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Deacons of the Church of the past and present

 The columnist is ordained to the diaconate, experiencing ‘a great joy to be in formation with these men’

By Deacon Bob Hunt

The sixth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles relates the choosing and the ordination of the first deacons of the Church.

Complaints arose among the Christians that Greek-speaking widows and Hebrew-speaking widows were not being treated equally in the distribution of goods intended for the needy. The Apostles, wanting to focus on the teachings of Jesus Christ, instructed the community to choose seven upright men to be ordained to the ministry of the table, meaning keeping an account of the resources distributed to the needy, ensuring that all were served equally.

These seven men, Stephen, Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicholas of Antioch were the first men ordained to the diaconate. Clearly, however, managing the Church’s resources was not to be their only duty, for two of these deacons, St. Stephen and St. Philip, were active in preaching the word of God.

Philip preached and evangelized in Samaria and explained the Gospel to the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8). Stephen’s preaching in Jerusalem led to his being accused before the Sanhedrin and to his honored position as the first Christian martyr (Acts 6-7).

St. Paul wrote of the qualifications of deacons: “Deacons must be dignified, not deceitful, not addicted to drink, not greedy for sordid gain, holding fast to the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. Moreover, they should be tested first; then, if there is nothing against them, let them serve as deacons. …

“Deacons may be married only once and must manage their children and their households well. Thus, those who serve well as deacons gain good standing and much confidence in their faith in Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 3:8-10 and 3:12-13).

Deacons were highly respected in the early centuries of the Church. In the First Letter of Pope St. Clement I, the successor of St. Peter writes that bishops and deacons were appointed by the apostles to preach the Good News, and St. Ignatius of Antioch, writing to the Church in Tralles in Asia Minor, instructs them to “reverence the deacons as an appointment of Jesus Christ, and the bishop as Jesus Christ, who is the Son of the Father, and the priests as the sanhedrin of God, and assembly of the Apostles. Apart from these, there is no Church” (Trallians 3).

This three-fold order of bishop-priest-deacon was the pattern of Church ministry in the earliest decades of the Church. The permanent diaconate, however, began a long decline in the West starting in the fifth century, though it remains integral to the Eastern Rites of the Catholic Church to this day. By the 13th century, the permanent diaconate had disappeared in the Latin Rite.

Thoughts on reviving it began as early as the Council of Trent in the mid-16th century. Pope Ven. Pius XII favored restoration of the permanent diaconate, but it was Pope St. Paul VI who took the initiative in response to the bishops of the Second Vatican Council and restored the permanent diaconate to the Church.

The word “deacon” comes from the Greek diakonia (die-uh-KO-nee-uh), meaning “service among others.” The ministry of a deacon is that of one who serves the bishop and the people of God.

Deacons in the Church today carry out a variety of ministries, including positions of direct service to the bishop, such as diocesan chancellor, as well as prison ministry, food pantries and soup kitchens, Christian education and evangelization, spiritual direction and counseling, marriage preparation, medical and nursing ministries, and, of course, preaching and serving at the altar.

On Saturday, June 11, at the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, more than 20 men were ordained to the permanent diaconate for the Diocese of Knoxville. I was honored to be one among them.

After five years of formation, of communal and individual prayer and spiritual direction, we were called to orders by Bishop Stika and ordained for the ministry of the Church, representing 17 different parishes across the diocese. It has been a great joy to be in formation with these men, who desire nothing other than to serve Christ and His Church and to do good things with their lives.

Coming to a parish near you will be a newly ordained deacon! Please pray for us, as we pray and labor for the Gospel among you. Impelled by the love of Christ, we each hope to be for the Church a herald of the Good News and a servant modeled on the example of our Lord.

Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.

 

Deacon Bob Hunt is a husband, father, grandfather, and parishioner at All Saints Church in Knoxville.

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