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What is a Deacon


Dedicated to the 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 servant of all." (Lurnen Gentium, #29)

The ministry of a deacon is similar to but different from that of a priest of bishop. A deacon is ordained and missioned by Christ through the bishop to minister to the needy and the poor and to be a minister of Word and Sacrament, working in obedience to his bishop and in close fraternal cooperation with priests. While all Christians are called to serve others, the deacon is an official sign of this service and he solemnly promises to be a living example of such service for others.


Through Holy Orders, the deacon acquires a special relationship to the bishop. Though surely "his own man" - by reason of his place in the hierarchy - tradition refers to him as "the bishop's man ... the bishop's ears and eyes." His ministry of charity, word, and sacrament enables the Church to be a credible sign of the Servant Christ in the world.

Who Is the Deacon?

"Let them be merciful and zealous, and let them walk according to the truth of the Lord who became servant of all." (St. Polycarp’s admonition to deacons, Lumen Gentium, #29)

The Order of Deacons was restored as a permanent and public ministry in the Roman Church at the Second Vatican Council. The aims of the diaconate are to enrich and strengthen the works of service being performed by the Church, to enlist a new group of devout and competent married and single men in the active ministry of the Church, and to aid in extending needed charitable and liturgical service to the faithful. Wives of deacons assist in many of these areas. The number of deacons has continued to grow steadily, and there are now more than 15,000 permanent deacons ministering in the United States. There are more than 230 active deacons in the Archdiocese of Boston, and 40 men currently in formation. A Deacon is ordained to the three-fold ministry of Word, Liturgy, and Charity, working in obedience to his bishop and in close fraternal cooperation with priests. Through Holy Orders, the deacon acquires a special relationship to the bishop. While all Christians are called to serve others, the deacon is an icon of the Servant Christ in the Church. The deacon should be a creative leader, one who gradually initiates a meaningful response of loving service from the community to those who are in spiritual or material need. The Deacon’s ministry of word, liturgy, and charity may include:

What Are the Requirements?

The deacon is called personally and ecclesially to serve after the manner of Jesus. He is first and foremost a Christian man in his usual employment and lifestyle, trained and formed by additional study and prayer for a special ministry to the community as an ordained minister. Consideration is given to the following as to a man's suitability for the Diaconate Formation Program:

Admission and Formation:

Deacons: Ordained to the three-fold ministry of Word, Liturgy, and Charity

Excerpts from the National Directory for the Formation, Ministry, and Life of Permanent Deacons in the United States (USCCB)

The deacon’s ministry, as Pope John Paul II has said, “is the Church’s service sacramentalized.” Therefore, the deacon’s service in the Church’s ministry of word and liturgy would be severely deficient if his exemplary witness and assistance in the Church’s ministry of charity and justice did not accompany it. Thus, Pope John Paul II affirms both: “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.”

Like those once chosen by the Apostles for the ministry of charity, you should be men of good reputation, filled with wisdom and the Holy Spirit. Firmly rooted and grounded in faith, you are to show yourselves chaste and beyond reproach before God and man, as is proper for the ministers of Christ and the stewards of God’s mysteries. Never allow yourselves to be turned away from the hope offered by the Gospel. Now you are not only hearers of this Gospel but also its ministers. Holding the mystery of faith with a clear conscience, express by your actions the Word of God which your lips proclaim, so that the Christian people, brought to life by the Spirit, may be a pure offering accepted by God. Then on the last day, when you go out to meet the Lord you will be able to hear him say, “Well done, good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of your Lord.”

From the ordination rite

A deacon may have greater abilities in one aspect of ministry; and, therefore, his service may be marked by one of them more than by the others. Fundamentally, however, there is an intrinsic unity in a deacon’s ministry. In preaching the word, he is involved in every kind of missionary outreach. In sanctifying God’s People through the liturgy, he infuses and elevates people with new meaning and with a Christian worldview. In bringing Christ’s reign into every stratum of society, the deacon develops a Christian conscience among all people of good will, motivating their service and commitment to the sanctity of human life.

Ministry of the Word

The deacon participates as an evangelizer and teacher in the Church’s mission of heralding the word. In the liturgy of the word, especially in the Eucharist or in those liturgies where he is the presiding minister, the deacon proclaims the Gospel. He may preach by virtue of ordination and in accord with the requirements of Canon Law. Other forms of the deacon’s participation in the Church’s ministry of the word include catechetical instruction; religious formation of candidates and families preparing for the reception of the sacraments; leadership roles in retreats, evangelization, and renewal programs; outreach to alienated Catholics; and counseling and spiritual direction, to the extent that he is properly trained. The deacon also strives to “transmit the word in [his] professional [life] either explicitly or merely by [his] active presence in places where public opinion is formed and ethical norms are applied.”

Ministry of the Liturgy

For the deacon, as for all members of the Church, the liturgy is “the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; at the same time it is the fount from which all the Church’s power flows.” For the Church gathered at worship, moreover, the ministry of the deacon is a visible, grace-filled sign of the integral connection between sharing at the Lord’s Eucharistic table and serving the many hungers felt so keenly by all God’s children. In the deacon’s liturgical ministry, as in a mirror, the Church sees a reflection of her own diaconal character and is reminded of her mission to serve as Jesus did. In his formal liturgical roles, the deacon brings the poor to the Church and the Church to the poor. Likewise, he articulates the Church’s concern for justice by being a driving force in addressing the injustices among God’s people. He thus symbolizes in his roles the grounding of the Church’s life in the Eucharist and the mission of the Church in her loving service of the needy.

During the celebration of the Eucharistic liturgy, the deacon participates in specific penitential rites as designated in the Roman Missal. He properly proclaims the Gospel. He may preach the homily in accord with the provisions of Canon Law. He voices the needs of the people in the General Intercessions, needs with which he should have a particular and personal familiarity from the circumstances of his ministry of charity. The deacon assists the presider and other ministers in accepting the offerings of the people, symbolic of his traditional role in receiving and distributing the resources of the community among those in need, and he helps to prepare the gifts for sacrifice. During the celebration he helps the faithful participate more fully, consciously, and actively in the Eucharistic sacrifice, may extend the invitation of peace, and serves as an ordinary minister of Communion. Deacons have a special responsibility for the distribution of the cup. Finally, he dismisses the community at the end of the Eucharistic liturgy. Other liturgical roles for which the deacon is authorized include those of solemnly baptizing, witnessing marriages, bringing viaticum to the dying, and presiding over funerals and burials. The deacon can preside at the liturgies of the word and communion services in the absence of a priest. He may officiate at celebrations of the Liturgy of the Hours and at exposition and benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. He can conduct public rites of blessing, offer prayer services for the sick and dying, and administer the Church’s sacramentals.

Ministry of Charity

The apostles’ decision to appoint ministers to attend to the needs of the Greek-speaking widows of the early Church at Jerusalem has long been interpreted as a normative step in the evolution of ministry. It is seen as a practical response to Jesus’ command during the Last Supper of mutual service among his followers. In washing his disciples’ feet, Jesus as head and shepherd of the community modeled the service that he desired to be the hallmark of their faithfulness. This gave the disciples a powerful sign of the love of God that was, in Jesus himself, incarnate and intended to be forever enfleshed in the attitudes and behaviors of his followers. The deacon, consecrated and conformed to the mission of Christ, Lord and Servant, has a particular concern for the vitality and genuineness of the exercise of diakonia in the life of the believing community. In a world hungry and thirsty for convincing signs of the compassion and liberating love of God, the deacon sacramentalizes the mission of the Church in his words and deeds, responding to the master’s command of service and providing real-life examples of how to carry it out.


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