Deacons in the Early Church
Deacons are ordained ministers, as priests and bishops are. From the very earliest days of the church they were understood to occupy a special place in the Christian Community, set apart along with the ‘presbyters’ (bishops and priests) for a special role modelled on that of Christ himself. The first definite reference to deacons in this sense – perhaps as early as 53 A.D – occurs in St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians, which is addressed to “all the holy ones at Philippi, with their bishops and deacons in Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 1:1)
Some hold that the very origin of the diaconate is recorded in the New Testament – in the sixth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. There we read of a dispute which arose in the church of Jerusalem between Greek – speaking and Aramaic – speaking Christians, the former complaining that some of their poor weren’t getting a fair share of the goods which the Christian community divided among people in need of help. When the argument came to the attention of the Apostles, the leaders of the community, they declined to become directly involved, explaining: “It is not right for us to neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables.” Instead they told people to select for this charitable work seven upstanding men “acknowledged to be deeply spiritual and prudent”. The seven candidates were presented to he apostles, who “prayed over them and then imposed hands on them”. Among them was one Stephen, “a man filled with grace and power”, who for his courage in proclaiming the Good News of Christ soon became the first Christian martyr (cf. Acts 6-7).
While these seven early Christians were not deacons in the developed sense, the account in Acts accords with the understanding of the diaconate as it emerged and evolved in the church. ‘Deacon’ comes from a Greek word – diakonos – which means a servant or helper. It occurs frequently in the New Testament and is sometimes applied to Christ himself. But the Apostles, for whom it was not “not right…. To neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables”, the deacons soon came to be understood as helpers in more than a material sense – “not servants of food and drink, but ministers of the Church of God”. As St. Ignatius of Antioch put it around 100 A.D., the deacon’s task was nothing less than to continue “the ministry of Jesus Christ”.
In a special way deacons were considered to be ‘helpers’ of the bishop. St. Ignatius specifically mentions two functions of this sort; writing letters for the bishop and generally assisting him in ministry of the word, and serving as the legate of the bishop from one local church to another.
In addition, deacons often rendered assistance – on the bishop’s behalf – to the poor and needy of the community. The special relationship between deacons and bishops was emphasised, among other places, in a third century Christian document which speaks of the deacons being ordained “for the ministry of the work designated by the bishops as being necessary to the Church’s ministry”. Similarly, the Theologian Karl Rahner says that central to all that deacons did was the fact that they were “to help those who direct the church”. It has been suggested that in current terminology, one might say deacons, though they share certain basics in common, can be thought of as ‘specialists’ available for assignment by the bishop to very specific tasks.
Decline of the Diaconate
Even as the diaconate flourished, the causes of its eventual decline and disappearance began to appear. This happened as early as the third century. But the process itself was a complex one which extended over many centuries. No single reason suffices to explain what happened, except perhaps, it appears that both priests and deacons experienced a kin of identity crisis. There were problems and failings on both sides, and the principle reason of argument appears to be in confusion of roles in the sacralisation of the presbyterate. The ensuing negative attitude toward the diaconate came especially from presbyters who, now exercising many episcopal functions (eg. Eucharistic presidency), saw no reason why the deacons were not subject to them, and did not assist them as they also assisted the bishops. So by the end of the fourth and the beginning of the fifth centuries, presbyters were presiding at the Eucharist. As the presbyterate became increasingly associated with presidency at Mass, presbyters like Jerome demanded to know why deacons had so much power – “After all, deacons could not preside at Eucharist, and presbyters were really the same as bishops”. As early as the patristic age, the very meaning and purpose of the three orders came to be organised in a new way. One’s role in the Eucharist came to be the factor which governed one’s place within the church. Deacons came to be assistants of priests, as they were of bishops, and primarily at the altar.
It seems that the failure to comprehend and appreciate the special value of the diaconate in its own right eventually resulted in its collapse. That, however, was a long time happening. Part of the process, evident by the fourth century, was that ever more emphasis came to be placed on the liturgical role of deacons, at the expense of the ministry of the word and the ministry of charity. By the fifth century, it seems, most deacons did little except perform Mon, unctions. By this time, too, the idea had begun to gain currency that the diaconate was no more than an introductory stage in Orders, a step on the way toward ordination as a priest. Its value as an integral part of the hierarchy of Orders – deacons, priests, bishops – was obscured. By the Middle Ages the office of deacon was, according to Rahner, close to being a “legal fiction”.
