This is a question that has much exercised my pondering neurons of late. There doesn’t seem to be a simple or universally-agreed answer. I’m bearing in mind that the current model of the ministry has only existed in the Roman Catholic Church since Vatican II in the 1960s, so it is still in the early stages of understanding itself.
Firstly, to clear up some misunderstanding, the permanent diaconate is quite different to the transitional diaconate, for those on their way to priesthood. It has been used to describe the official role first taken on by the seven Greek-speakers in Acts 6:1-6, and can be found mentioned in various other places in the bible. The diaconal words in Greek include: διακονος (diakonos, deacon), διακονία (diakonia, ministry) and διακονεω (diakoneo, to serve), and their declensions. The meaning in my trusty Greek biblical dictionary includes the ideas: service, ministry, care, help, mission, contribution, support, provision and office or authority of deacon/deaconess.1
My scope has been widened, however, by a more recent study of the meaning of the Greek words by John Collins, who was investigating the phrase of Jesus in Mark 10:45, “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”2 I had never realised, but at this point, Jesus is using the diaconal words to describe his own ministry – as does St Paul in many places including Rom 11:13. Anyway, John Collins researched the usage of these words in many sources earlier and contemporary to the bible. As summarised by Deacon Anthony Gooley, the meaning in the early Church may be understood as “Deacon = one commissioned by the church for the ministry of the bishop.”3
In any case, diaconal ministry seems to be officially authorised and overseen, with a missionary outlook, proclaiming the Good News of Christ and serving in marginal communities. Deacons worked with bishops (see Phil 1:1) and were established as a ministry prior to Christian priesthood (what we now consider priests are referred to as presbyters in the Second Testament). In 1 Tim 3:8-13, the author lists qualifications for deacons (male and female) including “boldness in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.”
Without a doubt, diaconal ministry underwent many changes over the first centuries of Christian faith. Over time, it evolved from a permanent ministry to a transitional one, in preparation for the priesthood. However, half way through last century, people started to discuss its restoration in the Roman Catholic Church. It was one of the top agenda topics in the Second Vatican Council, and was introduced in Lumen Gentium #29. In 1967, Pope Paul VI published an apostolic letter, Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem, to enflesh the reality of such a ministry. As the International Theological Commission stressed, however, in 2002, the restored permanent diaconate was not a duplication of some previous historical form.4 It was, in fact, a new ministry for a new world. In Lumen Gentium and in Canon #1009 §3, diaconal ministry comprises the word, liturgy and charity. It is a ministry of the bishop in a diocese, alongside that of the priests. The diaconate is conferred by ordination and includes both married and single candidates, enrolled in a diocese and/or a religious family. Deacons undertake certain liturgical functions, such as presiding and preaching, as well as service, charity, administration, missionary outeach and justice. They are to “live a truly evangelical life”5 and, are as Pope Francis says, “the custodians of service in the Church.”6
I have been speaking to several deacons about what diaconal ministry means to them now. It is a challenging question, as there are so many different ways of living it out. There is also a developing understanding of how the identity and ministry of the deacon fits within Church structures, and with respect to other ministries. Some men carry out their permanent diaconate in the context of secular jobs, chaplaincy to various communities, educational institutions or diocesan roles. Many have wives, some of which are intimately involved with them in the ministry. Deacons perform roles within liturgical celebrations, especially in proclaiming the gospels. Furthermore, their lives are meant to witness the good news in practice, in particular among those on the margins. As Deacon Roderick Pirotta of Parramatta Diocese put it, diaconal ministry is “to combine liturgy, sacraments and service together.” So as this new form of diaconal ministry matures, let us continue to ponder and allow the Spirit to inspire this truly life-giving and compassionate mission.
1Barclay M. Newman, A Concise Greek-English Dictionary of the New Testament (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1993), 42.
2See John Collins, Diaconia: Reinterpreting the Ancient Sources (London: OUP: 1990).
3Anthony Gooley, Deacons Today: New Wine and New Wineskins (Bayswater: Coventry Press, 2019), 128.
4International Theological Commission, From the Diakonia of Christ to the Diakonia of the Apostles (2002), 62.
5Pope Paul VI, Apostolic Letter, Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem (1967), 6.
6Pope Francis, Address, “To the Permanent Deacons of the Diocese of Rome, and their Families” (2021).