“The permanent diaconate was an unexpected blessing of the Second Vatican Council”

The National Catholic Register has a good, long piece on the diaconate in its newest issue, marking the 45th anniversary of the restoration of the restoration of the order in the Latin Church:

Deacon Thomas Dubois, executive director of the National Association of Diaconate Directors, believes that the rapid growth of the permanent diaconate in the U.S. is a “work of the Holy Spirit.” He remarked, “The irony is that the Second Vatican Council fathers thought the diaconate would grow the fastest in third-world countries.”

A strength of the diaconate, he said, is that the deacon leaves Sunday Mass “to go into the world and the workplace as an active person of faith.”

Dubois noted that his neighbors in Lexington, Ohio, know him as “Deacon Tom” and view him as a representative of the Church. Ordained in 2002, he has devoted much of his diaconate work to prison ministry at Ohio’s Mansfield Correctional Institution. Inside the prison, Dubois counsels inmates, prays with them, instructs them in the tenets of the faith and otherwise is a friend to them. He remarked, “They’re appreciative of my efforts and say it makes a difference in their lives. In an environment where they’re cut off from their families and possibly an embarrassment to them, we treat them like human beings.”

Dubois believes being a deacon has given him the education and formation he needs to better minister to prisoners. Additionally, as a deacon, he is more closely identified with the work of the Church.

Many view deacons as “mini priests,” he said, with priests having the ability to do many more things. That’s not an accurate view, he said. The “fullness of holy orders” comes through the bishop, and he “disseminates his ministry through the priests and deacons.” Dubois continued, “We’re not competing. Deacons are not trying to be priests. We’re working in a complementary way with them.”

Deacon Gerald DuPont, director of the diaconate for the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, Texas, believes the restored diaconate to be a “tremendous value” to the nation’s Catholic parishes and institutions. The formation of deacons has “evolved and been refined” since 1967, he said, particularly with the release of instructions on the diaconate from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in 1983 and 2004, and from the Vatican in 1998.

Since being ordained a deacon in 1990, DuPont has worked in prison ministry, visited nursing homes, assisted at parishes and, today, teaches classes at St. Mary’s, the archdiocesan seminary in Houston. With nearly 400 active deacons, the third most in the country (Chicago is first, with 600), DuPont says there is still a need for more. In fact, the archdiocese recently did a survey of its priests, he said, and there were 183 requests for additional deacons.

He’s always ready to interview prospective candidates who would find the ministry of deacon as satisfying as he does: “I have found great happiness as a deacon. I have also found peace. God wants me to be here.”

Deacon Bob Puhala is director of the Institute for Diaconal Studies for the Archdiocese of Chicago. He was ordained by Cardinal Francis George in 1998 and has devoted much of his ministry to formation of prospective deacons.

“The permanent diaconate was an unexpected blessing of the Second Vatican Council,” he said. “No one anticipated that it would make such a big impact on ministry in the U.S.”


  1. Therefore, brethren, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, (Acts 6:3)

  2. Fiergenholt says:

    I missed this story in print but I’m glad someone flagged it for Dcn Greg:

    –I have known about Dcn Tommy for a few years and I’m delighted that his ministry at the NADD has been as big a success as it has — although that does tend to restrict his work in prison ministry.

    –I am also delighted that the NCRegister has apparently moved to the center of American Catholic life. Their articles and stories now tend to be more about mainstream Catholics in mainstream pastoral situations. Quite an editorial change from twenty-thirty years ago.

    –”. . . unexpected blessing of the Second Vatican Council”? Maybe only in the minds of those who want to deny that VII did anything good.

  3. Ryan Ellis says:

    How many of you have actually read “Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem,” the document Pope Paul VI used to create the permanent diaconate? I think if you did, in particular Section 5 on the role of the deacon, you would be surprised. To observe how permanent deacons are mis-used in America, you would think the role of the deacon was to be in charge of the corporal works of mercy, with a few minor liturgical roles to make it seem clerical (if you don’t believe me, read the full article above).

    The reality is far different. Pope Paul actually lists the roles to be played by deacons:

    1) To carry out, with bishop and priest, all the roles in liturgical rites which the ritual books attribute to him;

    2) To administer Baptism solemnly and to supply the ceremonies that have been omitted at Baptism in the case of an infant or adult;

    3) To have custody of the Eucharist, to distribute it to himself and to others, and to impart Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament to the people with the pyx;

    4) To assist at and bless marriages in the name of the Church when there is no priest present, with delegation from the bishop or the pastor, so long as everything else commanded in the Code of Canon Law is observed,8 and with no infringement on Canon 1098, in which case what is said of a priest is to be understood of a deacon as well;

    5) To administer sacramentals, and to preside at funeral and burial rites;

    6) To read the Scriptures to the faithful and to teach and preach to the people;

    7) To preside over the offices of religious worship and prayer services when there is no priest present;

    8) To direct Bible services when there is no priest present;

    9) To do charitable, administrative and welfare work in the name of the hierarchy;

    10) To legitimately guide outlying communities of Christians in the name of the pastor and the bishop;

    11) To foster and aid the lay apostolate.


