Deacon Yesterday and Today
Written by Duane
Law Society of America has approved the issuance of a report titled "The
Canonical Implications of Ordaining Women to the Permanent Diaconate." This
report has generated considerable publicity and the Foundation has been asked by
quite a few of our friends if we intend to comment. We intend to do so but are
still in the process of carefully preparing our observations. In the meantime,
Duane Galles has written an excellent article about deacons in general and I
believe it will serve also to provide the needed background to our forthcoming
observations concerning the possibility of ordaining women to the diaconate.
Also, the article is timely since the feast of the proto-deacon and proto-martyr
St. Stephen is observed on December 26. CMW.]
Three decades ago in 1964, in article 29 of its dogmatic
constitution on the Church, <Lumen gentium>, the Second Vatican Council
asked Paul VI to restore the permanent diaconate in the Latin church. He did so
by the motu proprio, <Sacrum diaconatus ordinem>, which was promulgated on
June 18, 1967, the feast of Saint Ephraem, deacon. The apostolic letter
permitted episcopal conferences to request that the Holy See allow the
ordination of celibate and married men permanently to the diaconate within their
territory. In April, 1968, the American bishops made that request, which four
months later was granted.
In November of that year the first Standing
Committee on the Permanent Diaconate of the National Conference of Catholic
Bishops was appointed. The Committee was charged with drawing up a program of
studies for the diaconate and in May and June of 1971, it saw the first fruits
of its labors with the first ordinations of permanent deacons since the
conciliar reform had been mooted.
Numerically, deacons have been one of
the successes since Vatican II. While the number of women religious in the
United States has plummeted forty per cent from 160,931 in 1970 to 94,431 in
1994, and during those same years the number of diocesan priests has declined
ten per cent from 37,292 to 33,204, during that same period the number of
deacons has soared. Starting at zero in 1970, by 1994 the number of permanent
deacons in the United States had jumped to 11,123; moreover, another 1,724
candidates awaited diaconal ordination. Of the permanent deacons, 92 per cent
were married, 13 per cent were Hispanic and 3 per cent were black. Some 1,740
were salaried church employees and 66 administered a parish or a mission.
Interestingly, in the entire Catholic world there were but 19,395 permanent
deacons and so the United States, which accounts for six per cent of the world's
Catholics, had sixty per cent of the Catholic world's permanent deacons.
Canon 835 tells us that the sanctifying office of the church is
exercised principally by the bishops, who are the high priests and the principal
dispensers of the mysteries of God. But later that same canon advises us that
deacons, too, have a share in that office, in accordance with the norms of law.
To understand, then, the role of deacons today one needs to survey the revised
1983 Code of Canon Law of the Latin church and her reformed liturgical rites.
THE DEACON IN HISTORY
But first one needs to know something about the deacon in
history. We initially encounter the deacon in the famous passage in Acts 6:2,
where Peter says it is not proper for the apostles to give up preaching so that
they can wait on tables. Accordingly, they ordained seven deacons, including the
proto-martyr Stephen, to serve the Christian community. By the end of the
ancient world the deacon was the bishop's assistant, serving as his "eyes and
ears," taking care of church property as well as administrative matters.
Deacons quickly became VIP's. One measure of the importance of the
deacon in the early church is the number of deacons elected pope in the early
Middle Ages. Of the thirty-seven men elected pope between 432 and 684 A.D., only
three are known to have been ordained to priest before their election to the
Chair of Peter.
In the course of time the bishop's principal
assistant, the <diaconus episcopi>, came to be called the archdeacon and
by the fifth century his role had developed into a powerful ecclesiastical
office. He had charge of church administration and of the care of the poor and
thus held the purse.
When archdeacons became too dominant sometimes
their bishops were minded to "kick them upstairs" by ordaining them priest
whereupon they would lose the office of archdeacon. Saint Jerome said,
"<archidiaconus injuriam putat si presbyter ordinetur,>" ("the archdeacon
thinks himself injured if ordained priest"), for then he would lose his powerful
archdiaconal office. Pope Gregory the Great, in fact, once upbraided a bishop
for ordaining his archdeacon priest with a view "craftily to degrade the
In ensuing centuries the archdeacon acquired the
duty of supervising and disciplining the lower clergy. Because of this role the
archdeacon acquired the right to examine candidates for ordination, and in the
ordinals we find the archdeacon now presenting to the bishop candidates for
priestly ordination and attesting their fitness.
Beginning with the
eighth century, the right to discipline the clergy brought to the archdeacon
ordinary jurisdiction and his own separate church court. And soon we find that
at least the larger dioceses were divided up into several archdeaconries, each
headed by an archdeacon who presided over a first instance tribunal and carried
out visitations to correct abuses and infractions of church canons. The
archdeacon also served as the bishop's administrative assistant in instituting
clerics to their benefices and watching over the decency of worship and the
repair of churches within his territory. In many places the archdeacon of the
see city also acted as vicar capitular, or diocesan administrator of the vacant
or impeded see.
