The following is drawn in part from the English translation of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (“GIRM”), including adaptations for the dioceses of the United States (third typical edition, 2002). It also includes provisions not defined in the GIRM but preferred by the local Ordinary.
The provisions relating to the ministry of the deacon at Mass may be found at nos. 171-85 of the GIRM, which may be accessed by clicking HERE.
For additional information, see also “The Deacon at Mass” liturgy guide produced by the USCCB, which may be accessed by clicking HERE.
The Liturgical Ministry of Deacons
The main tasks of the deacon at Mass are the following:
- Assists the priest and remains at his side;
- Ministers at the altar, with the chalice as well as the book;
- Proclaims the Gospel and, at the direction of the priest celebrant, may preach the homily (GIRM 66);
- Guides the faithful by appropriate introductions and explanations, and announces the intentions of the Prayer of the Faithful;
- Assists the priest celebrant in distributing Communion, and purifies and arranges the sacred vessels; and
- As needed, fulfills the duties of other ministers himself if none of them is present.
There are two different protocols depending on whether the Book of the Gospels is carried, and whether there is a tabernacle with the Blessed Sacrament in the sanctuary. If there is a tabernacle with the Blessed Sacrament in the sanctuary, the priest, deacon and other ministers genuflect to it when they approach or leave the altar, but not during the celebration of Mass itself.
When the Book of the Gospels is carried, the deacon carries the book (slightly elevated), while walking in front of the presiding priest. (If there are concelebrating priests, the deacon with the Book of the Gospels also precedes them.) The deacon goes directly to the altar, without genuflecting (or bowing, depending on the arrangement of the church), where he places the book on the altar, preferably from behind, facing the people. The book may be placed either standing up or lying down upon the altar. Then, alongside the priest, he venerates the altar with a kiss. (N.B. There is nothing in the liturgical norms prohibiting a deacon from touching the mensa of the altar while reverencing it. However, the deacon may, if he desires and is able to, keep his hands folded together when kissing the altar.)
When the Book of the Gospels is not carried, the deacon walks at the priest’s side. If there is a tabernacle in the sanctuary, he genuflects to the Blessed Sacrament with the priest at the customary place. If there is not a tabernacle in the sanctuary, he bows deeply before the altar along with the priest, and then in either case he goes up to the altar and, alongside the priest, venerates the altar with a kiss.
If incense is used, the deacon assists the priest in putting some into the thurible and accompanies him as he incenses the cross and the altar.
After kissing the altar (and, if applicable, assisting with the incensation), the deacon goes to his chair next to the presiding priest, preferably to the priest’s right, and assists him as necessary, as a sign of service. If two deacons are present, they sit on the right and left sides of the priest celebrant, even if one or more concelebrants are present.
The priest celebrant leads forms A and B of the Penitential Rite (or “Act of Penitence”). However, when Form C of the Penitential Rite is used, the deacon normally leads the invocations, though this may also be done by the priest or cantor. Note: The invocations for Form C must include prefatory matter (e.g., “You were sent to heal the contrite . . .”). The Penitential Rite ends with the prayer of absolution (“May almighty God have mercy . . .”), which is said by the priest celebrant.
When Forms A or C of the Penitential Rite are used, the deacon ordinarily leads the invocations for the Kyrie (“Lord have mercy”) after the people respond “Amen” to the prayer of absolution, unless the choir or cantor is singing them.
When the rite of sprinkling is used in the place of the Penitential Rite, the deacon assists, perhaps by carrying the holy water.
The deacon sits next to the priest during the Liturgy of the Word. If no one else is available for the readings prior to the Gospel, the deacon reads them. This is preferable to having the priest read the texts. However, the deacon should not read when a lay reader is available to do this.
It is the deacon’s proper role to proclaim the Gospel, even if he is not going to deliver the homily.
During the singing of the Alleluia and Gospel Acclamation, the deacon bows low before the priest and in a low voice says, “Your blessing, Father.” (If incense is used, the deacon first assists the priest as he places incense in the thurible.) The deacon makes the Sign of the Cross as he receives the blessing and responds, “Amen.” Then the deacon stands up straight.
If the Book of the Gospels is on the altar, the deacon bows to the altar, picks up the Book of the Gospels, and carries the book (slightly elevated) to the ambo preceded by the thurifer and accompanied by servers carrying candles, if these are used.
At the ambo, with hands joined, the deacon greets the people (“The Lord be with you”), and then announces the Gospel (“A reading from the holy Gospel . . .”) as he makes the Sign of the Cross with his thumb first on the book and then on his forehead, mouth, and breast.
