Who are Deacons?
Deacons are ministers in the Catholic Church who are configured to Christ to serve the People of God in Word, Liturgy and Charity both in the Church and in the world. The title, “deacon,” comes from the Greek word for service, “diakonia.” Through the sacrament of Holy Orders (ordination), deacons are configured to Jesus the Servant who “did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).
Ordination to the diaconate goes beyond a simple election, designation, delegation, or institution by the community, for it confers gifts of the Holy Spirit that permits the exercise of a ‘sacred power.’ The laying on of hands by the bishop, with the consecratory prayer, constitutes the visible sign of this ordination” (CCC 1538).
Are all deacons the same?
Yes, all Catholic deacons share an identical ministry, holiness and responsibility. All deacons may proclaim the Gospel at Mass and preach. They may baptize, witness marriages, and preside over funeral liturgies. Deacons may teach and work with the faithful in sacramental preparation. Deacons lead retreats, bring communion to the sick and homebound, and minister to persons in prison. Deacons are the visible sign of Jesus Christ in the world.
Deacons bound for the priesthood are sometimes called “transitional” deacons because of the short time that they are deacons before being ordained to the priesthood. “Permanent” deacons are those who remain in a life-long ministry of service.
How are the sacramental ministries of Word, Liturgy and Charity exercised by deacons?
- Word: At ordination the deacon receives the Book of Gospels with the charge: “Receive the Gospel of Christ whose herald you now are. Believe with you read, teach what you believe, and practice what you teach.” The ministry of the Word is the proclaiming, preaching and teaching the truths of Sacred Scripture and the Catholic faith.
- Liturgy: The deacon’s ministry is profoundly linked with the Eucharistic at Mass. The deacon brings the needs of the Christian community to the altar and then encourages the faithful to live their baptismal responsibilities in service to others. Deacons at Mass lead the community in the Penitential Act (“Lord have mercy”), proclaim the Gospel and occasionally preach, lead the Prayer of the Faithful, accept and prepare the gifts of bread and wine at the altar, invite the community to express the Sign of Peace, assist in the distribution of Holy Communion, and dismiss the community at the end of Mass. Deacons are ordinary ministers of Baptism, Marriage and Funerals and may be authorized to preside at them by their pastors.
- Charity: As ministers of charity, deacons live the Church’s mission of proclaiming God’s love and justice while inspiring others to lives of service and conversion of heart. Diaconal charity also involves reaching out to the poor and homeless, ministering to the hospitalized and incarcerated, speaking out on behalf of those who are marginalized or whose voices are unrecognized, and advocating for the dignity of all people. Diaconal charity extends to teaching the faith, giving retreats, assisting charitable organizations, and managing diocesan offices or parishes when appointed by the bishop. Deacons become the image of Christ the servant in their homes, the Church, on their jobs, in their neighborhoods and in the world.
Are Deacons Clergy?
Yes, deacons are clerics by virtue of ordination. There are three ranks of clergy in the Catholic Church: Bishops, Priests and Deacons. Bishops and priests receive the mission and power to act in the person of Christ the Head, while deacons receive the faculties to serve the People of God in the ministries of Liturgy, Word and Charity. Most deacons do not wear clerical clothing although they do wear liturgical vestments when ministering on the altar.
Can deacons be married?
Unlike bishops or priests, permanent deacons may be married at the time of ordination. They are responsible for their own financial support and frequently work in secular occupations to support their families.
What is a deacon’s form of address?
The Congregation for Clergy has determined that the appropriate title for deacons in printed or spoken form is “Deacon.”
Why is 2018 important to the diaconate in the United States?
2018 is the 50th anniversary of the approval by Blessed Pope Paul VI in 1968 giving bishops of the United States permission to renew the permanent diaconate as an active, permanent order of ministry.
Why did the diaconate need to be renewed?
