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The Deacon: From the Altar to the World

"A Sacred Minister and Member of the Hierarchy"

By Deacon Keith A. Fournier
© Third Millennium, LLC

The role and purpose of the "permanent” diaconate is all too often misunderstood.

Although the Church restored this sacred order in the Latin Rite 30 years ago, it was Pope Paul VI who decided in 1967 to restore the diaconate as a permanent rank of clergy for the Church in the West.

In October 1968, the Holy See approved its organization in America. In 1998, the Vatican released two important documents to dispel some of the persistent misunderstandings and confusion and to open up an understanding of deacons as both “sacred ministers” and “members of the hierarchy.”

Two documents explaining and supporting this vital ministry were released on 22 February, 1998; the Feast of the Chair of Peter. This feast has been an occasion to honor all the Church's clergy since the first century. It was, indeed, an appropriate occasion to issue statements regarding the formation and work of permanent deacons, since they are such an important part of the clergy; participating in its missionary and pastoral service.

The extensive documents, "The Basic Norms for the Formation of Permanent Deacons" and "The Directory for the Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons," were ordered and approved by Pope John Paul II. They are a part of the Church's magisterial teaching.

They have been well received by deacons, priests, bishops and the lay faithful, and should help all of us achieve a better understanding of the role of permanent deacons in the Church as serve the Church together in this Third Millennium of Christianity. They should also standardize diaconal training and clarify the role of deacons in the liturgical, pastoral, and ministerial life of the Church.

The diaconate has a rich history.

During the Church's first five centuries, this ministry flourished everywhere. But for various reasons, the order declined in the West as a distinct rank of clerical service, and eventually disappeared. It was relegated to a "transitional" order given to candidates on their way to priestly ordination.

Today, we still distinguish between transitional and “permanent” deacons. However, this distinction does not create two ranks of deacons, but clarifies the direction in which the deacon is headed. The "transitional" deacon is simply on his way to priestly ordination.

In the Eastern Catholic Church, however, the diaconate remained a part of the permanent rank of sacred orders without interruption from the time of the Apostles until now.

Many Eastern Rite Catholics refer to their deacons as "Father Deacon," and they have important liturgical and pastoral roles. We can learn much from our Eastern Catholic brethren as we develop the life and ministry of deacons in the Western Church.

The Council of Trent (1545-63) called for the restoration of the permanent diaconate for the entire Church. But it was not until the Second Vatican Council, four centuries later, that this direction was implemented.

The Council Fathers explicitly stated their purpose as threefold: to enhance the Church, to strengthen with sacred orders those men already engaged in diaconal functions, and to provide assistance to areas suffering clerical shortages.

Among those calling for the restoration were the survivors of "The Deacons Circle," priests who suffered at the Dachau death camp during World War II. While suffering, they prayed for the renewal of the Church.

They believed the Holy Spirit was inspiring them to call for a re-institution of a permanent diaconate that could serve sacramentally and vocationally as an order of clergy in the midst of the world.

The priests who survived Dachau continued to meet and pray, and eventually they presented their discernment to the Holy Father and the leaders of the Vatican Council.

On 18 June 1967, Pope Paul VI implemented the Council's decision to re-institute a permanent diaconate for the universal Church with the apostolic letter Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem. He also established revised norms for the ordination of all clergy, including deacons, priests and bishops. These norms passed into the Code of Canon Law.

According to "The Directory for the Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons," issued jointly by the Congregation for Catholic Education and the Congregation for the Clergy, the deacon is "a sacred minister and member of the hierarchy."

He is ordained to the first rank of sacred orders, not to the priesthood or the episcopacy. He is no longer a layman, but a member of the clergy. Like other clerics, the deacon participates in the threefold ministry of Jesus Christ; the "diaconia of the liturgy, the word, and of charity.” He represents “Christ the Servant” in his vocation. ...

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