The Diaconate Today

“The deacon is to be the conscience of the church, dragging the ambo to the streets and the streets to the ambo.” 

Deacon William Ditewig, Ph.D., in a talk at the National Jubilee of the Permanent Diaconate in 2018

The ministry of the diaconate has been present in the church from its earliest decades but has also evolved significantly throughout the centuries. Over time, the diaconate became part of the hierarchical structure of the church, second in importance only to bishops, but then was eventually reduced to a transitional stage toward priesthood. For 800 years in the West, there were no permanent deacons and no married clergy. 

All that changed at the Second Vatican Council with the restoration of the permanent diaconate and its opening to married men. 

What happened in the decades prior to Vatican II that put the permanent diaconate on the agenda of the Council? What aroused interest among pastoral ministers, theologians and even bishops? 

In his book, The Emerging Diaconate: Servant Leaders in a Servant Church (2007), William T. Ditewig identifies “four streams of influence” that converged at Vatican II.

First, in order to deepen the relationship between church ministry and the daily life of people, an idea spread in the German Caritas movement in the early 20th century that married men could become deacons. Second, in German-speaking countries toward the end of World War II, some Catholics saw the diaconate as “a necessary component of a renewed church” that would help prevent future atrocities. Third, about 30 “diaconate circles” emerged in Western Europe from which members engaged in charitable activities and explored a renewed diaconate. Finally, Pope Pius XII helped open the field of biblical studies to critical methods, introduced liturgical reforms and empowered the laity.

As the council took place (1962-1965), members of the “diaconate circles” moved to Rome and served as a resource for the council fathers, who knew little about this distinct and ancient order in the church. 

This presence made a difference. In discussions at Vatican II, supportive bishops argued that the restoration of the permanent diaconate would strengthen the servant identity of the church, address the shortage of priests, improve ecumenical relations, allow married men to make a deeper commitment to ministry, and empower clergy to live and work among lay Catholics, thus serving as a bridge between the hierarchy and the lay faithful.

In 1965, the Second Vatican Council decreed the order of the diaconate should be restored as a permanent state of life. The reason? “There are men who actually carry out the functions of the deacon’s office.” Therefore, the council wrote, “it is only right to strengthen them by the imposition of hands…that they may carry out their ministry more effectively because of the sacramental grace of the diaconate” (Ad gentes, No. 16).

Since the “diaconate circles” had already laid the groundwork for the ministry of permanent deacons, the first ordinations of married men to the permanent diaconate took place in Germany within a year of Pope Paul VI’s official approval of the restoration in 1967.

Now, just over 50 years later, this ministry is still taking shape, still being clarified and embodied more fully.

At the heart of the diaconate is to embody Christ the Servant — at liturgy, in preaching the Word and in the work of charity among those most in need of God’s love and compassion. This three-fold ministry is meant to invite the whole church to more fully embrace the diakonia of Christ.

In a talk at the National Jubilee of the Permanent Diaconate in June 2018, Deacon William Ditewig said, “The deacon is to be the conscience of the church — dragging the ambo to the streets and the streets to the ambo.”

“The conscience of the church.” When the people of God risk becoming comfortable, deacons constantly press the body of believers into the presence of a suffering, homeless, incarcerated, sick, marginalized Christ. And when the people of God risk becoming defeated and forlorn, deacons constantly draw up the healing, consoling, nourishing, resurrecting power of Christ.

In his book The Emerging Diaconate, William Ditewig concludes, “As the church-as-servant continues to find creative ways to meet the needs of an increasingly complex world, it will need all of its resources, and the diaconate is one of those instruments of renewal.”

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