The Permanent Diaconate

At that time, as the number of disciples continued to grow, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution.    So the Twelve called together the community of the disciples and said, "It is not right for us to neglect the word of God to serve at table. Brothers, select from among you seven reputable men, filled with the Spirit and wisdom, whom we shall appoint to this task,. whereas we shall devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word."   The proposal was acceptable to the whole community, so they chose Stephen, a man filled with faith and the holy Spirit, also Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicholas of Antioch, a convert to Judaism. They presented these men to the apostles who prayed and laid hands on them.

Acts of the Apostles 6:1-6

“Let [deacons] be merciful, and zealous, and let them walk according to the truth of the Lord, who became the servant of all.” 

 St.Polycarp, Bishop and Martyr

“Strengthened by sacramental grace [deacons] are dedicated to the people of God, in conjunction with the bishop and his body of priests, in service of the liturgy, of the Gospel and of works of charity.”

[Lumen Gentium (LG) 29]

In the earliest centuries of the Church’s life, deacons featured prominently in the Church’s ministry.  The Didascalia Apostolorum described deacons as “the bishop’s ear, mouth, heart and soul”.(Didascalia Apostolorum II, 44,4)  In communion with the bishop and the presbyters, deacons proclaimed and preached the Word of God; catechized those preparing for baptism, and at the celebration of the Eucharist led the people in intercessory prayer; received their gifts of bread and wine; served at the altar and were ministers of the chalice at Holy Communion.  As a sign of Christ’s love for all who were poor and in need, deacons were entrusted to bring the Eucharist to the sick and those imprisoned, and with the Church’s care for widows, orphans, the poor and the destitute.   Many permanent deacons of the apostolic, patristic, and early medieval period were canonized as saints in the Western as well as the Eastern Churches , either because of their courageous witness to Christ as martyrs (such as St.Stephen; St. Lawrence, St. Habib and St.Vincent) or because of their holiness of life and inspired teaching (such as  St.Ephraim the Syrian,  St.Romanos the Melodist and St.Francis of Assisi).  Two deacon saints, St.Stephen and St. Lawrence, are mentioned in the Roman Canon (First Eucharistic Prayer) .

Although the diaconate has been an order of ordained ministry in the Church since the time of the apostles, beginning in the Middle Ages and  until the Second Vatican Council, ordination as a deacon in the Latin-rite was a transitional and not a permanent order.  Instead, diaconal ordination became the final step before a candidate was ordained a priest.   However, in 1964 in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium, the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council recommended the restoration of the diaconate as a permanent and stable order, to be conferred on married as well as celibate candidates. 

In 1972, Pope Paul VI, in the Apostolic Letter Ad Pascendum , established universal norms for the restoration of the permanent diaconate.  Throughout the Latin-rite Church, the decision to establish the permanent diaconate was (and remains) the prerogative of each individual diocesan bishop.  In the United States and Europe the first generation of permanent deacons began to be ordained in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s.   In 1998, after almost twenty years of experience with the permanent diaconate, the Vatican Congregation for Catholic Education and the Congregation for the Clergy published “Basic Norms for the Formation of Permanent Deacons and the Directory for the Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons” for the entire Latin-rite.   In 2005, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops approved the “National Directory for the Formation, Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons in the United State. In the past forty-five years, the worldwide diaconate has grown dramatically, as of 2010, there are now 37,203 permanent deacons. (Statistical Yearbook of the Church).  There are 16,935 permanent deacons serving the Church of the United States. (USCCB)

 

The Vocation and Ministry of Deacons

By their sacred ordination, deacons, who receive the imposition of hands “not unto the priesthood, but unto the ministry”, are configured to Christ, so as to be a specific sacramental sign, within the Church, of Christ the Servant.  Diakonia, or service, is revealed in the example of Christ himself, who came, not to be served, but to serve.  Christ has called every Christian to this self-giving diakonia  and the Church itself is always to be at the service of the life and salvation of the world.  In the diaconate, Christ gives his Church “a living and personal sign of His very being as servant.” (Basic Norms 11.3)

 In communion with the presbyters or priests, with whom they are called to serve the People of God,  deacons share in the ministry of the Bishop, who has the fullness of the sacrament of orders. [Ecum.Council  Vat.II, Decr.Christus Dominus 15]

 Sharing in the three-fold munera or ministries of teaching (munus docendi), sanctifying (munus sanctificandi)  and governing (munus regendi) proper to the ordained ministry, deacons exercise their ministry according to the specific perspective of diakonia (service). (Congregation for Clergy, Basic Norms no.9

Therefore, strengthened by the sacramental grace of Holy Orders, every deacon is called to exercise these three ministries. 