    Now, what do you see there? What I see is a member of the clergy, not an employee of Catholic Charities. I see a man who is empowered to do liturgical functions at Mass, Baptize, distribute communion, marry, administer sacramentals, preach the Bible, lead prayer services, and help in outlying areas.

    I also see helping lay apostolates and some charitable work.


    That is not how our deacons are being used by our bishops. They are some combination of Florence Nightengale and Santa’s little helper at the Mall.

    This is beneath the dignity of the office of the diaconate. They are clergy, and should be treated as clergy. As we enter the next fifty years of this ministry, it’s about time that the “reform of the reform” hit the permanent diaconate.

  4. Ryan,

    There is an an earlier paragraph in Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem that bears on your comment:

    “In addition, there should be practice in teaching the fundamentals of the Christian religion to children and others of the faithful, in teaching people to sing sacred music and in leading them, in reading the books of Scripture at gatherings of the faithful, in giving talks to the people, in administering those sacraments which deacons may administer, in visiting the sick and, in general, in carrying out the ministries which may be required of them.”

    It is clear that the diaconate is about more than just liturgical functions. These “ministries which may be required of them” include charitable works. In fact, as the “Basic Norms for the Formation of Permanent Deacons” from the Congregation for Catholic Education and the Congregation for the Clergy reminds us, “the munus regendi is exercised in dedication to works of charity and assistance and in the direction of communities or sectors of church life, especially as regards charitable activities. This is the ministry most characteristic of the deacon.”

    This “ministry most characteristic of the deacon” is exactly what I see when I read the article from the National Catholic Register. To limit the diaconate to liturgical roles is a misreading of what Paul VI and the Second Vatican Council intended by restoring the permanent diaconate.

    A deacon’s liturgical presence flows from his service in Word and Charity. All three must be an integral part of a deacon’s being for healthy diaconal ministry.

  5. Deacon Steve says:

    I’m not sure why you think that deacons are being misused. I do all of those things in the parish and outside the parish on a regular basis. There is a 3 fold charism of service for the deacon, Service of the Word, Service at the Altar and Service to Charity. We are called to proclaim the Word, serve at the altar and serve in charity to those who are marginalized. All 3 must be in balance, and I see all three being done by my brother deacons for the most part. I am sure there are exceptions, but I think it is wrong to make such a sweeping statement as all deacons are being misused by the bishops. To think that we should only be serving at liturgical functions is to not understand the charism of the deacon.

  6. Deacon Norb says:


    I’ll echo Deacon Steve’s post above. I have done — and still do — all of the things listed in that posting of yours. Not all of them all of the time but certainly I have covered all of them throughout my 33 years being ordained.

    I also know, because I have been involved in some way in our diocesan formation program for over 25 of those 33 years, that this document you quote is a part of the required readings of all our candidates.

  7. I am a Single Man currently discerning a Vocation to be a Deacon. I always get the why not just become a Priest question. I may just use this quote from now on out:
    “We’re not competing. Deacons are not trying to be priests. We’re working in a complementary way with them.”

  8. ron chandonia says:

    In closing Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem, Pope Paul speaks of the responsibilities of deacons this way:

    Finally, after issuing these norms the desire springs spontaneously from our heart that deacons in performing their arduous functions in the modern world follow the examples which we propose for their imitation; the example of St. Stephen the protomartyr, who as St. Irenaeus says “was the first chosen for diaconal service by the Apostles,” and of St. Lawrence of Rome “who was illustrious not only in the administration of the sacraments but also in the stewardship of the possessions of the Church.”

    Stephen, of course, was chosen to serve at table, and Lawrence exercised his “stewardship of the possessions of the Church” by giving them away to the poor, whom he called the Church’s real treasure. I don’t think we know much about their liturgical duties.

    Besides, the “arduous functions in the modern world” to which the pope refers are presumably not the deacon’s liturgical and para-liturgical duties. Rather, the pope assumes that the deacon is ordained “unto a ministry of service,” as Lumen Gentium states, and he specifically lists among his diaconal responsibilities “To carry out, in the name of the hierarchy, the duties of charity and of administration as well as works of social assistance.” Those who consider it beneath the dignity of our clergy to do that simply do not share the conciliar vision of the Catholic hierarchy as servant leaders of a people called to holiness in service to the world.

