What is a Deacon?
by Deacon Joe Donohoe, Director of Deacon Personnel for the Archdiocese of Denver
On June 18, 2017, the Catholic Church celebrates the 50th anniversary of the signing of “Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem,” (Sacred Order of the Diaconate) by Pope Paul VI. This ecclesial document is significant to the life of the Church as it restores the office of the diaconate to a permanent position within the sacrament of Holy Orders. The Church uses the word “permanent” to mean that the deacon does not progress through the hierarchy of the Church but remains a deacon through eternity.
So, what have we discovered about this vocation since 1967? First of all, we have learned that a deacon is not a priest nor is he a parishioner. He is clergy and an ordained minister with the indelible mark of Holy Orders. His vocation comes from his ordination in which he promises obedience to the bishop and becomes radically available to Jesus Christ and his bride, the Church.
We also know that some deacons are single; yet, many are married and have families. Most deacons have secular jobs and a few are employed within the Church. Deacons are also in the seminary. Men discerning the priesthood are first ordained deacons and retain this charism into their priestly ordination. Regardless, all deacons are called by God to evangelize and bring the message of the Gospel to those in the workplaces, parishes, homes and the public square.
We’ve learned that deacons are called to be an example of holiness; especially important to those who lack a positive role model in their homes and workplaces. A deacon is called to make frequent prayer an important part of his daily routine. As an icon of Jesus Christ, the servant who came to serve, not to be served, prayer proves to be essential for his ministry and his life.
Every deacon prays in the morning when they wake and in the evening before they retire to bed. They often will spend 15 minutes a day reading Scripture and allowing God to respond to them. Each day is met with opportunities to encounter God in prayer and deeds.
In service, the archbishop sends the deacon out to accomplish the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. The deacon visits prisoners, cares for the sick, dying and abused, feeds the hungry, provides shelter to the homeless, wipes the tears from the sorrowful and is a voice of the forgotten, and helpless, including the unborn.
In one example, a deacon ministering to single mothers in the archdiocese tells me of the first time a mother handed over her infant son for him to hold. As he blessed the child, the deacon was struck with gratitude as he realized the incredible trust the mother had just turned over to him. It was the first time she had ever allowed her baby to be held by someone else since she had arrived at the home.
In his ministry of the word, the deacon teaches and preaches in his parish assignment and witnesses to those in secular society. He proclaims the Gospel and occasionally preaches the homily. The deacon often teaches both those entering into the Church and away from the Church, and often instructs those in religious education and Sacramental preparation classes.
Many deacons have extensive expertise in life issues. Some are medical professionals who stand before congressional committees to defend life and meet with any person or group to talk about what happens medically with different procedures that terminate life. These deacons also visit with patients and families to help them understand the church’s position on life issues. No doubt, they have turned a lot of people away from the culture of death through their ministries.
The vast majority of deacons are certified as advocates for annulments which can be a very spiritual experience. One petitioner tells the story of how a deacon assisted her with the annulment process, helped her reconcile her relationship with the church and is a spiritual advisor to her, even today. She would even seek his advice on any potential future spouse and felt he was more of a father figure than a friend. She lives a comfortable life with a beautiful young son and a wonderful husband.
There are a couple of deacons who visit the homeless at Samaritan House. One deacon meets clients in the lunch rooms, eats with them, shares stories and then gathers them together for Bible study. Mony of the men are anxious to come back when he is around to get their spiritual nutrition. He himself is a cancer survivor and is dealing with debilitating disease; yet, his joy is with his friends at the homeless shelter.
In the ministry of the liturgy, the deacon assists at the altar, coordination the activities of the liturgy and promoting reverence. He also conducts baptisms, marriages, and funerals.
At the Mass, the deacon’s right to the altar is because of his participation with the faithful. He is ordained for the care of souls. One deacon prepares for Mass by greeting the Lord in the Adoration chapel and praying for the people at Mass. When he receives the gifts at the offertory, like all deacons, he recognizes the prayers of those in the congregation and presents them to the celebrant as an offering to God. Yet, the faithful gathered together on Sunday are unaware of the prayers that are being lifted up to God.
Deacons preach by example. They harmonize their vocational sacraments of Marriage and Holy Orders and model themselves after Jesus.Many Deacons bond with the couples they have blessed in marriage and further their relationship by being available to them. There is a Deacon who sends a nice anniversary card to all the couples he has blessed and to couples of parents whose children he has baptized. The card often goes beyond a greeting and suggests that they meet and find out what is happening in the lives of the newlyweds and newly baptized.
Even though we have learned much about deacons in the past 50 years, there is still much to discover and learn about the vocation. With the help of God and the wisdom of Holy Mother Church, the diaconal adventure will be filled with blessings and the grace of the Holy Spirit.