So it remained for many centuries. There were deacons in the Western church, but they were men on their way to becoming priests. Few people imagined it being any different.
Identifying the variety of ministries in the New Testament and beyond presents difficulties for the exegete and historian. Paul’s reference to Phoebe, “deaconess of the Church of Cenchrae”, in Romans 16:1 should be understood against the background of developing ecclesial ministries rather than as a reference to an established female diaconate.
“The Didascalia” of the first half of the third century and the “Apostolic constitutions”, compiled towards the end of the fourth, give the greatest amount of information about the order or office of deaconess. In this latter document the deaconess is included under the term “cleros” and is reflected in the decrees of the council of Chalcedon (451). The texts indicate the importance of the ministry of deaconess, especially in the Syrian Church, although its function was restricted. Its focus was ministry to women. This involved catechesis for women and children, supervision in the liturgical assembly, assisting them at baptism, visiting and nursing sick women at home and bringing them communion.
The female diaconate was an eastern phenomenon, and never occurred in the West. Likewise an “order of widows” from which the office of deaconess seems to have emerged in the East, never existed in the Roman Church. Once the Church lost its missionary thrust and became quite established, the female diaconate declined and eventually died out altogether. For with the decline of adult baptism and the shift from evangelisation to basic (and often minimal) pastoral care, women were no longer called on to assume the important roles they fulfilled in the first five to six centuries of the Church’s life.
Restoration of the Diaconate
Revived interest in the permanent diaconate dates back at least to the time of World War II. Priests imprisoned in Nazi concentration camps, reflecting on the difficult situation of the church, speculated that permanent deacons – married or single men with a formal, stable commitment to the work of the church – could have accomplished much good. Interest in the idea continued after the war, when it was taken up by theologians and scholars, especially in Europe, and discussed in a number of articles and books.
In 1957 Pope Pius XII spoke favourable of a restored permanent diaconate, although concluding that “the time is not yet ripe”. The idea was very much in the air by the time of Vatican Council II.
Among the reasons for restoring the diaconate advanced during the council, was that this step would help alleviate the shortage of priests in various parts of the world. Deacons, it was reasoned, would be able to perform many of the functions of priests an would help create and sustain a sense of Christian community among people who rarely saw a priest.
This consideration is still valid and even compelling in particular situations. But it is not a satisfactory rationale if it is taken to imply that the diaconate is merely an expedient, a temporary solution to a problem for which there would be no particular need or reason if there were enough priests to go around. On the contrary, the central fact about the diaconate is that it is an integral part of the three-fold hierarchy of Orders, with its own intrinsic reason and right to exist, quite apart from the circumstances of a particular era and place which may give it special timeliness.
Deacons in Vatican II
The Council’s principal statement on the restoration of the permanent diaconate appears in the Constitution on the Church.
“Deacons…..receive the imposition of hands not unto the priesthood, but unto a ministry of service.” For, strengthened by sacramental grace they are dedicated to the People of God, in conjunction with the bishop and his body of priests, in the service of the liturgy, of the Gospel and of works of charity. It pertains to the office of a deacon, in so far as it may be assigned to him by the competent authority, to administer Baptism solemnly, to be a custodian and distributor of the Eucharist, in the name of the church to assist and to bless marriages, to bring Viaticum to the dying, to read the sacred Scripture to the faithful, to instruct and exhort the people, to preside over the worship and the prayer of the faithful, to administer sacramentals, and to officiate at funeral and burial services. Dedicated to works of charity and functions of administration, deacons should recall the admonition of St. Polycarp: “let them be merciful, and zealous, and let them walk according to the truth of the lord, who became the servant of all”.
Since, however, the laws and customs of the Latin Church in force today in many areas render it difficult to fulfil these functions, which are so extremely necessary for the life of the Church, it may well be possible in the future to restore he diaconate as a proper and permanent rank of the hierarchy. “But it pertains to the competent local episcopal conferences….with the approval of the supreme Pontiff, to decide whether and where it is opportune that such deacons be appointed”. (Lumen Gentioum, 29)
Pope Paul VI gave specific directives for implementing the restoration of the diaconate in an apostolic letter (Diaconatus Ordinem) published in 1967 and followed this up with further “norms” in 1972. These are still the basis of the Church’s current practice and policy regarding the Permanent Diaconate.