Married Life and the Diaconate

The overwhelming majority of permanent deacons are married and rely on the support and encouragement of their wives.   A wife must consent to her husband beginning the process of formation and she must agree in writing to his ordination.  However there is no expectation by the Church that a wife will or should participate in her husband’s ministry as a deacon, nor are they a “deacon couple”.  The deacon alone is an ordained minister of the Church.  Nonetheless, deacons and their wives as group have a strong bond of community and dedication to serving the Church and those in need.

 

Diakonia of the Word

At ordination, the bishop places the Book of the Gospels in the hands of the new deacon and solemnly says to him: 

“Receive the Gospel of Christ whose herald you now are.  Believe what you proclaim, teach what you believe and practice what you teach.”

 As servants and heralds of the Word of God, deacons proclaim the Gospel at Mass and from time to time preach the homily.  Deacons also engage in catechizing the faithful of all ages, and in the Church’s mission to evangelize all men and women through word and example. 

 

Diakonia of the Altar

Deacons as ordained ministers, “participate in the sanctification of the Christian community, in hierarchical communion with the bishop and priests.” (Basic Norms no. 28.)  Just as the bishop and the presbyters are icons or images of Christ the Head of the Church, the deacon is an icon or image of Christ the Servant.  It is through the deacon who proclaims the Gospel, that Christ calls his people to conversion and self-denial. 

The deacon who announces the intentions for the Church, for the world and for those in particular need or distress, so that God’s holy people can intercede with Christ the High Priest for everyone and everything.  At the conclusion of the Eucharistic prayer, it is the deacon who elevates the chalice containing the Precious Blood of the Lorld, which symbolizes both the life poured out in love by Christ on the cross and the call of every Christian to live a life poured out in the service of God and neighbor. 

As ordinary ministers of Holy Communion, deacons traditionally minister the chalice to the faithful.  And at the conclusion of every Mass, it is the deacon who dismisses the faithful, sending them forth to love and serve Christ in their daily lives in their families, workplaces and community. 

Immediately following the rite of ordination, the newly ordained deacon, vested in alb, stole and dalmatic, begins to serve at the altar with the bishop.  Service at the altar is at the very heart and center of diaconal ministry and identity, for the liturgy is “the summit towards which the activity of the Church is directed and the font from which all her power flows”

Deacons are also ordinary ministers of baptism and matrimony when presiding over these these sacramental celebrations outside of Mass; preside at liturgies of the Word and communion services; assist at or preside at Eucharistic exposition and benediction and in the absence of the bishop or priest, bless the faithful as well as places and things.

 

Diakonia of Charity and Justice

In the prayer of consecration at a deacon’s ordination, the bishop calls down the Holy Spirit upon the candidate and asks God that the new deacon may “excel in every virtue: in love that is sincere, in concern for the sick and the poor, in unassuming authority, in self-discipline and in holiness of life.”  

The deacon’s service or diakonia of charity and justice can assume a variety of ministries: direct or indirect service of the poor and those in need in religious or secular charitable activities; Christian formation and teaching or Church administration.   Across the country, deacons work in homeless shelters and soup kitchens, do outreach to new immigrants and migrants, serve on boards and coalitions that advocate for the poor and the vulnerable, teach in catechist formation programs and serve as chaplains in prisons, hospitals and nursing homes.  Deacons also exercise their ministry of charity and justice by serving in pastoral or administrative roles on the parish or diocesan level. 

 

The Diaconate in the Diocese of Juneau

In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s a group of men were ordained to diaconate in the Diocese of Juneau, all of whom now are now either retired or deceased.  Notable among the deceased deacons of the diocese were Deacons Chuck Johnson, who served in Sitka and Jack Buck and Chuck Seslar of Juneau. Deacons Pat Benigno, Tony Duvernay and George Michaed are retired  after serving in dioceses outside of Alaska. Deacon Paul Paradis of Juneau was laicized in order to remarry after the death of his wife.

(L-R: Deacon Gary Horton; Deacon Charles Rohrbacher; then Candidate, now Deacon Michael Monagle; Bishop Edward J. Burns; then Candidate, now Deacon Ron Mathews; Fr. Patrick Travers, 2006)

Deacon Gary Horton, also of Juneau, recently retired from active ministry after serving for over thirty years at St. Paul’s, the Cathedral and at the diocesan chancery.  

(L-R Deacon Vince Hansen, Bishop Michael Warfel, Deacon Charles Rohrbacher, 2006)

After a twenty-year hiatus during which no permanent deacons were ordained for the diocese, Vince Hansen of Haines and Charles Rohrbacher of Juneau were ordained as deacons in 2006. 

Deacon Mike Monagle of Juneau and Deacon Ron Mathews of Sitka were ordained in 2014.  Deacon Ron remains a deacon of the Diocese of Juneau but is presently serving in the Diocese of Little Rock, Arkansas. Deacon Steve Olmstead of Juneau was ordained in 2015.