A deacon is an ordained minister in the Catholic Church. There are three groups, or “orders,” of ordained ministers in the Church: bishops, priests, and deacons. Deacons are ordained as sacramental signs to the Church and to the world of Christ, who came “not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Therefore, they are not ordained for ministerial priesthood, but for a ministry of service (Greek: diakonia) that they carry out under the pastoral authority of the Archbishop.
Yes. Everyone who has received the Sacrament of Holy Orders is a member of the clergy. One enters the “clerical state” upon ordination as a deacon. Therefore, bishops, priests, and deacons are all members of the clergy, which is distinct from the laity. It follows that there can be no such thing as a “lay deacon.”
All ordained ministers in the Church are consecrated for ministries of Word, liturgy, and charity, bishops, priests, and deacons exercise these ministries in different ways. As ministers of the Word, deacons proclaim the Gospel, preach, and teach in the name of the Church. As ministers of the sacred liturgy, deacons baptize, lead the faithful in prayer, witness marriages, and conduct wake and funeral services. As ministers of charity, deacons are leaders in identifying the needs of others, then marshaling the Church’s resources to meet those needs. All that the deacon does flows from his sacramental identity.
For many years ordained ministers “ascended” from one office to another, culminating in ordination to the presbyterate, or priesthood. The Second Vatican Council (1962-65), however, authorized the restoration of the diaconate as a permanent order of ministry. So, while students for the priesthood (i.e., seminarians) are still ordained as “transitional” deacons prior to their ordination as priests, there are now thousands of deacons in the United States alone who minister in this order permanently. There is no difference in the sacramental sign or the functions between the so-called “transitional” and “permanent” deacons.
The Church has always interpreted the selection of the “seven reputable men” in Acts 6:1-6 as marking the origin of the diaconate. The Apostles were overwhelmed with the many needs of the growing Christian community, and the deacons, including St. Stephen, were called to help them.
In the early Church, the deacon assisted the bishop during the sacred liturgy, performed administrative tasks, and distributed alms to the poor. A praiseworthy example would be St. Lawrence, the famous 3rd-century martyr. After the 5th century, however, the diaconate experienced a gradual decline in the West, such that by 800 A.D. it had become merely a transitional stage in the Latin-rite Church for candidates on the path to priestly ordination. The permanent diaconate would not return in the West until Pope St. Paul VI restored the permanent diaconate shortly after the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).
In 1998, two Vatican offices (Congregation for Clergy and Congregation for Catholic Education) issued a joint statement on the diaconate that provided the following explanation:
“Three reasons lay behind [the decision to restore the permanent diaconate]: (i) a desire to enrich the Church with the functions of the diaconate, which otherwise, in many regions, could only be exercised with great difficulty; (ii) the intention of strengthening with the grace of diaconal ordination those who already exercised many of the functions of the Diaconate; (iii) a concern to provide regions, where there was a shortage of clergy, with sacred ministers. Such reasons make clear that the restoration of the permanent Diaconate was in no manner intended to prejudice the meaning, role or flourishing of the ministerial priesthood, which must always be fostered because of its indispensability.”
As time goes on and the Church reflects on the experience of the restored permanent diaconate, there is an increasing greater sense of the priority of who the deacon is rather than the collection of functions or activities that he typically does.
In the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas, those admitted to the diaconate program go through a two-year aspirancy period followed by a four-year candidacy period, for a total of six years. The next cohort of deacons will begin aspirancy in September 2022, with ordination in 2028.
Diaconate training, more typically called “formation,” has four dimensions: human, spiritual, intellectual, and pastoral. Each month–except for July and August–the deacon candidates will spend one weekend (Friday night to noon on Sunday) at Savior Pastoral Center, where they will receive specialized formation. To the extent the formation includes course work, there will also be reading assignments and papers to be completed in between these weekend sessions. In addition, the candidates will periodically attend workshops and retreats, and they will also receive pastoral assignments to give them hands-on training and experience.
Yes. The Second Vatican Council decreed that the diaconate, when it was restored as a permanent order in the hierarchy, could be opened to “mature married men,” later clarified to mean men over the age of 35. This is in keeping with the ancient tradition of the Church, in which married men were ordained into this ministry. It should also be noted that if his wife should die first, the deacon may not remarry without special permission.
“Celibacy Affects Every Deacon: In one way or another, celibacy affects every deacon, married or unmarried. Understanding the nature of celibacy—its value and its practice—is essential for the married deacon. Not only does this understanding strengthen and nurture his own commitment to marital chastity, but it also helps to prepare him for the possibility of living celibate chastity should his wife predecease him. This concern is particularly unique within the diaconate. Tragically, some deacons who were married at the time of Ordination only begin to face the issues involved with celibacy upon the death of their wives. As difficult as this process is, all deacons need to appreciate the impact celibacy can have on their lives and ministry.”