If incense is used, the deacon then incenses the Book of the Gospels (deep bow; three swings of the thurible; deep bow, as provided in GIRM 277). Then he proclaims the Gospel. In order to stir the hearts of the faithful and convey the importance of the Gospel itself, the greeting, the announcement of the reading, the concluding acclamation, and even the entire Gospel may be sung. In this regard, musical settings should be easily understood and enhance rather than obscure the meaning of the sacred text (Book of the Gospels, Introduction, no. 19).
At the conclusion of the Gospel (without showing the book to the people), the deacon says, “The Gospel of the Lord.” After the people respond, “Praise to You, Lord Jesus Christ,” the deacon kisses the book, saying inaudibly, “Through the words of the Gospel may our sins be wiped away.”
If, however, the deacon is assisting the Archbishop, unless instructed otherwise, he takes the book to him without kissing it himself. He holds it open for the Archbishop so that he can kiss the book. On solemn occasions the Archbishop may take the book to bless the people. Then he will return it to the deacon or to another minister, who places it either on the credence table or at another appropriate location within the sanctuary, but not on the altar.
The deacon then returns to his chair, unless he has been delegated the responsibility of giving the homily. (However, if it’s a weekday Mass with no homily, the General Intercessions follow immediately from the ambo.).
When the deacon gives the homily, he should do so from the ambo, or standing at his chair (taking care not to obscure the priest), or from some other suitable location (GIRM 136).
After the homily there is a brief period of silence (GIRM 66). On Sundays, solemnities, and other special liturgical celebrations, the Profession of Faith (Creed) follows the homily. The deacon, along with the rest of the faithful, bows deeply at the words, “and by the Holy Spirit . . . became man.” (On the solemnities of Christmas and the Annunciation, all genuflect when these words are said.)
After the Profession of Faith, if said, or otherwise after the homily, the priest introduces the General Intercessions. The deacon normally announces the petitions (ND 35), and when he does, he should do so from the ambo. The petitions may also be led by the cantor (especially if sung) or, if the occasion warrants, by others.
After the Prayer of the Faithful, while the priest remains at the chair, the deacon prepares the altar (corporal, Missal, chalice, purificator), assisted by altar servers as needed, but it is the deacon’s proper role to take care of the sacred vessels himself.
The deacon also assists the priest in receiving the people’s gifts. Note: The deacon never receives the gifts on behalf of the priest.
At the altar, the deacon hands the priest the paten with the bread to be consecrated, pours wine and a little water into the chalice, saying quietly, “By the mystery of this water and wine . . .” and after this presents the chalice to the priest. This preparation of the chalice may take place either at the altar or at the credence table.
While multiple chalices may be used to facilitate Communion under both species, “the pouring of the Blood of Christ after the consecration from one vessel to another is completely to be avoided” (Instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum, no. 106).
The priest should not offer the chalice with the prayer “Blessed are you . . .” until all of the chalices are prepared and arranged on the corporal. In this way, the unity of the sign is preserved and the blessing is properly made over all the gifts arranged upon the altar. The use of multiple vessels may require either the use of a larger-size corporal or additional corporals placed upon the altar.
If incense is used, the deacon assists the priest during the incensation of the gifts, the cross, and the altar. After that, the deacon himself or an altar server incenses the priest and the people (deep bow; three double swings; deep bow, as provided in GIRM 277).
The deacon then steps aside so that the priest may wash his hands. If only one server is present, the deacon may present the towel.
During the Eucharistic Prayer, the deacon stands near the principal celebrant but slightly behind him, preferably to the right of the principal celebrant, so that if necessary he may assist the priest or bishop with the chalice or the Missal. The deacon should not give the appearance of being a “concelebrant” at Mass. If it is helpful to the priest, the deacon may turn the pages of the Sacramentary at the appropriate times.
From the epiclesis (“Make holy, therefore, these gifts . . .”) until the priest shows the chalice, the deacon kneels (GIRM 179). If the chalice and/or ciborium is/are covered with a pall, remove the pall before the epiclesis. If multiple deacons are present, one of them may place incense in the thurible for the consecration and incense the host and the chalice as they are shown to the people.
As the priest introduces the Memorial Acclamation (“The mystery of faith”), the deacon arises to his feet.
At the final doxology of the Eucharistic Prayer (“Through him, and with him, . . .”), the deacon stands next to the priest, holding the chalice elevated while the priest elevates the paten with the host, until the people have responded with the acclamation, “Amen.” Note: Only bishops and priests say/sing the doxology itself.
After the priest has said the prayer at the Rite of Peace and the greeting (“The peace of the Lord be with you always”) and the people have responded (“And with your spirit”), the deacon, if it is appropriate, invites all to exchange the sign of peace. He does so by facing the people and, with hands joined, saying: “Let us offer each other the sign of peace.” Then he himself receives the sign of peace from the priests and others who are nearby.
