The Catholic Deacon
A Deacon 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.
The Catholic Church restored this sacred order as a permanent way of serving the Church (and not just a transitional order for men on the way to priesthood) in the Latin Rite well over 40 years ago.
This was accomplished by an act of Pope Paul VI who decided in 1967 to restore the diaconate as a permanent rank of clergy for the Church in the West.The Diaconate as an order of Clergy has been a part of the Eastern Church from apostolic times without interruprion.
In October 1968, the Holy See approved the organization of the Diaconate in America for the Roman catholic Church. 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.”
These documents were issued on 22 February, 1998; the Feast of the Chair of Peter. This feast has long been an occasion to honor all the Church's clergy since the first century. It was 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 were generally well received by deacons, priests, bishops and the lay faithful and have helped to promote a better understanding of the role of permanent deacons in the Church in this Third Millennium of Christianity. They also led to a growing standardization of diaconal training and increasing clarifification of 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 those called “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.It has a clearly defined place in the life of the Eastern catholic Churches.
Many Eastern Rite Catholics refer to their deacons as "Father Deacon," and they have important liturgical, charitable 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 as an order of Clergy ordained not “unto the priesthood” but unto service.
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." ...
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