What do St. Stephen – the first martyr of the Church – St. Francis of Assisi, and nearly twelve thousand American men, active in almost every aspect of contemporary life, have in common? All of these men have been ordained to the Holy Order of Deacon. The Diaconate is one of the oldest forms of service in the Church. The New Testament, as well as many of the most ancient writers of the Church, mention it and discuss the duties and responsibilities of these deacons.
The first deacons (including St. Stephen) were chosen by the Apostles themselves because the Apostles needed help in addressing the needs of the community in the first days of the Church. To this day, outreach to the least of the Lord’s sisters and brothers is one of the primary thrusts of the deacon’s call.
When we look at the Seventh Chapter of the Acts of the Apostles and at Stephen’s magnificent demonstration to the Jewish leaders that Jesus was in fact the long-awaited Messiah, we can see that the work of the deacon was also directed toward teaching and preaching the Good News of Christ’s death and resurrection. Similarly, a look at the life of the deacon St. Francis of Assisi shows us not only his love of the poor (and his dedication to the lifestyle of poverty), but also his willingness to proclaim to anyone and everyone the goodness of the Lord. Today, deacons continue to have the mandate to teach and preach in the name of the Church to both believers and those who have not yet accepted the message of Christ.
Deacons are ordained clergy of the Catholic Church. To become a deacon, one receives the Sacrament of Holy Orders at the hands of a bishop. The permanent diaconate flourished in the early Church and was restored at the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965).
“Deacon” comes from the Greek word for “servant.” Just as Christ came to serve, deacons are called to a ministry of service. In particular, deacons have a special ministry to serve those in need, such as persons who are hungry, homeless, sick, in prison or immigrants.
As ministers of God’s Word, deacons preach and teach. They may baptize, witness marriages, preside at funerals and wakes and administer Holy Communion to the sick and dying.
At Mass, deacons proclaim the Gospel and the Prayer of the Faithful, prepare the altar with the gifts of bread and wine, invite the congregation to exchange the Sign of Peace, distribute Holy Communion and dismiss the assembly.
Most permanent deacons have secular jobs. In their work, they provide an ordained witness to Christ in their workplaces. The majority of permanent deacons are married men with families; a few are celibate.