29. At a lower level of the hierarchy are deacons, upon whom hands are imposed “not unto the priesthood, but unto a ministry of service.”(74*) For strengthened by sacramental grace, in communion with the bishop and his group of priests they serve in the diaconate of the liturgy, of the word, and of charity to the people of God. It is the duty of the deacon, according as it shall have been assigned to him 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 Scripture to the faithful, to instruct and exhort the people, to preside over the worship and prayer of the faithful, to administer sacramentals, to officiate at funeral and burial services. Dedicated to duties of charity and of administration, let deacons be mindful of the admonition of Blessed Polycarp: “Be merciful, diligent, walking according to the truth of the Lord, who became the servant of all.”(75*)
Since these duties, so very necessary to the life of the Church, can be fulfilled only with difficulty in many regions in accordance with the discipline of the Latin Church as it exists today, the diaconate can in the future be restored as a proper and permanent rank of the hierarchy. It pertains to the competent territorial bodies of bishops, of one kind or another, with the approval of the Supreme Pontiff, to decide whether and where it is opportune for such deacons to be established for the care of souls. With the consent of the Roman Pontiff, this diaconate can, in the future, be conferred upon men of more mature age, even upon those living in the married state. It may also be conferred upon suitable young men, for whom the law of celibacy must remain intact.
(74) Constitutiones Ecclesiac aegyptiacae, III, 2: ed. Funk, Didascalia, II, p. 103. Statuta Eccl. Ant. 371: Mansi 3, 954.
(75) S. Polycarpus, Ad Phil. 5, 2: ed. Funk, I, p. 300: Christus dicitur . omnium diaconus factus .. Cfr. Didache, 15, 1: ib., p. 32. S.Ignatius M. Trall. 2, 3: ib., p. 242. Constitutiones Apostolorum, 8, 28, 4: ed. Funk, Didascalia, I, p. 530.
In this paragraph, the Council Fathers speak of the ministry of the deacon, at the “lower level” of the hierarchy who, as they say, are ordained to the ministry of service. The chief ministries of the deacon are to assist at the liturgy, to proclaim the Word of God, and to serve in various ministries of charity. The word “deacon” comes from the Greek diakonia, which means “service.”
The functions of the deacon are laid out in the paragraph above, each of which are connected to the Word of God, the prayers of the Church, and to service to the Body of Christ in some way, shape, or form. Deacons in the United States traditionally adopt a particular ministry of service, along with proclaiming the Gospel, offering the prayers of the faithful, and otherwise assisting the priest at Mass. Occasionally, deacons are called on to preach. They also commit themselves to the Liturgy of the Hours, especially morning prayer and evening prayer.
The paragraphs above are historically significant, for they inspired the renewal of the ministry of the permanent deacon in the West. Deacons have been an important part of the ordained ministry of the Eastern Catholic Churches without interruption. Around the fifth century, however, the diaconate declined in the Latin Church until it disappeared almost completely, except for those men who would be ordained deacons as a step toward priestly ordination.
In response to the recommendation of the Council Fathers in Lumen gentium, Pope Blessed Paul VI issued the motu proprio Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem, restoring the permanent diaconate in the West. Since then, men from all ranks of the Church have responded with generosity in service to the Church as deacons. Some famous deacons in the history of the Church include St. Stephen, protomartyr, and St. Francis of Assisi.
Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.