From the eighth to the thirteenth century the power of
the archdeacon waxed greatly and archdeacons began to exercise quasi-episcopal
powers. Like bishops, they even began to appoint vicars and officials to carry
out their administrative and judicial functions, respectively. With the
development of the benefice system, moreover, archdeacons were no longer
removable at the whim of the bishop, since their archdeaconry was now considered
a benefice in which they had a life interest that was protected by law, barring
judicial privation for good cause. Their wide powers and fixity of tenure made
archdeacons serious rivals of bishops whose own authority over them had begun to
recede into something like that of a metropolitan over his suffragan bishops. So
powerful had the archdeacons become that a reform movement was spawned and
bishops began to counter the power of the archdeacons by appointing priests as
their vicars general and officials (or judicial vicars). These priests enjoyed
powers similar to those of archdeacons but, importantly, their office was not a
benefice and they served at the pleasure of the bishop and were directly subject
to his control. Once established, these alternatives set the scene for a frontal
assault on the power of the archdeacons.
The Council of Trent's reforms
drastically restricted the archdeacon's power. Archdeacons were deprived of the
power of excommunication and of their jurisdiction in matrimonial and criminal
matters. No longer could they make visitations and order the correction of
abuses, unless asked to do so by the bishop. By the seventeenth century the
once-powerful office had been reduced to that of a master of pontifical
ceremonies and the last vestige of the office was the liturgical role in the
ordination service of presenting the ordinands to the bishop at priestly
Now the office of archdeacon was merely
ceremonial and the real power had passed to the vicar general, vicar capitular
and the judicial vicar-all priests. The order of deacon itself became a mere
apprenticeship to priesthood lasting only a few months, even though until 1917 a
deacon still could be canonically appointed pastor of a parish or canon of a
cathedral or cardinal of the Holy Roman Church-as in the case of Pius IX's
Secretary of State, Giacomo Cardinal Antonelli (1806-1876), who never proceeded
beyond the order of deacon.
In our own century
the liturgical movement spawned an interest in the glorious history of the order
of deacon during the church's first millennium. Later, to restore to its
hierarchy of ordained ministers its <plena esse> (or fullness) the Second
Vatican Council asked Paul VI to restore the order of deacon as a permanent
order. As restored, however, the permanent deacon became the assistant of the
priest, not the bishop. Article 23 of the 1967 <motu proprio> saw the
deacon as "subject to the bishop and the priests." The document specifically
describes the deacon as assisting the priest or as deputising for the priest in
certain cases in the latter's absence.
This new role becomes clearer
when we survey the canonical framework within which permanent deacons operate
today. As we have seen, during the first Christian millennium deacons undertook,
as the bishops' assistants, the functions that are today those of the vicar
general, the judicial vicar, the vicar capitular, the cathedral chapter and the
oeconome, or finance officer. In current canon law these are almost exclusively
But before discussing the functions of the deacon it
is important to understand first his <status vitae>. Distinct from lay
people in the church by divine institution are the sacred ministers, whom canon
law calls clerics (c. 207). One becomes a cleric when one is ordained deacon (c.
266). Only clerics can obtain offices the exercise of which requires the power
of orders or the power of ecclesiastical governance (c. 274). Deacons thus are
clerics by virtue of their ordination and this makes them capable of exercising
sacred office and sacred power. All clerics must be incardinated in a diocese or
personal prelature or in some religious institute (c. 266). By ordination to the
diaconate one becomes incardinated in the entity for which one is ordained (c.
266), and a cleric becomes entitled to suitable remuneration (c. 281). Married
deacons with a secular job, however, are to provide for themselves and their
families from that job's income.
The archdeacon, as we have seen, was
the precursor of the office of vicar general and the archdeacon had enjoyed most
of the vicar general's powers. Today the moderator of the curia must be a
priest, under canon 473 #2, as must, under canon 478, the vicar general and that
other species of presbyteral local ordinary, the vicar episcopal.
archdeacon was also a judge ordinary with his own ecclesiastical court and the
forerunner, in fact, of the officialis. Today the judicial vicar (or officialis)
and vice-officialis (c. 1420) must be priests. Being a cleric, a deacon (who is
otherwise qualified) may be appointed a judge of an ecclesiastical tribunal.