  9. François R. Fournier says:

    I am a deacon here in Province of Quebec Canada since 1983. In my formation, we were suppose to be social workers. Never in the church but on the sidewalks and shopping center preeching the Gospel. One diocese forbid completly deacons to wear dalmactics. All what I have learn in liturgical, i have to take formation everywhere and paid for it. I did all the works that I was suppose to do in the canon law. I had always work whith priests that were pro-deacons. When I officiate in Mass ,funeral parlor, baptism, marriages, name it, I wear clerical attire. Our bishop, once asked if a deacon can wear it, he just answer “I don’t care. ” It is clear in the canon laws. In this province, we are not in missions, 3% of our catholics go to church. No more religions in school and no private catholic schools etheir. Quebec is now a missions land like africa 100 years ago.
    Sorry for my poor english, and please pray for my brothers deacons and priests.
    Deacons Frank

  10. My point is that deacons are not viewed as clergy. They are viewed as a kind of almost-lay cooperator of bishops and parishes.

    You are much more than that. You have been ordained into Holy Orders, set apart for the sacred mysteries.

    Instead, all I hear about is the service ministries. Never your key role in the liturgy. Pppe Benedict’s renewal of the liturgy must include elevating you to your proper dignity as clergy.

    At least most of you are wearing dalmatics now, not the “Commander Worf” look of the 1980s I grew up with (alb and diaconal stole).

  11. See esp. the section “Duties of Deacons” from the 1911 Catholic Encyclopedia. That tells you that the apostolic and patristic-era deacons were not merely alms-givers and charity-doers. They were liturgical:


    I understand that most deacons are Baby Boomer empty-nester types, so it makes sense that you view everything as “pre-conciliar” and “post-conciliar.” Like Pope Benedict, I try to view the role of the clergy in a hermeneutic of continuity, not rupture. A cleric in 1900 is the same as a cleric in 2000.

  12. What you are describing above is exactly the “liturgical and para-liturgical” role I’m describing. Look at what you highlight:

    1. Catechetics
    2. Sacred music (Gregorian chant has pride of place)
    3. Sacred Scripture study and meditation
    4. Preaching
    5. Administering the Sacraments of Baptism, First Communion, and Matrimony
    6. Visting the sick (finally, a corporal work of mercy)

    Look at that list and tell me that isn’t the role of a liturgical/para-liturgical minister. It’s a clerical role.

  13. Fiergenholt says:


    You know, I’m a pretty bright guy and I’m well versed in church history. Frankly, I’m having a rough time trying to understand your point. Of course, deacons are clergy — they have received the Sacrament of Holy Orders and whether they live in a “clerical” life style (or wear a “clerical” collar) or not is irrelevant.

    The roots of the diaconate from the events of Acts Chapter 6 forward to the present are planted in ministry to the marginalized and disenfranchised. During the early and mid-medieval eras in Europe, they became the church’s “almsgivers.” Along the way also became involved with the broader “temporal goods” concerns, often becoming their era’s equivalent of Business Managers.

    The fact that this article highlights Deacon Tommy’s pastoral ministry in prisons and not his current paid job as director of NADD is important.

  14. Deacon Norb says:

    If someone were to ask me what I look for in a potential diaconal candidate, I’d say something like this:

    “All of the “head knowledge,” we can teach you. In fact, the newest Vatican norms have some fairly strict requirements for academic content and even faculty of for diaconal formation programs.

    All of the “hand-knowledge,” we can also teach you. The best practicums about preaching or witnessing marriages or performing baptisms or doing funeral services are where long-experienced deacons are the facilitators and mentors. Often the approach is very much like a drill sergeant in a military “boot-camp.” Do it over and over until you get it right!

    What we cannot teach you is “heart-knowledge.” Either you come in as an applicant whose very soul is committed to “caritas” or you RARELY complete the program and become ordained as a deacon. I know a LOT of guys who “washed-out” (maybe better to say they voluntarily withdrew) during the Aspirancy/ Prep-School process because of that characteristic. They somehow come in with an inaccurate understanding and attitude about the role/ministry of a deacon and when they were corrected, they realized it was not for them.

    Which is maybe why my diocese, and a lot of other ones, put the unit/hours on “Social Justice” early in the formal candidacy component. Maybe no one backs-out at that point (and maybe some do) but the attitude shift is very noticeable.

  15. Ryan Ellis says:

    So you’re proud of the fact that your diocese chases out good men from the diaconate by over-emphasizing “social justice” (which is actually a prudential series of choices the Church leaves to the laity, not clergy)?

