A deacon item that has nothing to do with sex

It’s all about service — and just who, or whom, deacons serve.

Fr. Z. picks up an interesting nugget from an Anglican priest, who suggests that the basic idea of diakonia has been wrongly interpreted (emphases are Fr. Z’s):

The Deacon’s basic purpose is not to be washing the feet of the lowest of the low (just as the nature of the Church is not, as we have so frequently been told, to be the Servant Church). Such things may be worthy in themselves … may, indeed, be the charism of particular holy people. But they are not what diakonia is fundamentally all about. What is it about? In its essence it is about serving, being commissioned to serve, the Bishop, the Eucharistic celebrant; about serving him in the administration of the Lord’s Body and Blood; serving him in the proclamation of the Holy Gospel. Not a philanthropic service but a cultic, liturgical service. In as far as their duties may extend in the direction of philanthropy, it is instructive to observe the role they have in ‘Hippolytus’: the deacons are to attend the Bishop and report to him who are sick so that he, if it seem good to him, may visit them. [!] Their ministry is to the Bishop, not to the needy.

That may raise a few eyebrows.  But if you go back to the 1967 motu proprio which restored the diaconate, you’ll find that it lists 11 primary functions of deacons.  The first eight are liturgical; of the remaining three, only one refers explicitly to being engaged in acts of charity, and that is to be done “in the name of the hierarchy.”

You can read more on the topic here.


  1. ron chandonia says:

    You’re really stirring up the fire today, Deacon Greg. When it comes to the diaconate, John Collins and canonist Ed Peters seem to be birds of a feather, and I’ll bet this one will end up in Deacon Bill Ditewig’s blog as well. (As I recall, in fact, it got there even before Fr. Z took it up.)

    Once again, I think we’re dealing with letter v. spirit, and–once again, sigh!–the usual suspects are so hung up on the letter that they imagine it is the spirit (or, as they prefer to put it, the “tradition”). The immediate issue is the nature of the diaconate, and that is obviously an important issue in itself. But the larger issue is the nature of the Church itself, particularly as the Council for our own era defined it. The people who seem most enthralled by Collins’ scholarship are those who find the notion of a servant Church too confining for their ambitions. Yet, as Sunday’s first reading reminded us again, it is precisely in the ministry of service that the light of Christ will be revealed to the nations.

  2. Southern Dcn says:

    Funny how this is written because that is how 75% of the deacons believe their role is AND should be. A large portion of the deacons want to help all of those they come in contact with in their daily lives and help bring God’s presence to them. They do this in both a spiritual and liturgical way.

    The call to charity is something we are all called to from the time of our baptism. In many discussions with deacons and their wives, the feeling is that the deacon should lead others to that call through word and action. Yes they should be charitable but they also should preach on charity – amongst other things.

    In all things, the deacon should be the one who points out areas for the church to focus on and then organize the plan and people to attack the issue. He acts as the eyes and ears of the bishop because the bishop cannot be everywhere nor know everything. The role is much more of a supervisory/organizers type role. It is really to bring the people of God together to be His presence on earth.

  3. Ron, I agree with what you said. When my husband was in formation, the spirit of Acts 6 was very much the tradition which was emphasized.
    There seems to be a movement in some quarters to push the diaconate towards a type of clericalism (and not in a good sense). I don’t think that’s what the Church needs more of.

  4. I have only a fleeting knowledge of some diaconate programs owing to the fact that I have been involved only in lay ecclesial ministry curricula.

    What I have observed is that programs for the diaconate will offer courses in Scripture (necessary for Homilies), Homiletics, Liturgy, maybe Canon Law but not many courses on Servant-Leadership, Catholic Social Teachings, sometimes referred to as “our best-kept secrets”, or even the Vatican II Documents, e.g., Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World.

  5. What does the second lung of the Church say? That is the Eastern Orthodox and heck even the Churches in Communion with Rome.

    I like to think the advancement toward reunion is not just empty verbiage. It seems that we have too look there too.

    Its a good and needed discussion. However I would caution people to avoid making a false either / or of Modern Church versus Tradition.

  6. …I find the whole sex thing a bit…un…I don’t know- really- why the obsession with what married do behind closed doors?

  7. Doesn’t it say a lot about us when we find service to the bishop and the liturgy to be controversial?

  8. Good post, Deacon Greg. For a long tiem when I have pointed out the “11 things deacons do” and that most are liturgical I was thought to be anti-works of charity. Uggh. Let’s look at Acts: a sentence or two is given for the distribution needs for the Seven while chapters are devoted to the evangelizing, preaching, catechizing and baptizing ministries of Stephen and Philip. Food for thought.

  9. Deacon Eric Stoltz says:

    I would offer as a response the witness of the three greatest deacons saints.

    St. Stephen, protomartyr and protodeacon: what does the Acts of the Apostles say he was chosen to do? Serve the poor at the table.

