the demand for preaching, prayer, care for the poor and breaking bread.
So, as today’s first reading tells us, they appointed seven good men to help them. According to Tradition, these were the very first deacons and among them was St Stephen, the first Christian martyr. He was stoned to death in 36AD because he was just too good at preaching.
In the following 20 years, the diaconate became well established. We know this because St Paul wrote to Timothy in c.57AD about the character of the ideal deacon. Deacons, he said, need to be chaste, not double-tongued, not given to too much wine, and not driven by profit (1Tim.3:8-13).
Deacons soon became prominent in the Church. They served as bishops’ assistants and ambassadors, and looked after the temporal goods of the Church. They also took the Gospel and Holy Eucharist to where the bishops couldn’t go, and many deacons themselves became bishops and popes.
Over the years, however, the priesthood grew in prominence and the diaconate declined. By the fifth century, deacons no longer worked for bishops; they assisted priests instead. And eventually, in the Latin Church, the diaconate became a mere stepping stone to the priesthood. Even now, a man must become a transitional deacon before his priestly ordination.
After 800AD, permanent deacons were rare, however Pope Gregory VII (1020-1085) was a deacon, and so was St Francis of Assisi (1181-1226).
In the 16th Century, the Council of Trent (1545-63) decided to restore the permanent diaconate, but didn’t follow it up. In the 1800s, some German theologians recommended that the diaconate be restored to promote the servanthood of the church. (The word ‘deacon’ comes from the Greek diakonos, which means servant.)
And during WWII, when thousands of priests were imprisoned in Dachau in Nazi Germany, they too discussed how the Church might more effectively serve the world after the war. They also proposed the return of deacons as ministers of charity, and in 1963 Vatican II resolved to reintroduce the order.
The first of the new deacons were ordained in the 1970s, and today there are some 47,000 worldwide, compared to about 380,000 priests. The United States has about 18,000 deacons, while Australia has around 200.
We only have 6 deacons in our diocese today, however another ordination is expected very soon and we also have several men discerning their call.
Along with bishops and priests, deacons are ordained members of the clergy. Their role can be summed up by the term Diakonia, because the deacon is called to serve the Church in the name of Jesus Christ who said ‘I am among you as one who serves’ (Lk.22:27). In other words, Jesus himself was a deacon.
St John Paul II once wrote: ‘By the standards of this world, servanthood is despised, but in the wisdom and providence of God, it is the mystery through which Christ redeems the world.’ [i]
How, then, do deacons serve? Through the three core ministries of Liturgy, Word and Charity. In the Liturgy, deacons assist bishops and priests at Mass and in other ceremonies. They conduct baptisms, weddings, funerals and benediction, and take Viaticum to the dying.
In the ministry of the Word, they proclaim the Gospel, and preach and teach.
And in the ministry of Charity, they do many different things, including pastoral counselling, spiritual direction, supporting the sick and dying, military and hospital chaplaincy, working with young people, families and the homeless, parish administration, prison ministry and so on.
In 100AD, St Ignatius of Antioch said that it would be impossible to have a church without bishops, priests and deacons, because their role is nothing less than to continue the ministry of Jesus Christ.[ii]
Deacons contribute significantly to the life of the Church because of their community connections. Through their families, careers and real-world life experiences, they are aware of local needs and they are well-placed to take Jesus Christ to the margins. This is why deacons often work in social justice and outreach.
In 3rd Century Rome, St Lawrence the deacon distributed alms to the poor, but Emperor Valerian did not approve. He had Pope Sixtus II beheaded and demanded that Lawrence deliver the church’s treasure to the state within three days. Lawrence then gathered the poor of the city and presented them as the treasure of the Church. As punishment, he was roasted on a gridiron.
Thankfully things usually aren’t quite so desperate these days.
But with their humble hearts and filled with sacramental grace, deacons make a meaningful difference to our world today.
[i] Pope John Paul II, Dives in Misericordia, 1980. https://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_30111980_dives-in-misericordia.html