What is a Deacon?

Dear Fellow Parishioners,

When people find out that I’m a deacon often one of the first questions I’m asked is, “what is a deacon?” The short answer is that a deacon is an ordained minister of the Catholic Church. The response to that statement is usually “so what is the difference between you and a priest?”

I think the distinction lies in the use of the term ministry. The word itself comes from the Latin word ministerium which is translated from the Greek word for service, diakonia, and at times it can be hard to sort out just what kind of “ministry” or “service” we are talking about. Within the world of church, ministers are those who conduct “services” and provide related “services” to those they “serve.” Prior to the Second Vatican Council the term “ministry “ was generally associated with clergy of religions other than the Catholic Church; they had ministers, we had priests, nuns, and monks. In 1967, when Pope Paul VI renewed the permanent diaconate, we suddenly found ourselves with a public ministry (clergy) who are not priests but whose very name means “servant.” Many of us found ourselves asking why do we need deacons and what do they do? Maybe the real question isn’t “what do deacons do?” but what does it mean to be a deacon of the Catholic Church?

The first element of the ministerial identity of any Christian is found in the Sacrament of Baptism. As the newly baptized is anointed with Sacred Chrism these words are said, “as Christ was anointed priest, prophet, and king, so may you live always as a member of His body, sharing everlasting life.” Since it is our sacramental initiation that calls us all to service, what does ordination add to our ministerial identity?

The Catechism points out that ordination, “configures the recipient to Christ by a special grace of the Holy Spirit so that he may serve as Christ’s instrument for His Church”. Ordination conveys a public sense of servant—leadership for the rest of the community. When all is said and done, the ministerial identity of the deacon is all about relationships. Regardless of his state in life—married, single, working, retired—the ministerial identity and spirituality of a deacon must be focused on the other.

With ordination, deacons are called to deepen our relationship with the Church, the people of God, and are asked to grow that relationship through the threefold ministry of Word, Sacrament, and Charity & Justice. The identity of a deacon is expressed in the balanced exercise of these ministries, not one over the other or against the other.

As I close I would like to leave you with the words that the bishop says to every deacon as he is being ordained, “Receive the Gospel of Christ whose herald you now are: Believe what you read, teach what you believe, and practice what you teach.” Hopefully that begins to answer the question, “who are deacons?”

It has been an honor to have been assigned here by the Archbishop five years ago; together let us move forward to serve as the Body of Christ to all we meet so through our efforts God may build His Kingdom. Through our baptism we are all called!

Dc. Jim DeShane
Deacon, Director of Pastoral Care & Marriage Coordinator