Diaconate again flourishes after centuries of decline within the Catholic Church
By Father Randy Stice
On June 11, Bishop Stika will ordain 24 men as permanent deacons. Permanent deacons “have embraced this ordained ministry as a permanent state of life” while “transitional” deacons will eventually be ordained priests. (Newsletter, USCCB Committee on Divine Worship, June 2014).
The diaconate flourished in the western Church until the fifth century, after which it experienced a slow decline, eventually surviving only as a stage for candidates preparing for the priesthood. In the 16th century, the Council of Trent intended to restore the ancient form of the diaconate, but the intention was never carried out.
The Second Vatican Council called for restoration of “the diaconate as a proper and permanent rank of the hierarchy…(and confer it) even upon married men, provided they be of more mature age, and also on suitable young men for whom, however, the law of celibacy must remain in force” (Lumen Gentium, 29).
According to Basic Norms for the Formation of Permanent Deacons and the Directory for the Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons (DMLPD, n. 2), three reasons lay behind the council’s decision: “(i) a desire to enrich the Church with the functions of the diaconate, which otherwise, in many regions, could only be exercised with great difficulty; (ii) the intention of strengthening with the grace of diaconal ordination those who already exercised many of the functions of the diaconate; (iii) a concern to provide regions, where there was a shortage of clergy, with sacred ministers.”
The ministry of the deacon is characterized by the exercise of the three munera (offices)—teaching, sanctifying, governing—proper to the ordained ministry, according to the specific perspective of diakonia (service). The deacon exercises his office of teaching by proclaiming the Scriptures and instructing and exhorting the people, which is expressed during the rite of ordination by the presentation of the Book of the Gospels (DMLPD, 9). He exercises his office of sanctifying “in prayer, in the solemn administration of baptism, in the custody and distribution of the Eucharist, in assisting at and blessing marriages, in presiding at the rites of funeral and burial, and in the administration of sacramentals. This brings out how the diaconal ministry has its point of departure and arrival in the Eucharist, and cannot be reduced to simple social service” (DMLPD, 9). Finally, he exercises his office of governing by his “dedication to works of charity and assistance and in the direction of communities or sectors of church life, especially as regards charitable activities. This is the ministry most characteristic of the deacon” (DMLPD, 9).
The essential elements of the rite of ordination are the laying on of the hands by the bishop and the words of the prayer of ordination, “expressed in the three moments of anamnesis [memorial], epiclesis [invocation of the Holy Spirit] and intercession.
The anamnesis (that recounts the history of salvation centered in Christ) goes back to the “Levites,” recalling worship, and to “seven” of the Acts of the Apostles (6:1-7), recalling charity. The epiclesis invokes the power of the seven gifts of the Spirit so that the ordinand may imitate Christ as “deacon.” The intercession is an exhortation to a generous and chaste life (DMLPD, 6).
The imposition of hands and the prayer of ordination are followed by three explanatory rites. First, the newly ordained deacon is vested with a stole, a symbol of service, worn as a sash from left to right, and dalmatic, which together manifest the liturgical ministry of the deacon. Next, he kneels before the bishop, who places the Book of the Gospels in his hands and says, “Receive the Gospel of Christ, whose herald you have become. Believe what you read, teach what you believe, and practice what you teach.” This “signifies the office of the Deacon to proclaim the Gospel in liturgical celebrations and to preach the faith of the Church in word and deed” (Rites of Ordination, 188).
The bishop then says, “peace be with you” and gives him the fraternal kiss. The rite concludes with the other deacons present giving the new deacon the fraternal kiss. The bishop’s fraternal kiss “seals, so to speak, the deacons’ admittance into their fraternity,” and the fraternal kiss of the other deacons welcomes “the newly ordained Deacons to the common fraternity of their Order” (Rites of Ordination, n. 188).
In the rite of ordination, before the Litany of the Saints, the bishop addresses the assembly: “My dear people, let us pray that God the all-powerful Father will mercifully pour out the grace of his blessing on these, his servants, whom in his kindness he raises to the Holy Order of the Diaconate” (RO, 202).
May all the faithful of the Diocese of Knoxville pray for these 24 men to be ordained on June 11 by Bishop Stika. ■
Father Stice is pastor of St. Mary Church in Athens and directs the diocesan Office of Worship and Liturgy. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.