Monday, October 08, 2018 - Updated: 2:03 pm
Over dinner one evening at the convent where I live, one of the sisters asked about the ordination of transitional deacons this past summer. Although she has lived in the United States for a number of years, she is originally from Poland and was trying to distinguish between the deacons who are headed toward priesthood and those who are called and ordained to remain deacons.
We typically call the latter permanent deacons. But in her struggle to find the right language, the sister mistakenly referred to the permanent deacons, most of whom are married, as “lay deacons.” Immediately another sister at the table corrected her. “These men are ordained. They are not laypeople.”
I tried to explain, “All deacons, whether they will someday be ordained as priests or not, are clergy.” The diaconate is part of the sacrament of holy orders.
This misunderstanding might be more common than we realize. As our diocese has welcomed many more deacons to ministry in our parishes and institutions, some parishioners who have never encountered a permanent deacon before may now have one, two or more on the clergy team in their grouping. These parishioners are likely to ask questions, and we should be ready to give answers.
Deacons are clergy, ordained by a bishop and assigned by a bishop. Most have jobs that are not affiliated with a parish, and undertake their diaconal ministry apart from their regular work. Some deacons, however, also hold paid positions on parish staffs in roles such as pastoral associate and business manager. Ordained to the ministry of service and charity, some deacons are assigned to serve in hospitals or jails, apart from their service in a parish.
Deacons are not glorified extraordinary ministers of holy Communion or some kind of “super altar servers.” They also are not priest substitutes; for instance, deacons do not celebrate the Eucharist or hear confessions. Deacons assist the bishop, and in parishes they assist the priests, proclaiming the Gospel at liturgies as ministers of the word, announcing the petitions of the universal prayer, and offering the chalice as ordinary ministers of the Eucharist.
Deacons may preach. They may administer the sacrament of baptism, witness marriages and preside at funeral services outside of Mass. They also may conduct wake services and committals. Some deacons have gifts for spiritual direction or counseling, both important in the life of the faithful.
If a man is accepted as a candidate for the permanent diaconate, he attends seminary part time for at least five years before he can be ordained. If an applicant for the diaconate is married, his wife must be supportive of his call to pursue ministry. The diocese offers retreats and other spiritual support for the wives of deacons.
Deacons wear the alb, as do priests, but also a special vestment called a dalmatic, a garment with sleeves that is slit open on the sides. They wear the stole as the sign of their ordination, but they wear it differently than do the priests. While priests wear it over both shoulders, deacons wear their stoles over one shoulder, so it drapes diagonally across the chest from left to right.
The diaconate is a valid ordained ministry that has been around since the beginning of Christianity. Read the Acts of the Apostles and the writings of the early fathers to see how prevalent deacons were in the early church. In later centuries, however, the role of the deacon was reduced until it had become primarily a short transitional phase on the path to priesthood.
The diaconate was restored to its ancient prominence following the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. In the United States, the number of deacons has grown, even as the number of priests has declined. We rely on these men who have a unique ministry in the church. If your grouping is welcoming a deacon, be sure to get to know him. Ask about his ministry, and learn to appreciate this aspect of the sacrament of holy orders.
Father Esposito is episcopal vicar for On Mission for The Church Alive!