Back to our Roots

As we continue our examination of Pope Paul VI’s Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem, restoring the permanent diaconate in the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church, we arrive at paragraph 21, in which the pope outlines the normal functions to be carried out by the deacon, making reference to the original partial listing given by the Second Vatican Council in Lumen Gentium , No. 29. 

1) To assist the bishop and the priest during liturgical actions in all things which the rituals of the different orders assign to him; 

2) To administer baptism solemnly, and to supply the ceremonies which may have been omitted when conferring it on children or adults; 

3) To reserve the Eucharist and to distribute it to himself and to others, to bring it as a Viaticum to the dying and to impart to the people benediction with the Blessed Sacrament with the sacred ciborium; 

4) In the absence of a priest, to assist at and to bless marriages in the name of the Church by delegation from the bishop or pastor, observing the rest of the requirements which are in the Code of Canon Law, with Canon 1098 remaining firm, and where what is said in regard to the priest is also to be understood in regard to the deacon; 

5) To administer sacramentals and to officiate at funeral and burial services; 

6) To read the sacred books of Scripture to the faithful and to instruct and exhort the people; 

7) To preside at the worship and prayers of the people when a priest is not present; 

8) To direct the Liturgy of the Word, particularly in the absence of a priest; 

9) To carry out, in the name of the hierarchy, the duties of charity and of administration, as well as works of social assistance; 

10) To guide legitimately, in the name of the parish priest and of the bishop, remote Christian communities; 

11) To promote and sustain the apostolic activities of laymen. 

The pope reminds deacons that all of these functions are to be carried out “in perfect communion” with the bishop and the presbyterate. The last word of the section is a reminder that “deacons, as much as possible, should have their part in pastoral councils.” Pastors often ask if deacons, ex officio, should be members of diocesan and parish pastoral councils. It would seem clear from this document that they do. 

Section VI addresses the spiritual life of the deacon. “By reason, therefore, of the order received they must surpass by far all others in the practice of liturgical life, in the love for prayer, in the divine service, in obedience, in charity, in chastity” (No. 25). The Second Vatican Council called all believers, regardless of their state of life, to perfect holiness. Here the Holy Father is exhorting deacons to express their own spirituality in an exceptional manner in a number of ways. The first listed is their participation in the liturgical life of the Church. It is interesting to note, of course, that some commentators still take a rather minimizing approach to the deacon’s liturgical role, suggesting that it is secondary to the deacon’s “real” ministry of charity. The pope’s emphasis on liturgy here reminds us that, for all disciples of Christ, it is always from the liturgy — especially the Eucharist — that we find our identity as Christians and the source of the grace to live out the demands of discipleship in the contemporary world. This is no less true for the deacon than it is for any other Christian. It is so important, in fact, for the ministry and life of the deacon that it is the first spiritual element given by the pope. This should give priests and deacons a common base for appreciating the complementarity of our vocations! 

We will conclude our examination of this landmark document next month. TP

DEACON DITEWIG, Ph.D., is professor of theology and religious studies at St. Leo University in Florida and former executive director of the Secretariat for the Diaconate at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. He is also on the governing board of the International Diaconate Center in Germany.