    What was the cause of the martyrdom of St. Lawrence of Rome? When he said “The poor and sick are the treasures of the Church.”

    What was the witness of St. Francis of Assisi? Do you think he was interested in liturgical minutiae?

  10. Mr Flapatap says:

    Deacon Stoltz,

    Actually, one thing St. Francis used to do was to make sure that the Eucharist was kept in dignified, silver, clean, and polished ciborium.

  11. The bottom line is that we who have been called to the diaconate, have been called in our humanity – in our strengths and weaknesses, to be all things to all people. To use the gifts we’ve been given and develope the gifts we are lacking or are short on.
    One of my deacon brothers is very into social justice issues and stated in spirituality class that he didn’t understand why anyone would waste their time sitting in front of the Blessed Sacrament when they could be out feeding the poor and doing other acts of charity.
    I on the other hand cannot imagine NOT sitting in front of the Blessed Sacrament and have a hard time demonstrating the type of social action that he believes is required of everyone.
    It seems to me that we BOTH have things to learn.

    Peace to all

  12. That should be “I cannot imagine……”

  13. Like all things, there has to be a balance in everything. The deacon is called to serve in liturgy, in teaching, in preaching and in serving not only the poor but all people who need service. The Church today and in the immediate future will deacons for many things, from managing parishes without pastors, to taking the Eucharist to the sick in hospitals, to helping and organizing the charitable activities of the Church. The diaconate is not a one activity only ministry but a multifaceted vocation in an ordained ministry.

    Our Church is a hierarchical, liturgical Church, and deacons are part of that structure.

  14. St. Stephen the Deacon is held forth in Scripture not for waiting on tables but for expounding the Scriptures and preaching.

    St. Philip the Deacon is upheld in Scripture for missionary evangelization ministry, catechizing, explaining the Scriptures and baptizing.

    St. Lawrence the Deacon is indeed best known for his care for the poor as treasures of the Church because this is what was an immediate cause of his martyrdom. However is you read his story you will see that he was greatly involved in liturgical ministry and especially as guardian of the Chalice of the Precoius Blood.

    St. Vincent of Saragossa the Deacon, was entrusted with the keeping of the Scriptures and refused to hand them over for desecration and was martyred. This entrustment of Scriptures to him tells us he had a vital liturgical role or ministry.

    St. Ephrem the Deacon is know for his preaching, for his assistance in the Divine Liturgy and for his writings in theology earning him the title Doctor of the Church.

    St. Francis of Assisi the Deacon is known for his preaching of the Gospel with WORDS (not just “using word if necessary” as the phrase incorrectly attributed to him goes), for his deovtion to the proper appointments for Liturgy and for his great devotion to the assistance of priests.

    I think these examples remind us that YES charity is indeed a ministry for the deacon but not the exclusive or even primary reason for being ordained unto service. Mass, preaching, catechesis, sacramental administration, are very much a proper and ancient part of diaconal ministry.

  15. Deacon Eric Stoltz says:

    Dante, You are correct. I did not mean to belittle the other roles of the deacon. Just this past Sunday I assisted our bishop in the cathedral at Mass, and I consider that an important part of my ministry. I am a part of our parish liturgical committee and teach baptismal preparation classes. I preach at Mass. All these are part of being a deacon.

    I was responding to Fr. Z’s post referenced by Deacon Greg, which dismissed the ministry of charity as mere “philanthropy” and implied the deacon’s role was strictly liturgical.

    Each deacon adopts some individual mixture of the ministries of Word, Altar and Charity. As oldestof9 said, “It seems to me that we BOTH have things to learn.” But it is incorrect to maintain, as Fr. Z does, that the ministry of charity is some sort of nice optional add-on once the deacon is done with liturgy, “what deacons are really for,” as he puts it.

  16. Bruce Tereski says:

    Another can of worms with regard to deacons preaching…
    Some judgmental people seem to have things all figured out and don’t like legitimate questions, but here it goes.

    Is is a part of the tradition – except until recently – that deacons preach at Mass or Eucharistic worship?

    At Eucharistic liturgies -both east and west – it seems to me that deacons had the office of proclamation of sacred texts, but not “breaking the word open” in a homily. Similarly, they traditionally had charge of and were privileged to touch the sacred vessels, but did not “break” or touch the sacred species directly.

    I do not deny that deacons have always preached. But, from my reading of the sources, it seems such preaching was always outside the celebration of the Eucharist. I believe the reason was that only the bishop was considered the ordinary Eucharistic preacher. Priests began to do so, only when the number of Christians became so great that people could not all be at the bishop’s Mass. (In Carthage in the 380′s it was St. Augustine’s bishop that commissioned the young priest to preach even though this was not considered usual.)

    I’m not arguing that deacons should not preach now at Mass. But, only asking if there were examples of Eucharistic preaching in the past.

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