Q. What is the role of a permanent deacon? If a priest is present, why does the deacon read the gospel and deliver a homily?
A. The whole church is a priestly people. Jesus, the Great High Priest and the mediator between God and man, has made us “a kingdom, priests for his God and Father” (Rev. 1:6). By their baptism, all members of the Church share in the priesthood of Jesus Christ. This is referred to as the “common priesthood of all believers.”
Moreover, the Lord has called some to serve in the very name and person of Christ, the Head of the Body, the Church, in the midst of the community. Thus, the sacrament of Holy Orders was instituted by Christ to allow the mission given to the apostles to continue in the Church until the end of time. While the common priesthood of believers and ministerial priesthood are ordered to one another, the ministerial priesthood is essentially different. There are three degrees to the sacrament of Holy Orders: the episcopate, the presbyterate, and the diaconate.
A bishop receives the fullness of the sacrament of Holy Orders in which he visibly teaches, sanctifies and governs in the name of Christ. The bishop oversees the pastoral care of those in the particular Church entrusted to him. Bishops ordain priests to serve as their co-workers in the vineyard, assisting in carrying out the mission of Jesus given to them. Priests act in the person of Christ, the Head of the Body, through the administration of sacraments.
Deacons share in the mission of Christ in their own, unique way. In the Acts of the Apostles, we hear of the origins of diaconate. It was reported that widows were being neglected in their temporal needs, but the priests were busy attending to the spiritual needs of early Church. The apostles gathered together and said, “It is not right for us to neglect the word of God to serve at table. Brothers, select from among you seven reputable men, filled with the Spirit and wisdom, whom we shall appoint to this task, whereas we shall devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:3).
These seven reputable men were the first deacons, who were called to tasks in service of the Church. The word “diaconos” is a Greek word meaning “servant” or “helper.” Writing in the first century, St. Ignatius affirmed this function of deacons. He stated that deacons penned letters for bishops and assisted him in the ministry of the Word, and they helped the poor and the needy in the community.
As in all of the degrees of Holy Orders, when a man is ordained a deacon, his soul is marked indelibly. The mark cannot be removed and it configures him to Christ, the servant.
Deacons assist bishops and priests in the celebration of the Eucharist. A deacon may proclaim the Word of God, preach homilies, bless marriages, and preside at funerals.
The liturgical documents indicate a preference that the Gospel be proclaimed by a deacon, if possible. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal states: “the readings are to be read by a reader, but the Gospel by the Deacon or, in his absence, by another Priest. If, however, a Deacon or another Priest is not present, the Priest Celebrant himself should read the Gospel.”
Proclaiming the Word of God is inherent in the ministerial function of the deacon. For in the Rite of Ordination to the Diaconate, the newly ordained deacon kneels down before the bishop and places his hands on the Book of the Gospels, which is handed to him by the bishop. The bishop says to him, “Receive the Gospel of Christ, whose herald you now are. Believe what you read, teach what you believe, and practice what you teach.”
Incidentally, works of Christian art portray the ministerial function of the deacon to proclaim the word of God in an artistic way. The liturgical vestment of the deacon is called a dalmatic. It looks similar to the chasuble that a priest wears, except it has sleeves. Painters traditionally paint the angels who are messengers of the Word of God as wearing a deacon’s dalmatic.
All bishops were first ordained priests, and all priests were first ordained deacons. Bishops and Priests never lose their indelible mark, which was received at their ordination to the diaconate. So, all bishops, priests, and deacons are truly “permanent deacons.” Sometimes deacons who are preparing to be ordained priests are called “transitional deacons,” but they still remain deacons.
The Church allows married men to be candidates for the diaconate, if they are accepted by the bishop. Sometimes, these married men who become deacons are referred to as “permanent deacons.”
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