Up to the fifth century, the Diaconate flourished in the western Church, but after this period, it experienced, for various reasons, a slow decline which ended in its serving only as an intermediate stage for candidates preparing for ordination to the priesthood.
The restoration of the diaconate as a permanent ordained ministry in the Roman Catholic Church was one of the great legacies of the Second Vatican Council. The Sacred Order of Deacon was restored as “a driving force for the Church’s services or “diakonia” toward the local Christian communities and as a sign of the Lord Christ himself, who came not to be served but to serve.” With the Apostolic Letter Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem of June 1967, Pope Paul VI implemented the recommendations of the Second Vatican Council by determining general norms governing the restoration of the Permanent Diaconate in the Latin Church.
The Permanent Diaconate is an important enrichment for the mission of the Church. It is both convenient and useful, especially in mission territories that men who are called to a truly diaconal ministry in the Church, whether liturgical or pastoral, charitable or social, “be strengthened by the imposition of hands, which has come down from the Apostles, and more closely united to the altar so as to exercise their ministry more fruitfully through the sacramental grace of the diaconate.” Insofar, as it is a grade of Holy Orders, the diaconate imprints a character and communicates a specific sacramental grace. Strengthened by this, deacons are dedicated to the People of God, in conjunction with the bishop and his body of priests, in the service (diakonia) of the liturgy, of the Gospel and of works of charity.
The ministry of the deacon is three-fold: Ministry of the Word, Ministry of the Liturgy, and Ministry of Charity.
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 sacramental’s, and to officiate at funeral and burial services.
In the parishes of our diocese, and especially in rural communities where there are no resident priests, the permanent deacons will be instrumental in forming and strengthening the ethnically diverse Christian community by leading and serving the people in liturgy as authorized, ministering to their needs, and strengthening their love and unity with God and with one another.
The deacon must be a community man, with all of the self-sacrifice and self-giving that the expression implies. This can involve participation in parish council sessions, in special discussions or action gatherings, in sub-groups with a parish, or in pastoral units independent of parish structure. Some bishops may assign deacons formally to such pastoral units.
The deacon, as a sign of serving the Church, has a place in the lay Christian’s more proper apostolate; that to the secular community. Recurrent environmental antipollution drives, cultural developments, and movements for the improvement of government, of schools, playgrounds and community services – all these are appropriate spheres of activity for the deacon. Here in the Diocese of Savannah, permanent deacons will become involved in the extensive program of the Social Apostolate now in operation in all of the major deaneries. Prison ministry, campus ministry, ministry to fallen-away Catholics, and ministry to the sick and shut-ins will be important fields of service.
The ministry of a married permanent deacon will be greatly affected by the attitude and concern of his wife and family. Before a man can be considered for acceptance into the Diaconal Program, he must have a letter hand-written by his wife to the bishop giving her full consent for her husband to apply for admittance to the program. It is critically important that she is aware of the magnitude of the lifetime commitment he desires to make. From the very beginning, the wives and family will be involved in the formation program, providing them the opportunity to understand better diaconal role for which their husband are preparing and to share in the personal growth process being experienced by their husbands. For these reasons, it is strongly recommended that the wife of the candidate participate as fully as possible in the entire program of formation, including attending all classes, attending social gatherings and retreats, etc. Opportunities will be provided for the couple which will include prayer, sharing learning and social interaction with other couples. As couples continue to discern God’s call to ordained ministry, it is through the on-going communication and being with others who share similar experiences, that spouses become more aware of the ministry of the permanent diaconate. These experiences will enhance each spouse’s ability to discern how this way of life will affect her spiritually, personally and relationally.