The Catholic Deacon as Ordained Minister on the Feast of St Stephen, Deacon and Martyr
Published on Catholic Online
I write on the Feast of St Stephen in the liturgical calendar of the Catholic Church. This is a very meaningful Feast for me. I have been ordained to this order of Catholic Clergy for over twenty years. Stephen was not only the first Martyr, but he was also one of the first seven Deacons ordained for the early Church.
Though the Greek word from which we derive our English usage from was also used to speak of other Christians who were called to serve, it is very clear from the Bible and the documents of the Early Church that the Order of Deacons involved the imposition of the hands of the Apostles, the first Bishops. (See, Acts of the Apostles Chapter 6, New Testament)
It was, and still is, an office in the hierarchy of the Church.
There are three orders in the Sacrament of Holy Orders, Bishop, Priest and Deacon. Therefore, Deacons are clergy in the Catholic Church, not laymen. Deacons are ordained to be an â€˝icon” (an image which makes present what it reflects) of Jesus the Servant, for the Church and the world. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, citing the Bible, ancient Christian sources and the documents of Church Councils, explains that Deacons are ordained, not to the sacramental priesthood, but to the ministry.
The Catholic Catechism
1569 “At a lower level of the hierarchy are to be found deacons, who receive the imposition of hands ‘not unto the priesthood, but unto the ministry.”‘ At an ordination to the diaconate only the bishop lays hands on the candidate, thus signifying the deacon’s special attachment to the bishop in the tasks of his “diakonia.”
1570 Deacons share in Christ’s mission and grace in a special way. The sacrament of Holy Orders marks them with an imprint (“character”) which cannot be removed and which configures them to Christ, who made himself the “deacon” or servant of all. Among other tasks, it is the task of deacons to assist the bishop and priests in the celebration of the divine mysteries, above all the Eucharist, in the distribution of Holy Communion, in assisting at and blessing marriages, in the proclamation of the Gospel and preaching, in presiding over funerals, and in dedicating themselves to the various ministries of charity.
1571 Since the Second Vatican Council the Latin Church has restored the diaconate “as a proper and permanent rank of the hierarchy,” while the Churches of the East had always maintained it. This permanent diaconate, which can be conferred on married men, constitutes an important enrichment for the Church’s mission. Indeed it is appropriate and useful that men who carry out a truly diaconal ministry in the Church, whether in its liturgical and pastoral life or whether in its social and charitable works, should “be strengthened by the imposition of hands which has come down from the apostles. They would be more closely bound to the altar and their ministry would be made more fruitful through the sacramental grace of the diaconate.”
I am 63 years old and have served the Lord continually since encountering Jesus in a profound way as a very young man. Because of that encounter, I reaffirmed and freely and willingly re-embrace the Church of my childhood, the Catholic Church. This came as a fruit of a journey through the Bible, the early Church fathers, sustained prayer and serious inquiry concerning Gods plan for the Church. Though I never officially left the Catholic Church, my family, like too many Catholic families, though we had retained our identification as Catholics, did not understand or practice the faith. We were what might be called cultural Catholics.
Some in the Catholic Church refer to people like me, who returned to the practice of the faith, as reverts, to indicate that we returned to the Church. I prefer to call myself a Catholic by Choice. The Church, like the Lord who is her Head, never left me. I simply needed to come home to Him – and to her as mother and teacher. I needed to embrace my role as a son of the Church and make my home in her heart.
Since then, most of my adult life has been spent in Christian ministry and service. First as a layman and, for over twenty years, as an ordained minister. Much of my legal and policy career was been spent at the intersection of faith and culture. I have led, or participated in, numerous efforts oriented toward the conversion of culture. And, I have done so with Christians from across Christian confessional lines.
Witness to and with other Christians
It is interesting that many of my friends from other Christian traditions understand the role of a Catholic Deacon more than some Catholics even do. They see me as an ordained minister. And, that is what I am. An ordained Catholic minister. That is the exact wording found in the Catholic Catechism. I am ordained – ‘not unto the priesthood, but unto the ministry. (CCC #1569)
For my evangelical Protestant friends, an ordained Catholic Deacon teaches, preaches, baptizes, witnesses weddings and buries the dead, just like their ordained ministers. Of course, that is not all that we do, but it is enough for many of my Christian friends not in full communion with the Catholic Church to see me as an ordained minister of the Catholic Church. I was ordained for one of the growing number of Dioceses where Deacons wear a clergy collar, with an appropriate sign of their diaconate, such as a Deacons cross, when they are engaged in ministry. That has helped not only in my ministry to fellow Catholics, but my ministry with other Christians. It is a sign of ordination in the Catholic Church.