The deacon assists with the fraction rite as needed, such as by breaking portions of the consecrated Hosts, filling extra patens, etc. Again, chalices containing the Precious Blood are never to be poured into other chalices.
The prayers, “May the Body (Blood) of Christ keep me safe for eternal life” are said inaudibly by the priest. There is no “Amen” spoken in response by the deacon or anyone else.
After the priest receives Communion, the deacon receives Communion under both kinds from the priest himself; he does not receive Communion in the manner of a priest. The deacon may receive the sacred Host either in the hand or upon the tongue according to his preference.
After receiving Communion, the deacon assists the priest in handing the sacred vessels to the extraordinary ministers as needed and then assists the priest in distributing Communion to the people. The deacon is an ordinary minister of Holy Communion. As an ordinary minister of Holy Communion, he may administer either the Host or the chalice. The priest will direct the deacon as to which species he is to administer.
When the distribution of Communion is completed, the deacon immediately and reverently consumes at the altar all of the Blood of Christ that remains, assisted if necessary by other deacons and priests. It is the proper role of the deacon to purify the sacred vessels. This action should be done in a reverent and timely way. The purification of vessels should be done at the credence table if possible; it may also be done after Mass.
If the vessels are to be purified after Mass, they should be placed on a corporal at the credence table and covered as necessary. The deacon should be dispatched to perform this task immediately after Mass. The 2005 document from the Holy See, Redemptionis Sacramentum, specified that it belongs to a priest, deacon, or instituted acolyte to purify the sacred vessels following Communion.
Any announcements are made following the Prayer after Communion. The announcements may be made by the deacon, unless the priest prefers to do this himself (GIRM 184).
If a prayer over the people or a solemn formula for the blessing is used, the deacon says, “Bow down for the blessing.” After the priest’s blessing, the deacon, with hands joined and facing the people, dismisses them, saying, “Go forth, the Mass is ended” or another approved formula (GIRM 185). Note that for the entire octave of Easter and again at the Masses of Pentecost, the dismissal includes the double Alleluia and should be sung when possible.
Then, together with the priest, the deacon venerates the altar with a kiss. If there is a tabernacle in the sanctuary, all genuflect, except for ministers carrying the processional cross or candles, if any, who bow their heads instead of genuflecting (GIRM 274). If there is no tabernacle in the sanctuary, they make a profound bow toward the altar and depart in a manner similar to the procession at the beginning of Mass, except that the Book of the Gospels is not carried out in procession.
The deacon does not carry the Book of the Gospels as the ministers depart, but walks beside the priest. It is even possible, if the sacred vessels have been left at the side for purification, for the deacon to proceed directly to that place and purify them, rather than depart with the priest and other ministers.
Priests, deacons, and laity all have appropriate roles to play in the celebration of the Mass. The involvement of lay persons in the Mass should be encouraged as appropriate. Therefore, deacons should never take over roles that belong to the laity, such as serving as reader, cantor, usher, or altar server, when lay persons are available to fill such roles. At the same time, lay persons are not to assume the role of an ordinary minister, such as the ministry of distributing Holy Communion, except when and where there are insufficient numbers of ordinary ministers.
As a general rule, only those deacons should vest who have a legitimate diaconal role in the Mass. With the exception of major parish or archdiocesan feasts celebrated by the Archbishop, no more than two deacons should assist at a Sunday or daily Mass.
In keeping with liturgical principles expressed in GIRM 109, on those occasions when two deacons are present, they may both exercise diaconal roles at Mass. On such occasions, the duties are split between a Deacon of the Word and a Deacon of the Altar.
Ordinarily the Deacon of the Word executes the roles of the deacon from the Introductory Rites up to and including the Universal Prayer, while the Deacon of the Altar executes the roles of the deacon during the Liturgy of the Eucharist (though both deacons would assist with the distribution of Communion as ordinary ministers) and the Concluding Rites. For pastoral reasons, however, the roles may be divided differently.
Proclaiming the Gospel and preaching during the course of the sacred liturgy are among the primary ministries of the deacon. As one ordained to announce the “good news,” the deacon can extend this ministry in almost unlimited ways.
The deacon may preach on the following occasions when he is the presiding minister of a sacrament or liturgical rite:
- Reception of Holy Communion outside of Mass and Sunday celebrations in the absence of a priest;
- Baptism of infants;
- Sacrament of Matrimony;
- Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament;
- Order of Christian Funerals: vigil and related rites and prayers, rite of
- committal, and final commendation;
- Celebration of the Liturgy of the Hours; and
- Visitation of the sick and the administration of Viaticum.
The deacon may also preach at any liturgy at which he is not the presider at the invitation of the pastor. are encouraged to preach at Sunday liturgies on an average of every four to six weeks.