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Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

Deacon, from the Greek διάκονος; diakonos (servant), is a member of a lower branch of the Christian ministry, below the priest (or presbyter) and bishop. The institution of the diaconate is traced to the laying on of hands described in the Acts of the Apostles (6:1-6). Answering to complaints about partiality in the care of the poor, the Apostles ordained seven men, including Stephen, the first martyr, to serve under the presbyter-bishops. In St. Paul's pastoral letters, deacons are a separate class of officers who were mainly charged with the material cares of the apostolate.

From Pope St. Clement in the first century through the patristic age, the diaconate assumed a broadening variety of ministries, always under obedience to the bishop. During the celebration of the Eucharist, they read or chanted the Epistle and Gospel, received the gift-offerings of the laity, inscribed in the diptychs the names of donors to be prayed for at Mass, helped the priest in distributing Holy Communion or brought the Eucharist to the homes of the sick, led the faithful in congregational prayer, gave….the penitents and catechumens (those still receiving…to leave the church before the Canon of the Mass, and…. the bishop's permission baptized, instructed prospective converts, performed exorcisms, and reconciled those who had "lapsed" during times of persecution.

The number of deacons was at first limited to seven for each diocese, and in Rome the tradition still survives in the seven Cardinal Deacons. Their office of collecting and distributing the alms made them influential in the Christian community. Archdeacons or chief deacons of a locality began in the East, but in the West assumed greater importance as principal administrative officers of the bishops. When abuses crept in, successive councils either restricted the exercise of deacons' powers (Nicaea in 325) or clarified their hierarchical inferiority to the priesthood (Toledo in 633). By the Middle Ages the diaconate was practically reduced to a temporary status, preparatory to the priesthood, although it included such persons as St. Francis of Assisi (C.1181-1226).

Present legislation in the Roman Catholic Church defines the role of deacons as assistants to the priest when he celebrates the solemn Eucharistic liturgy, as substitutes in certain functions, and as preachers and ministers of baptism.

Among Anglicans and Episcopalians a cleric begins his ministry by becoming a deacon; while a deacon, he is forbidden to celebrate the Eucharist or give private or General Absolution or the Blessing. Without special dispensation, he may not enter the diaconate before the age of 23, and generally he remains in the order for one year. In England, archdeacons are administrative officers with a general disciplinary supervision of the clergy and with special authority over the ecclesiastical property of their archdeaconry. They must be in priest's orders for at least six years before assuming office.

In the Protestant churches of America and Europe, the role of the deacon differs widely, but almost universally implies special ordination and a permanent clerical status. Lutheran ministers, though in full orders, are called deacons when they hold a subordinate rank, as second or third preachers or pastors. Calvin recognized two classes of deacons, those who administered alms and those who cared for the poor and sick, and the distinction remains in the Presbyterian churches. In the Baptist communion and churches in the Congregational tradition, deacons may have definite spiritual functions equal to those of a fully ordained minister. The Methodist Church also gives deacons the right to preach, conduct divine worship, perform the marriage ceremony, confer baptism, and administer the Lord's Supper; but the exercise of these powers is limited.

Collier’s Encyclopedia
Vol. 7, p. 750

Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica

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