The Permanent Diaconate — A short history


By Deacon Frank Lucca
Co-Director, Diocesan Permanent Diaconate Office

In anticipation of accepting applications for the 10th diaconate class this fall, we would like to take this opportunity to share with you and with all members of the diocese, information on the permanent diaconate.

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A permanent deacon is a man who serves God and His people as an ordained representative of the Church. In the early Church, besides bishops, some men called deacons were ordained to serve the Church and help fellow Christians. In the years that followed the apostolic age, the diaconate became a recognized and important office in the Church, a full part of the three-fold hierarchy of orders: bishops, priests and deacons. 

As the diaconate flourished in the early life of the Church, the signs of decline began to appear. The reasons for this decline were varied, but the one which emerged as the strongest seemed to be an overemphasis on the deacon’s Liturgical role at the expense of his other functions. The ministry of service began to be taken over by priests and lay people. During all this, the Church lost sight of the special role of the deacon, and the need for the office became less and less clear. Thus, by the Middle Ages, it had become, for all practical purposes, what it has remained until 50 years ago, namely a preparatory stage for priesthood. Over the last seven centuries, this Sacred order had been received almost exclusively by those who would eventually be ordained priests 

With the onslaught and aftermath of World War II, however, and the attending rigors it brought to the Church, the absolute need for the restoration of permanent deacons became evident. Thus, from 1951-1968, preparations were made and set in motion to restore the office of the permanent diaconate. 

The Second Vatican Council recommended that the diaconate be restored as a permanent order in the modern Church. Shortly after Blessed Pope Paul VI declared that he would restore the diaconate in those countries that wished it. In August of 1968, at the request of the Catholic bishops, he approved the permanent diaconate in the United States. In 2018, we will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the restoration. 

It is significant to note that the word deacon comes from the Greek work diakonia which means “service” or “helper.” It occurs several times in the New Testament and sometimes is applied to Christ Himself. A deacon may serve in a variety of ways depending on his abilities and desires and the needs of the local community. He may service full time, or more likely, part time. He will serve with the help of the Sacramental grace of Holy Orders. Today’s permanent diaconate, in short, is a way to serve the people of God.

At the Second Vatican Council, the bishops of the world anticipated the Church’s growing need for the ministries of word, Liturgy and charity, which at that time were principally shared only with bishops and priests. The bishops of the council reflected on the ministry of the deacon, as it was exercised in the first few centuries of the Church’s history, and decided to restore it as an active and permanent ministry open to married and single men.

The Church today needs the service of permanent deacons. They implement and enrich the work of their brother priests and bishops while at the same time bring a unique sensitivity to the entire concept of ministry.

Candidates accepted by the diocese will relate to the whole Church community. The ministry of the deacon is three-fold — Ministry of the Word, Ministry of the Liturgy, and Ministry of Charity:

Ministry of the Word

The Church was commissioned by Jesus Christ to proclaim authentically and fully the Good News to make disciples of all peoples. This mission is still going on. As a sharer in Holy Orders, the deacon is sent to preach the Word of God. He fulfills this role by reading the Gospel and preaching at Liturgical celebrations, by conducting prayer services, Bible vigils, Penance services, by preparing people for Marriage, Confirmation, reception into the Church, etc.

Ministry of the Liturgy

It is the duty of the deacon, to the extent that he has been authorized by competent authority, to administer Baptism solemnly, to be custodian and dispenser of the Eucharist, to assist at and bless Marriages in the name of the Church, to bring Viaticum to the dying, to read the Sacred Scriptures to the faithful, to administer Sacramentals, and to officiate at funeral and burial services.

Ministry of Charity

Loving and serving individuals and the community of persons in Christ is the deacon’s most characteristic ministry; like the Lord, he washes the feet of others. For many people, the deacon’s chief witness will be in person-to-person encounters — from the aged, the sick in hospitals and homes, prisoners, the poor and the rejected, to prisoners, to the young on our college campuses, and to the poor, to the marginalized and those on the periphery — for all of these a deacon can be one who cares, who brings Good News from the heart of the Christian community.

The potential for good in the diaconate ministry is far-reaching, in our own diocese and in the modern world. The deacon is the ordained minister whose mandate has existed from the time of the Apostles. The call to the diaconate is a call to service and a total commitment to God. It is a call to share in a community in today’s Church that will be recognized by all of God’s people through the deacon’s sign of service. 

As the Church continues to face the challenges of today, it needs to be constantly reminded that the Lord came to serve and not be served. The deacon symbolizes and exemplifies Christ the Servant.

If you would like more information on the permanent diaconate, please visit our website http://www.fallriverdeacons.com. 

We anticipate that we will be accepting applications beginning this fall for our 10th class of deacons who will begin their five years of formation beginning in the spring of 2019. If interested in discerning your vocation to this diaconal ministry, please consider applying. The discernment process as to whether you are being called to the ministry, takes place during the years of formation.

In future articles, deacons of the diocese of Fall River will share their diaconal journey and we’ll provide additional information of the various steps on the road to ordination as well as responding to questions you may have. 

Should you have any questions, please feel free to contact Father Bob Oliveira or Deacon Frank Lucca, diocesan co-directors of the Office for the Permanent Diaconate at frpermanentdiaconate@verizon.net.


© 2017 The Anchor and Anchor Publishing  †  Fall River, Massachusetts