Since as a cleric he is endowed with sacred power, a deacon (like a priest or
bishop) is allowed by canon 1421 to sit alone as a single judge in an
ecclesiastical tribunal. By contrast, the same canon requires that, when a
layman is appointed a judge, he can sit on a panel or collegiate tribunal only
along with two clerics. While today a deacon only assists a priest-officialis,
the deacon-canonist could, of course, be a very busy judge in an ecclesiastical
Deacons were once the bishop's "eyes and ears" and once as
canons were his chief advisors. Today the presbyteral council or senate of
priests has many of the functions of the chapter of canons and it advises the
diocesan bishop on the government of the diocese. As the name suggests, its
members, under canon 495, must be priests. <A fortiori> its inner circle,
the college of consultors (who have the remaining functions of the chapter of
canons), must-under canon 502- also be priests. This college must give its
advice and consent in certain church property matters and it elects the diocesan
administrator or vicar capitular if the see is vacant or impeded. Even the
eviscerated office of canon today can be held only by a priest (c. 503).
Before the 1917 <Code> a deacon could be appointed to an office
with the care of souls. Today only an ordained priest can be appointed validly
to the office of parish priest (c. 521), parochial vicar or assistant (c. 546),
vicar forane or rural dean (c. 553), rector of a non-parochial church (c. 556),
or chaplain of a community (c. 551). Deacons may, of course, assist the parish
priest (c. 519).
Of the manifold functions exercised by the deacon
during the first Christian millennium, today's deacon is permitted to hold only
the offices of chancellor (c. 482) and oeconome (finance officer) (c. 494) and
judge of the tribunal. All these duties, it might be noted, can also be held by
Besides his administrative and judicial roles, the restored
deacon is given certain liturgical roles: he may baptise solemnly, witness
marriages, administer sacramentals, conduct funerals, read sacred Scripture,
preach and instruct the faithful. He is portrayed as the leader of the
congregation in prayers. His functions include roles at Mass and in conferring
sacraments as well as in the liturgy of the hours, services of the word,
sacramentals and public devotions.
Perhaps the most important service of
the deacon to the sacred liturgy is at the solemn Mass, for in the solemn
liturgy the deacon's presence is necessary. The solemn Mass is a sung Mass
celebrated with the assistance of other sacred ministers. In 1972 Paul VI
suppressed first tonsure and converted the subdiaconate and minor orders into
lay ministries. Thus, today the deacon is the only sacred minister remaining
(besides the priest and bishop) and his presence at the solemn liturgy is
necessary for it to take place.
At Mass his assigned roles include
reading the Gospel and the intercessions, preaching, and distributing Holy
Communion. Despite the ubiquity of "extra-ordinary" ministers of Holy Communion
in this country, it might be pointed out that canon 910 declares that the
"ordinary" minister of Holy Communion is a bishop, priest or deacon. For Mass
the deacon vests in amice, alb, cincture, stole, maniple (if desired) and in his
distinctive vestment, the dalmatic. Article 71 of the <General Instruction on
the Roman Missal> notes that the functions of the deacon can be divided
between two or more deacons.
In my own parish there is a solemn Latin Mass
each Sunday celebrated by a priest and assisted by two deacons - using the
reformed Vatican II missal and rubrics. One deacon serves as "Gospel deacon" and
the other as "altar deacon." In this way it is possible to celebrate the
<novus ordo> solemn Mass with most of the ceremonies of the Roman rite as
Adrian Fortescue described them in his classic work on the liturgy, written
decades before the introduction of the reformed rite.
The liturgy of
the hours provides a more extensive role for deacons. Canon 276 2 and 3 requires
that permanent deacons recite daily that portion of the liturgy of the hours
laid down by the episcopal conference, which in the United States is morning
prayer and evening prayer. Vatican II intensely desired the renewal and revival
of the liturgy of the hours as a popular liturgical celebration on Sundays and
holy days and it urged a choral celebration (<Sacrosanctum Concilium>,
arts. 99, 100). Indeed, a little - remembered 1866 decree of the second plenary
council of Baltimore - still in force - requires vespers to be celebrated each
Sunday to the extent possible in all parish churches in the United States.
Sunday vespers, in fact, will be the most practicable part of the liturgy of the
hours for parish celebration. The deacon, vested in dalmatic and stole according
to article 255 of the General Instruction on the Liturgy of the Hours, could
preside at the service and preach.
Deacons may baptise solemnly, witness
marriages and conduct funerals. The reformed Vatican II rites are more complex
than those formerly followed in that they are preceded by a service of the word,
which consists of a prayer or exhortation, lessons and psalms. Vatican II was
most desirous that the reformed rites open up to the people the treasury of
Scripture and this has been done.
Canon 849 says that baptism is the
gateway to the sacraments and is necessary for salvation. By it one becomes
incorporated into the Church. Moreover, one not baptised cannot validly receive
any other sacrament (c. 842). Canon 861 declares that a deacon is an ordinary
minister of baptism. When baptism is administered by a deacon, he is to notify
the pastor so that a proper record of the baptism can be made in the parish
sacramental registers (c. 877).
