In Acts of the Apostles (6:1-6), the apostles established the Order of Deacons: “In those days, as the number of disciples grew, the ones who spoke Greek complained that their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food, as compared with the widows of those who spoke Hebrew. The Twelve assembled the community of the disciples and said, ‘It is not right for us to neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables. Look around among your own number, brothers, for seven men acknowledged to be deeply spiritual and prudent, and we shall appoint them to this task. This will permit us to concentrate on prayer and the ministry of the word.’ The proposal was unanimously accepted by the community. Following this they selected Stephen, a man filled with faith and the Holy Spirit; Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus of Antioch, who had been a convert to Judaism. They presented these men to the apostles who first prayed over them and then imposed hands on them.” Of these first deacons, St. Stephen would be the first martyr, being stoned to death for preaching about our Lord.
From that time, the Order of Deacon seems well established in the early Church: St. Paul in his “First Letter to St. Timothy” wrote, “In the same way, deacons must be serious, straightforward, and truthful. They may not overindulge in drink or give in to greed. They must hold fast to the divinely revealed faith with a clear conscience. They should be put on probation first; then, if there is nothing against them, they may serve as deacons…. Deacons may be married but once and must be good managers of their children and their households. Those who serve as deacons gain a worthy place for themselves and much assurance in their faith in Christ Jesus” (I Timothy 3:8-10, 12-13). The Didache and the writings of St. Clement, St. Ignatius of Antioch, and St. Polycarp and other early Church Fathers attest to the functioning of this Order of Deacons. Moreover, we have the heroic witness of deacons who suffered martyrdom for the faith, like St. Lawrence and St. Vincent.
Given this foundation, the Order of Deacon is understood as follows: A man who is ordained as a deacon receives the Sacrament of Holy Orders. However, deacons are not priests: “At a lower level of the hierarchy are to be found deacons, who received the imposition of hands ‘not unto the priesthood, but unto the ministry’” (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, #29).
The word deacon derives from the Greek diakonia, meaning “service,” thereby indicating that a deacon is called like Christ to be a servant. The Order of Deacon has three essential functions: the proclamation of the Gospel, the service of the liturgy, and the administration of charitable works. In particular, the deacon may assist the bishop and the priests in a variety of liturgical functions: Deacons may baptize, witness the exchange of vows and bless marriages, distribute Holy Communion, impart benediction with the Blessed Sacrament, bring Viaticum to the dying, read Sacred Scripture to the faithful and especially proclaim the Gospel, preach, officiate at funerals and burials, and administer the sacramentals. They should also dedicate themselves to other charitable works, particularly within the parish community. (Confer the Catechsim, 1569-70, and the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, #29).
Please note that unlike a priest, deacons cannot absolve sins in the Sacrament of Penance, offer the Mass or confect the Holy Eucharist, administer the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick, or administer the Sacrament of Confirmation.
Over the course of time, the Order of Deacon in the Latin Church evolved from a permanent state into a transitional period prior to ordination to the Priesthood, hence the distinction between a permanent deacon and a transitional deacon. The diaconate became like an internship, whereby a man was ordained as a deacon and made the promise of celibacy, and then continued final studies for the priesthood and served in a parish for practical experience until the time of Ordination to the Priesthood.
The Second Vatican Council proposed that the permanent diaconate be restored to the Latin Rite. (Note that the Eastern Rite Churches had maintained the permanent diaconate.) Permanent deacons as such could assist bishops, especially in missionary areas where a shortage of clergy existed. To this end, the Decree on the Church’s Missionary Activity proposed, “Wherever it appears opportune to episcopal conferences, the diaconate should be restored as a permanent state of life, in accordance with the norms of the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church. It would help those men who carry out the ministry of a deacon– preaching the Word of God as catechists, governing scattered Christian communities in the name of the bishop or parish priest, or exercising charity in the performance of social or charitable works– if they were to be strengthened by the imposition of hands which has come down from the apostles. They would be more closely bound to the altar and their ministry would be made more fruitful through the sacramental grace of the diaconate” (#16). Thereby, on June 18, 1967, Pope Paul VI issued Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem in which he established norms for the restoration of the permanent diaconate in the Latin Rite.
Since that time, local conferences of Bishops with the approval of the Holy Father have established programs for the training of permanent deacons. In accord with the spirit of Vatican II, in those missionary and remote areas, or where a shortage of priests existed, these permanent deacons would be able to preside at worship services where a priest was not present or administer a parish without a resident pastor. Presently, about 23,000 men serve as permanent deacons, with about 15,000 living in the United States.
Several similarities and differences exist between transitional and permanent deacons. Transitional deacons make the promise of celibacy at the time of their ordination. The permanent diaconate may be conferred upon married men as well as single. About 90% of permanent deacons are married. However, the discipline of celibacy would be retained and taken for a single man when ordained as a permanent deacon or accepted by the married permanent deacon upon the death of his spouse.
For liturgical functions, all deacons wear an alb and a stole that crosses the chest from the left shoulder to the waist on the right side. For solemn occasions, they also wear the dalmatic. However, unlike transitional deacons, permanent deacons normally do not wear regular clerical attire.
Unlike transitional deacons who are obliged to fulfill the liturgy of the hours daily, permanent deacons in the United States are bound to offer morning and evening prayer only.
The Order of Deacon, therefore, is part of the hierarchy of the Church and an integral part of the Sacrament of Holy Orders. The special benefit of the permanent diaconate has been in those areas of the Church where a shortage of priests exists. In all, all deacons should heed the words of St. Polycarp: “Let them be merciful, and zealous, and let them walk according to the truth of the Lord, who became the servant of all” (Letter to the Philippians).