One of the Scripture readings at the ordination of a deacon comes from the Acts of the Apostles, Chapter 6.
It recalls the selection of the first seven deacons of the Church.
The Apostles found themselves engaged in too many roles within the community. As such, it resulted in them “neglecting the Word of God” in order to function in the other roles.
They needed helpers, but not just any helpers. The seven men selected for the role were known to be “deeply spiritual and prudent” disciples.
Deacons are ordained and are part of the clergy of the Church.
Like bishops and priests, deacons experience the sacrament of Holy Orders.
While the bishops and priests share in the Priesthood of Christ, the deacons share in the pastoral service aspect of Christ.
They are “living icons” of Christ, who come not to be served, but to serve.
The word deacon is derived from the Greek word, diakonia, which means “service in the name of another.”
The service of a deacon is lived out on behalf of the bishop (ultimately of Christ) in his ministry to the word, to the Liturgy and to charity.
During the Ordination Mass for a deacon, the bishop will place the Book of the Gospels in the hands of the deacon and say:
“Receive the Gospel of Christ, whose herald you have become. Believe what you read, teach what you believe, and practice what you teach.”
This short but powerful instruction captures the fact that the deacon has both a liturgical role and a pastoral role.
At Mass, the deacon proclaims the Gospel and assists at the altar with the chalice of the Precious Blood.
Sacramentally, the deacon is an ordinary minister of Baptism; and, as a member of the clergy and with the delegation of his pastor, he witnesses marriages on behalf of the Church.
In addition, the role of the deacon is one of preaching and teaching. As such, the deacon must have a deep and solid understanding of the teachings and faith of the Church.
By their very nature, deacons are active members of the community within their workplaces, civic and volunteer activities, and roles as husbands and parents.
The unique insight that the deacon brings to the Church allows him to identify problems and opportunities for evangelization. Working with the pastors of his parish or parishes, the deacon is able to marshal the necessary resources of the Church to address such issues.
Of particular concern for the deacon are the social needs and works of charity of the local Church.
In a Facebook posting in 2022, Bishop W. Shawn McKnight offered further clarification on the role of the deacon:
“In essence the deacon is involved in supporting everyone else in their role of the Church. I see deacons playing an important role in my vision of parishes as centers of mercy and charity. The key is for the deacons to be the catalyst; encouraging and empowering lay people to get involved in Christ-centered service.”
Since reinstatement of the Permanent Diaconate at the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), the U.S. Catholic bishops have recognized the unique role of the permanent deacon and have fostered its growth.
As of May 2022, the annual CARA study estimated that there were 14,586 active deacons ministering in the United States, which is by far the largest number of any country in the world.
In recent years, the diaconate community within the United States has seen many changes. Perhaps the greatest change has been the need to find deacons who have the ability to communicate with the immigrant communities that are integrating throughout America.
This also requires attention to cultural nuances of these communities.
Deacons are also asked to help with the administration efforts of the Church at both the diocesan and parish levels.
And while these are all very positive opportunities for deacons, the number of deacons is generally in decline as age attrition takes its toll.
There is a great need within the Church to continue to foster and grow this ministry. Pope St. John Paul II in his address to deacons of the United States in 1987 reiterated this unique role within the Church:
“This is at the very heart of the diaconate to which you have been called: to be a servant of the mysteries of Christ and, at one and the same time, to be a servant of your brothers and sisters. That these two dimensions are inseparably joined together in one reality shows the important nature of the ministry which is yours by ordination.”
Deacon Schwartze, who assists the pastor of Cathedral of St. Joseph Parish in Jefferson City, is director of deacon formation for the Jefferson City diocese.