A deacon is also qualified to assist
at marriages if he has the faculty to do so from the local ordinary, or a proper
delegation from the local ordinary or pastor (c. 1108). Since a deacon is a
cleric, he has sacred power by virtue of his ordination. Thus, when officiating
at a wedding, a deacon can in certain cases grant dispensations from matrimonial
impediments when there is a case of danger of death (c. 1079) and in certain
other emergency cases when all the preparations have been made and certain
impediments surface at the last moment (c. 1080). While lay people in some rare
cases might be given the faculty to assist at marriages (c. 1112), such persons
(as non-clerics) would lack the power to dispense. The deacon assisting at the
marriage would need to see to it that a record of the marriage were made in the
parish sacramental register and, where the couple were not baptised in the same
place as the marriage, send notice of the marriage to their places of baptism
(c. 1121) to be annotated in the baptismal register there.
cannot celebrate a funeral Mass, a deacon may conduct funerals and burial
services and preach. He should also record the funeral in the parish register of
funerals (c. 1182).
And while deacons cannot confirm or absolve, the
reformed rites for those sacraments underscore the deacon's role as leader of
the congregation at prayer by making provision for a deacon to announce the
intercessions. Thus, if Penance Rite II with a communal celebration followed by
individual confession and absolution is used, the deacon may lead the penitents
The worship of the Blessed Sacrament outside Mass has
lamentably declined since Vatican II, though nothing could be farther from the
church's wishes. The ritual continues to provide a "Rite of Eucharistic
Exposition and Benediction" of the Blessed Sacrament and a deacon may be the
minister of exposition and reposition and may bless the people with the Host in
a monstrance, wearing a cassock, surplice, stole and cope during the service as
well as a humeral veil at the blessing (c. 943). Benediction may occur in any
church in which the Blessed Sacrament is lawfully reserved. The rubrics provide
for the singing of Saint Thomas Aquinas' venerable eucharistic hymn, the "Tantum
ergo," and in the United States it is customary to precede this with the hymn "O
Salutaris." The rubrics encourage other psalms, hymns and prayers before the
benediction with the monstrance and on Sundays vespers might laudably be sung
before the Blessed Sacrament exposed.
Deacons may also preside at a
service of the word. This is not merely the "bible service" in vogue in the
1960's but includes a much wider number of services. On "priestless" Sundays it
might be the liturgy of the word taken from the Mass of the day followed by a
sermon and Holy Communion from the reserved Sacrament.
Deacons also have
a role in sacramentals and popular devotions. Despite the fact that Vatican II
"highly recommended" popular devotions (SC 13), these often have been neglected
since the Council and this is unfortunate. Such devotions provide a useful
bridge between the "domestic church" (the family) and the church's public
liturgy. Once again they should be encouraged, for canon 839 provides summary
recognition of the prayers and pious and sacred practices of Christian people.
These include litanies, the rosary and the Way of the Cross. Since deacons are
presumed to be nearer the popular pulse, this type of exercise suggests an
obvious opportunity for diaconal service. The deacon might preach as well.
In many places we have mentioned the deacon's faculty to preach. Just as
the sanctifying office is committed principally to the bishops, so too is the
preaching office principally committed to bishops, who are "moderators of the
entire ministry of the word" (c 756). And if lay people can be called upon to
"cooperate" with bishops and priests in the exercise of the ministry of the word
(c. 759), deacons by virtue of their ordination actually have a share in that
ministry (c. 757). Sacred ministers (and this includes deacons) are to consider
the office of preaching of great importance, since this is among their principal
duties (c. 762). Deacons, like priests, have the faculty to preach by virtue of
their ordination and may exercise it everywhere, unless their ordinary has
restricted it (c. 764). The homily or sermon at Mass is in fact reserved to a
priest or deacon (c. 767) and whenever administering some sacrament or
sacramental a deacon might well consider the utility of a sermon.
then, are the functions of the permanent deacon as restored by Vatican II and
set forth in the law. Even if they are fewer than those exercised by the deacons
of the first Christian millennium, they are clearly manifold and important
functions and ones opening up to the deacon many opportunities for service. They
also require considerable training and preparation.
Canonists have a
maxim, "<leges instituntur cum promulgantur; firmantur cum moribus,>"
("laws go into effect when they are promulgated, they become effective when they
are put into practice"). Put more simply by Mr. Justice Holmes, "the life of the
law is experience." We know now what the law is. We wait to see what will become
About the Author
Mr. Duane L.C.M. Galles is a graduate of
the William Mitchell College of Law (1977) and of St. Paul University, Ottawa
(J.C.B., 1982; J.C.L., 1988). He is a member of the American Bar Association
and the Canon law Society of America. Admitted to practice law before the
Supreme Court of the United States, he is currently Compliance Administrator for
the Minnesota Department of Commerce. Mr. Galles has had articles published in
Jurist and Sacred Music.