    I guess if you want to emphasize the liturgical role of deacons, as every document establishing the permanent diaconate over-weights, you’re out of luck. The PC warriors in the chancery won’t have it.

  16. Ryan Ellis says:

    I think my point is pretty clear: deacons should not be viewed primarily as service-agents for the Church, but as liturgical ministers.

    I am basing my argument on the documents which establish the permanent diaconate in the first place. Ignoring the fact that 9 out of the 11 assigned roles of the deacon are liturgical seems problematic to me, and appealing to the Book of Acts isn’t a satisfying answer.

  17. ron chandonia says:

    1911 is your baseline? It’s obviously not the diaconate itself that is eating at you. It’s Vatican II itself. In his essay “Vatican II: Did Anything Happen?” Fr. John O’Malley, one of the greatest historians of the Council, addressed the issue you are raising quite well:

    “Is there any noteworthy discontinuity between the council and what preceded it? Did anything happen? When the council ended in 1965, . . . practically everybody would have answered those questions with a resounding affirmative, to the point that . . . Archbishop Lefebvre condemned the council as heretical and led a group into schism. Today, however, there are learned, thoughtful, and well-informed people who are responding in the negative. I could not be more in agreement with their affirmation of the profound continuity of the Council with the Catholic tradition . . . . As a historian, however, I believe we must balance the picture by paying due attention to the discontinuities. When we do so, at least one thing becomes clear: the council wanted something to happen.”

  18. ron chandonia says:

    Ryan, you have a very misguided sense of what it is supposed to mean to be a Catholic cleric, a sense colored by the sort of “clericalism” Vatican II was at pains to refute. To understand the clerical role of our permanent deacons, you should consult theBasic Norms for the Formation of Permanent Deacons, available on the Vatican’s website. That document specifies this:

    The ministry of the deacon is characterised by the exercise of the three munera proper to the ordained ministry, according to the specific perspective of diakonia.

    It then speaks to the deacon’s role as minister of the Word and of the Liturgy but concludes:

    Finally, the munus regendi is exercised in dedication to works of charity and assistance and in the direction of communities or sectors of church life, especially as regards charitable activities. This is the ministry most characteristic of the deacon.

    Because of that “most characteristic” ministry, the document says of the deacon, “In fact, with sacred ordination, he is constituted a living icon of Christ the servant within the Church.” An icon is a sign that opens for us an otherwise hidden spiritual reality. For the deacon to function effectively in the role to which he is ordained, perhaps he has to be “some combination of Florence Nightengale and Santa’s little helper at the Mall,” as you so contemptuously described it. After all, at the first Eucharist, Jesus himself wrapped a towel around his waist and washed some dirty feet.

  19. Deacon Steve says:

    No one is saying that deacons were merely alms-givers or workers of charity, but that this was a part of their ministry. A deacon does all 3, ministry of word, ministry of altar and ministry of charity. No deacon can be ordained to do only 1 aspect of the deacon’s ministry, but must participate in all 3, and not necessarily equally. You seem to want to turn us into adult altar boys and ignore the social justice aspect of our ministry.

  20. Both ministries are important. But I think you read too much into the sequence of the items. First listed are the functions that were already part of the role of the existing transitional diaconate. Then this is expanded on by new ministries Paul VI wishes and authorized for the diaconate.

  21. Fiergenholt says:


    No doubt you “agree to disagree” with the two deacons who have openly responded to you in this stream.

    I’d make two closing comments here:

    –No one is suggesting that those men that the unknown diocese “chases out” (your term) are not “good” (also your term). They probably are very devout and good examples of moral leaders in our society. It is far more likely that the applicants themselves withdrew because they were uncomfortable with the mandate of “caritas.”

    –Maybe a dozen or so years ago, I remember getting into an argument via a “Letters to the Editor” section of a major Midwestern diocesan newspaper. The writer was complaining that “good” men (you do recognize that term) were being rejected from application to the diaconate because “PC Warriors” (and you also recognize that term) on the screening committee could not tolerate his orthodoxy. After the printed squabble subsided, I did some further digging. It turns out that he HAD BEEN rejected. When it was all said and done, what the applicant wanted to have was the ability and sacramental authority to condemn from the pulpit anyone who disagreed with him and his extraordinarily narrow view of what was right-and-wrong. I think that screening committee did the right thing. You cannot be a “servant-leader” with a chip on your shoulder.

  22. George McHenry says:

    The Diocese of Trenton is, under the current Bishop, indifferent at best and hostile at worst to the “priest-wanna-be’s”.

  23. Deacon Steve says:

    George are you calling all permanent deacons “priest-wanna-be’s”?

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