(Editor's Note: This is the first in a series of columns which will help understand the role of the Permanent Deacon in the Diocese of Buffalo.)
He is often seen standing at the right hand of the priest, assisting him in the celebration of the Mass, and proclaiming the Gospel. He is wearing a stole over his left shoulder and across his chest, symbolically leaving the right hand and shoulder unencumbered so as to offer service. He is a Roman Catholic deacon, and his ministry dates back to the time of the apostles.
According to the Acts of the Apostles, the apostles soon realized they would need help in their charitable works. They asked the people to select seven holy, wise men. After they were selected, the apostles prayed over them, traditionally marking the beginning of the diaconate. Deacons were to be ministers of the Church of God. They were charged with continuing the ministry of Jesus Christ.
As the ministry evolved, the deacons collaborated with the bishop and priests in service to the Church. The word "deacon" comes from the Greek "diakonos" meaning servant, minister or messenger. Such did their ministry develop as they took on the main functions of performing charitable works, offering instructions in the faith, and assisting the priest in the celebration of the liturgy.
The deacon became the eyes, ears, heart and soul of the bishop as they assisted the bishops in charitable obligations. In fulfilling their duties, they would become essential to the growth of the early Church.
For the first four centuries in the Church, the diaconate flourished. From their ranks would emerge some of the more cherished saints, such as St. Stephen (the first martyr), St. Lawrence and St. Athanasius.
In the early Church, many deacons were elected pope. For reasons not clearly developed, however, the diaconate began to decline. By the fifth century, the permanent diaconate virtually disappeared.
During World War II, a group of priests who were detained in a Nazi prison camp began discussions on the future of the Church. They determined that a renewed permanent diaconate would be essential to the renewal of parishes after the war.
Their sentiment grew throughout Europe after the war. In 1957, Pope Pius XII spoke of the possibility of renewing the order, but he concluded by deciding that "the time was not yet ripe." Five years later, as a result of continued interest, the bishops at Vatican II would deem the time to be right to reinstitute the order. In one of the main documents of the Council, (Lumen Gentium) they would call for the restoration of the permanent diaconate.
On June 18, 1967, Pope Paul VI, heeding the recommendations of the Council, restored the Holy Order of the Permanent Diaconate. On Aug. 10, 1968, approval to restore the diaconate was granted to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Then, in September 1975, the first class of 24 men began diaconal formation in the Diocese of Buffalo.
Today in the United States, there are more than 15,000 active Roman Catholic permanent deacons. In the Buffalo Diocese, more than 130 active permanent deacons serve the community.
Once ordained, the bishop assigns them to a parish ministry as well as a charitable ministry. Within the parish they fulfill a number of roles in assisting the pastor or pastoral administrator.
They assist the priest at the celebration of the Mass. This includes proclaiming the Gospel, reading the intercessions, preaching and distributing Holy Communion. They also have the faculties to baptize, witness marriages and conduct funerals and burial services. Other functions typical among their parish functions include conducting pre-baptismal classes and pre-nuptial interviews, leading and/or participating in parish religious education programs and RCIA. In the community, they volunteer their services in hospitals, nursing homes, prisons, soup kitchens and a wide variety of other service-based institutions.
In order to become a deacon a man has to be at least 30 years of age, and must begin the formation process no later than age 55. Like so many of my brother deacons, I was called in my late 40s. At the time, I knew I was being called to a greater role in the Church.
I certainly knew where the call was coming from, but I did not know what I was being called to. Admittedly, like many people I speak to today, I knew very little about the diaconate, and certainly had no idea about the formation process.
After attending one of the information sessions held by the Permanent Diaconate Office of the Diocese of Buffalo, it became clear to me that I was being called to the diaconate. After recently celebrating my sixth anniversary, I see that others are being called, but have yet to discern that the calling is to the permanent diaconate.
It becomes part of the ministry of all deacons to educate our Christian community to the who, what, where, why, and how of our order. The confusion or lack of understanding we see so often needs to be addressed. In doing so, we may be helping many who are being called to our order.
Both in their parish and charitable ministry roles, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, permanent deacons resolve to continue the role defined back in the days of the early Church. Heeding the call to continue the ministry of Christ, they follow the example set by their brothers of the early years in dedication to service to Christ's Church.
For information regarding the Permanent Diaconate of the Diocese of Buffalo go to Buffalo Deacon.