—National Directory for the Formation, Ministry, and Life of Permanent Deacons in the United States, no. 72.
The National Directory for the Formation, Ministry, and Life of Permanent Deacons in the United States (“ND”) provides:
“In accord with Canon Law, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops establishes the minimum age for ordination to the permanent diaconate at thirty-five for all candidates, married or celibate. The establishment of a maximum age for ordination is at the discretion of the diocesan bishop, keeping in mind the particular needs and expectations of the diocese regarding diaconal ministry and life” (ND 87).
Since the minimum age for ordination to the permanent diaconate is 35, applicants for our six-year program must be at least 29 years of age when they formally begin their formation.
Pursuant to ND 87 and the Code of Canon Law, United States dioceses have adopted various maximum ages for their deacon candidates. The Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas requires that all applicants for the permanent diaconate be 60 years or younger when formation begins. For example, those seeking admission to the cohort beginning in September 2022 must be born no earlier than October 1, 1961.
The Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas desires to give a clear, unequivocal witness to the goodness and indissolubility of marriage, and it recognizes the potential confusion that may arise when its ordained ministers have had recourse to civil divorce.
Accordingly, for married applicants to the diaconate program, those who have been married only once and who, if their spouse is still alive, continue in a healthy and holy union, are the preferred applicants. Applicants who have been divorced will only be considered on a case-by-case basis, pursuant to the provisions of this policy, recognizing the Archbishop’s sole discretion regarding the suitability of such applicants.
If divorced and not remarried, the applicant must be willing and able to embrace a commitment to celibacy, assuming he has obtained a declaration of nullity or a canonical dissolution of the prior marriage. If he has not obtained a declaration of nullity or canonical dissolution, the applicant may reconcile with his estranged wife, but Church discipline would prohibit another attempted marital union.
The applications of men who are divorced and remarried (assuming the current union is a sacramental marriage) will be assessed based on the following criteria:
- The circumstances surrounding the divorce;
- The likelihood of scandal to the faithful if the applicant is ordained, including the response of the former “spouse” and any adult children from such prior union;
- The length and stability of the current sacramental marriage; and
- The applicant’s present reputation and witness—in word and action–with regard to Catholic teaching on marriage and family life.
Not necessarily! It is true that some men may not be in a position to consider the diaconate at this time because of their demanding family and/or work situations. However, one of the driving forces behind the renewal of the diaconate was to have the presence of ordained ministers in families, workplaces, and the public square. Here it is important to recall that the diaconate is above all a vocation from God. If someone believes he may be called to the diaconate, he should begin the discernment process now, rather than postpone the consideration of the diaconate until retirement or the children are grown.
No. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (no. 1577), quoting the Code of Canon Law and other Church documents, affirms that only baptized men may validly receive sacred ordination. For more on the theological and historical reasons for this teaching, see http://catholicdefense.blogspot.com/2011/09/can-catholic-church-ordain-female.html
Diakonos (the Greek word for “servant” or “envoy,” from which we derive the word “deacon”) is a broad term that could be used in various senses. An analogous term might be “minister,” which depending on context could mean exclusively ordained ministers while at other times could refer to all the baptized. So there is evidence of “deaconesses” in the New Testament and in the early Church, but this term was not used in the strict, sacramental sense when applied to women. The Church is continuing to study the issue.
Whenever a person is ordained, he is to serve the archdiocesan Church under the authority of the Archbishop. Deacons are no different in this regard: They are assigned by the Archbishop to ministries for which the Archbishop perceives a great need, and for which the deacon may have special gifts or talents. Most often, this will be within a parish setting, just as most priests serve in a parish. Once assigned to the parish, the deacon and any other clergy assigned to the parish are subject to the immediate supervision of the pastor. However, this assignment may be changed at the request of the deacon or the initiative of the Archbishop.
More often than not, a deacon will be called to assist in his home parish as part of his assignment, but such assignment is subject to the Archbishop’s discretion and cannot be assumed. By the same token, the Archbishop fully takes into account where the deacon resides, as well as the needs and preferences of the deacon and his family and work responsibilities when making the assignment.
“Is it clear that for (a deacon program) to be successful there has to be a careful selection process, solid formation and continuous attention to the suitability of the candidates, as well as constant concern for them once they are ordained, and in the case of married deacons, concern as well for their families, wives, and children.”
– St. John Paul II, apostolic exhortation The Church in America (1999), no. 42.