Father Anthony Marques, Special to The Catholic Virginian

This is the third in a series of three articles about the diaconate as Bishop Barry C. Knestout will ordain 19 permanent deacons for the Diocese of Richmond, Saturday, Sept. 15.

The history of the order of deacons is long and convoluted, and its restoration as a permanent form of ministry is relatively recent. When Vatican Council II (1962–1965) permitted the ordination of permanent deacons once more, it decreed that local needs and conditions should determine whether this would take place, and what role deacons would have. For these reasons, the evolution of the diaconate continues, as does the theological understanding of it.

In delineating the responsibilities of permanent deacons, the Church seeks to avoid two pitfalls. The first is the tendency to reduce the diaconate to its practical functions, such that who deacons are is based on what they do, rather than vice-versa. 

The second pitfall is to view deacons as miniature priests: Deacons can do everything priests can do except celebrate Mass, hear confessions, and anoint the sick.

A better approach is to recognize that the various functions of a deacon flow from a unique identity: He is a consecrated “servant” (Greek: “diakonos”) of the Church who embodies the service of Christ. Having received a particular share in the sacrament of holy orders, the permanent deacon fulfills various duties that have traditionally been classified in terms of a threefold “ministry” or “diakonia”: service to the Word of God; service at liturgy (worship); and the service of charity. 

Most permanent deacons carry out their ministry in parishes. There, they teach, e.g., preparation for the sacraments and adult education, and occasionally preach at Mass or other liturgical rites. In addition, deacons assist at Mass, and assist or preside at baptisms, weddings, blessings, and funerals. 

They also pray a portion of the Liturgy of the Hours, the official prayer of the Church, each day. Finally, deacons visit the sick and help with social outreach. In performing this ministry, some permanent deacons are employed full-time by a parish, while others have secular occupations and fulfill their ministry part-time as volunteers. 

To be equipped for this work, candidates for the permanent diaconate, like candidates for the priesthood, undergo human, spiritual, intellectual, and pastoral formation. Whereas training for the priesthood is full-time and typically lasts six years, diaconal formation is part-time and lasts five years. Currently, there are 18 men in formation for the permanent diaconate in the Diocese of Richmond, not counting those scheduled to be ordained Sept. 15.

According to the directive of Vatican Council II, men who are already married may be ordained as permanent deacons. Those ordained to the diaconate as single men must promise to remain celibate; and deacons who become widowers are not permitted to marry again. 

The minimum age for being ordained a permanent deacon is 25 if he is single, and 35 if he is married. (The minimum age for ordination as a priest is 25.) A married man must have the consent of his wife to be ordained a deacon since she will share in the sacrifices of his ministry and help him to carry out his service to the Church.

Regarding practical matters, permanent deacons may, as members of the clergy, and with the permission of the local bishop, wear clerical attire, i.e., the Roman collar. This permission applies to permanent deacons in the Diocese of Richmond when they are engaged in official ministry.

When 19 men are ordained permanent deacons for the Diocese of Richmond this Saturday, the ordination rite will express the significance of this event: God has called them to serve the Church in a special way, and he will strengthen them to fulfill this ministry — their diaconate — in imitation of Christ. In this way, the order of deacons will make a valuable contribution to the proclamation of the Gospel and to the salvation of the world.

What the deacon does at Mass and why

The experience most Catholics have of deacons is at Mass. There, the deacon’s liturgical role expresses his identity: a servant of the Church. In each of the four parts of the Mass — the Introductory Rites, the Liturgy of the Word, the Liturgy of the Eucharist, and the Concluding Rites — the deacon assists the priest and guides the community through the celebration.

As one who carries out a specific liturgical function, the deacon wears a distinctive set of vestments. This begins with the alb, the white garment symbolizing baptism, which may be worn by all liturgical ministers. The deacon also wears a stole, signifying holy orders, but in a different manner than the priest. 

Whereas the priest wears a stole around the neck, the deacon wears this vestment on the left shoulder, draping it across the chest to the right side. (See the artwork that has accompanied this series of articles). The deacon’s outer garment is the dalmatic, which symbolizes the diaconate. 

Unlike the chasuble, which is the priest’s outer vestment for Mass, the dalmatic has closed sides and sleeves. The dalmatic takes its name from Dalmatia (present-day Croatia), where the vestment apparently originated. Dalmatia is mentioned in 2 Tim 4:10.

In the Introductory Rites of Mass, the deacon carries the Book of the Gospels in the entrance procession behind the other ministers and in front of the priest. After placing the Book of the Gospels on the altar, and then venerating the altar with a kiss, the deacon takes his place near the priest. 

If incense is used, the deacon assists the priest with the thurible at this and other points in the Mass. It is proper, although not required, for the deacon to lead the assembly in singing the “Kyrie, Eleison” (“Lord, have mercy”).

During the Liturgy of the Word, the deacon proclaims the Gospel. When no deacon is present and the priest proclaims the Gospel, he is understood to be acting as a deacon during that rite. The deacon may occasionally preach the homily. In regard to the Universal Prayer, also known as the Prayer of the Faithful, it is preferable for the deacon announce the petitions, although a lay person may also carry out this function.

As the Liturgy of the Eucharist begins, the deacon prepares the altar and helps the priest receive the gifts of bread and wine from the community. In this part of the Mass, the deacon’s role as the minister of the chalice is notable: He prepares it by mixing wine with a small amount of water; he elevates it during the Doxology that concludes the Eucharistic Prayer.

He administers the Precious Blood if Holy Communion is given under both kinds, even if this means that an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion distributes the Body of Christ; and he purifies the chalice, along with the other vessels, either after Communion or once the Mass has concluded. In keeping with his role of giving practical instructions to the community, the deacon invites the people to exchange the Sign of Peace.

For the Concluding Rites, it is proper for the deacon to make any brief announcements to the community. Finally, he gives the dismissal, the brief but significant action that gives rise to the common name for the eucharistic celebration. The term “Mass” (Latin: “Missa”) is derived from the penultimate words of the rite: in Latin, “Ite, missa est.” 

Originally, this straightforward phrase meant something like, “The meeting has finished.” Gradually, the words came to imply the Church’s mission: The people, having offered and received the sacrifice of Christ’s Body and Blood, are sent to proclaim the Gospel in their ordinary lives. Following the dismissal, the deacon, together with the priest, venerates the altar with a kiss and exits by walking alongside the priest.

Throughout the Mass, the deacon’s role embodies his service to the Church. By assisting the priest and ensuring an orderly liturgical celebration, he enables the assembly to worship God in a reverent and meaningful way.

– Father Anthony Marques

Father Marques is pastor of St. Benedict Parish, Richmond.