January 4, 2011 // Local

Permanent deacons: Ordained servants of the Church

By Ginny Kohrman

If it is the will of God and the Church, on May 21, 11 men will be ordained into the permanent diaconate in the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend. For the last five years these men have been preparing, studying and discerning this call to Holy Orders.

The significance of the deacon in the Christian Community can be traced to the earliest writings of St. Paul, particularly in Philippians 1:1 where he greets “all of the holy ones at Philippi, with their bishops and deacons in Jesus Christ.”

In the Acts of the Apostles, the Twelve discern that they need assistance with the growing number of Christians and the issues that arose due to the spreading of the Gospel. So they selected “seven reputable men, filled with the Spirit and wisdom” and the Apostles “prayed and laid hands on them” ordaining them deacons of the Church.

Stephen, the first deacon known through Scripture, was martyred for preaching about Jesus Christ to the Jewish Sanhedrin. (cf. Acts 6-7) St. Stephen is the patron saint of these 11 deacon candidates.

The deacons of the early Church helped the bishops in the ministry of Christ by writing letters, assisting in the ministry of the Word and serving as an official liaison for the bishop to the various churches. The deacon was a servant of the bishop and a servant of the people. Over time the role of the deacon in the growing Church changed due to the development of the Liturgy of the Eucharist and the priesthood. By the 3rd and 4th centuries, the emphasis on the role of the deacon had shifted to that of assisting the priests, as well as the bishops during the Eucharist.

Deacons were used less for the ministry of the Word or for charitable works. In the 5th century, the value of the transitional deacon, those men on the way to the priesthood, became more emphasized and the importance of the permanent deacon less utilized. The Western Church sustained this attitude until the Second Vatican Council.

William T. Ditewig, in “The Emerging Diaconate,” notes that the council’s decision to restore the permanent diaconate was influenced by the events of World War I and II, the discussions of imprisoned priests in the Dachau prison camps and the Church’s growing need for missionary and catechetical work and charity.

The council fathers felt that the renewal of the permanent diaconate would restore the threefold hierarchy of Holy Orders which includes the episcopate, presbyterate and diaconate. — Ditewig, page 95.

Since the close of the council, the Church has been working to reestablish the permanent diaconate throughout the world. In its May 2010 report, the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) stated that there are currently over 17,000 ordained permanent deacons in the United States alone. Yet the role of the deacon remains obscure to many.

A deacon is ordained as a sacramental sign to the Church and to the world that Jesus Christ came “to serve and not to be served.” The Church magisterium recognizes two degrees of ministerial participation in the priesthood of Christ: the episcopacy (bishops) and the presbyterate (priests). The deacon’s role is to serve them.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, referencing “Lumen Gentium” states, “At a lower level of the hierarchy are to be found deacons, who receive the imposition of hands, not unto the priesthood, but unto the ministry.” — 1570. Deacons, through the sacrament of Holy Orders are marked with an imprint “which cannot be removed and which configures them to Christ, who make himself the ‘deacon’ or servant of all.” — 1570. There is no difference in the sacramental sign or the functions of a “transitional deacon” (on the way to priesthood) and the permanent deacon.

All ordained bishops, priests and deacons are called to the functions of Word, sacrament and charity however each exercises these works in various ways or degrees.

Deacons, as ministers of the Word, can proclaim the Gospel and preach.

As ministers of the sacraments, deacons assist the bishop and priests in the celebration of the Eucharist, distribute holy Communion, witness marriages, baptize and conduct wake and funeral services.

Deacons as ministers of charity are called to lead, inspire and model servant leadership to other members of this contemporary Church. Through the grace of Holy Orders, the permanent deacon helps to “bridge” the connection between faith and everyday life. He is in a prime position to evaluate the needs of others and to assist in the distribution of the Church’s resources. The deacon can assist in eliminating those injustices that lead to imprisonment and poverty. By his sacramental identity, the deacon makes real “Christ the servant of all.”

In a series of upcoming articles, you will come to know the 11 deacon candidates who are anticipating their May ordination. You will meet their wives and families and become more aware of their call to the diaconate, their spiritual lives and charisms. Together we pray for these men and their families and for our diocese that will be blessed with their leadership and many gifts.

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