Although deacons have existed in the Church from the earliest days of Christianity, the diaconate in the Roman Church changed focus as the roles of priests were evolving. Deacons were originally assistants to the bishops and wielded significant authority over diocesan property. As priests were assigned to head parish churches, deacons lost this responsibility. The combination of changes in the social order and an emphasis on the liturgy rather than service further diminished the role of deacons to the point that the diaconate became only a stepping stone toward the priesthood.
There was interest in restoring the diaconate at the Council of Trent (1545-1563) but no action was taken. Interest was renewed in the 1900s as theologians recognized the need for deacons to work with priests to extend the ministry of the Church into the world.
This need was underscored following World War II in response to the harshness of the Nazi regime. “Deacon circles” of that time promoted the vision of establishing the diaconate as an ordained ministry responsible to the bishop as his representative in charge of Christian charitable works (Caritas).
Fr. Karl Rahner’s theology in support of the diaconate stimulated the Second Vatican Council to discuss the reinstatement of the permanent diaconate within Holy Orders as necessary to complete the sacramental character of the Church. The fathers of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) voted overwhelmingly to affirm the diaconate as noted in several Council documents:
- Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium #29
- Decree on the Mission Activity of the Church, Ad Gentes
- Decree on the Catholic Churches of the Eastern Rite, Orientalium Ecclesiarum #17
- Constitution of the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concillium #35
- Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum #25
Following the Council in 1967, Pope Paul VI issued Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem – “General Norms for Restoring the Permanent Diaconate in the Latin Church” which outlined the role and responsibilities of deacons in service to the Church. In 1968, Bishops in the United States were granted permission to renew the permanent Order of Deacons by Blessed Pope Paul VI. The 50th anniversary of that renewal will be celebrated in 2018.
How many permanent deacons are there today?
A 2015 study by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University reports that there are over 18,500 permanent deacons in the United States today. Worldwide, there are approximately 30,000 deacons.
Who can be a deacon?
- Under current Church law, only men may apply for formation as deacons
- If single, applicants must be at least age 25 and be willing to remain celibate
- If married, applicants must be at least age 35, have the approval of their wives, and be willing to become celibate if their wives die before them (married deacons are not bound to celibacy)
- Maximum age for applicants is established by each diocese, but is generally around age 60 because formation takes a minimum of four years
- Applicants must be confirmed members of the Roman Catholic Church, have demonstrated parish involvement, service to others, and leadership capabilities
- Applicants must have the approval of their pastors
- Applicants must have the approval of their wives
- Applicants must be in good physical and emotional health and be willing to be scrutinized
- Applicants must be able to pass legal background checks
- Not all applicants are accepted in formation; each diocese sets its own criteria
- Applicants who are accepted must agree to the formation process and the requirements established by their local diocese
- Acceptance in formation is not a guarantee of ordination; no one has a right to ordination
- Educational requirements vary by diocese but applicants must be able to handle college-level coursework
- Applicants work through the Diaconal Office of their local diocese
What personal qualities are needed in deacons?
- Enjoy serving others
- Spiritual and prayerful
- Collaborative, but also a leader
- Writing skills
- Ability to speak in public
- Good time-management skills
- Ability to handle college-level course work
- Self-supporting (the Church does not pay deacons for their ministry)
How long does formation take?
- The process may take up to four years after a period of “Inquiry”
- The first year is “Aspirancy” and consists of prayer and discernment
- Years two, three and four are “Candidacy” and consist of prayer, coursework in scripture, theology, Canon law, homiletics, spiritual direction, sacramental practicums, service ministry, and ongoing discernment by both the individual and the diocese
- Spouses of candidates must approve each step along the path of formation before the candidate can proceed to the next step
- Candidates petition their bishop to request ordination during the fourth year
- If the bishop approves the request, ordination by the bishop follows completion of the fourth year of formation
- Once ordained, a deacon is responsible for ongoing formation and continuing education requirements established by his diocese
For more information:
Learn more about the diaconate by contacting the Office of the Diaconate or Vocations Office at your local diocese.