Deacons are Missionaries
Most Catholic Deacons do not work full time for the Church, in the sense of holding a salaried paid position in the offices of a parish or a Diocesan structure. But, we all work full time for the Church, in the sense of living our ministry in Christ. We are called to live that ministry in what is often called the real world, but to live it as not of this world. (See, e.g. Romans 12:2, 1 John 2: 15 – 17) As those first seven deacons did, we are called to reach out to the poor and the needy, in all their manifestations. And, we are called to be willing to suffer for Jesus Christ the Servant.
Catholic Deacons are missionaries today. We are often sent into our own backyard, into cultures which have forgotten God. We are called to live out the charge given to us at our ordination when the bishop handed us the Book of the Gospels and said, Receive the Gospel of Christ, whose herald you now are, believe what you read, teach what you believe and practice what you teach. That is what Stephen the Deacon and Martyr did.
The early fathers of Christianity referred to the Church as the world in the course of being transfigured. Proclaiming the Kingdom to come, the Church is a seed, sign and instrument of that kingdom. Catholic Deacons are to live as leaven in the loaf of human culture, elevating it from within. I often say that Deacons go from the altar and the ambo (or pulpit) into the street. We go into the world to bring the world into the Church.
Often, as a result of their maturity and life experiences, Deacons can be good homilists, teachers and preachers. Church history recounts the great homilies of Deacons such as Ephrem, called the “harp of the Holy Spirit”. It also recounts the heroism of the deacon martyrs, including Stephen and Lawrence and many others. Their sacrificial love continues to inspire the whole church as a perpetual sermon.
In 1996, on the Feast of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ (Corpus Christi), I was ordained to the Order of Deacon in the Catholic Church. When I lay prostrate on the floor of that beautiful Church building that day, in preparation for the imposition of the hands of my Bishop and the reception of the Book of the Gospels, I knew my life would never be the same.
My ordination did indeed create a mark or an imprint on me, as our theology teaches. I now serve as a member of the Catholic clergy in everything I do: evangelization, apologetics, pro-life work, religious freedom efforts and authentic efforts at Christian unity – as well as in my professional life. I do not take off my order when I leave the service of the Altar at the Liturgy. The Diaconate in Christ is a vocation.
During the Church’s first five centuries, the ministry of the Ordained Deacon flourished everywhere. But for various reasons, the order declined in the Western Church as a distinct rank of clerical service, and eventually disappeared. It was relegated to a “transitional” order given to candidates on their way to priestly ordination. In the Eastern Church, Catholic and Orthodox, the diaconate remained a part of the permanent rank of sacred orders without interruption from the time of the Apostles until now.
The Council of Trent (1545-63) in the Catholic Church called for the restoration of the permanent diaconate for the entire Church. But it was not until the Second Vatican Council, four centuries later, that this direction was implemented. The Council Fathers explicitly stated their purpose as threefold: to enhance the Church, to strengthen with sacred orders those men already engaged in diaconal functions, and to aid areas suffering clerical shortages.
According to “The Directory for the Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons,” issued jointly by the Congregation for Catholic Education and the Congregation for the Clergy, the deacon is “a sacred minister and member of the hierarchy.” He is ordained to the first rank of sacred orders, not to the priesthood or the episcopacy. He is no longer a layman, but a member of the clergy.
Like other clerics, the deacon participates in the threefold ministry of Jesus Christ; the “diaconia of the liturgy, the word, and of charity.” He represents “Christ the Servant” in his vocation. The deacon teaches the Word of God, sanctifies through the sacraments, and helps lead the community in its religious life.
He assists at the altar, distributes the Eucharist as an ordinary minister, blesses marriages, presides over funerals, proclaims the Gospel and preaches, administers viaticum to the sick, and leads Sunday celebrations in the absence of a priest when properly called for. But, he is always a Deacon and always representing Jesus and His
Because they receive the Sacrament of Holy Orders, deacons are sent by Christ to serve God’s people. They are called to do so out of the depths of an interior life centered in the Eucharist, and fueled by a life of prayer, which proceeds into action. Like other clerics, they recite the Divine Office and cultivate the habit of penance.
They are called to link their love for the Lord and His Church to a love for the Blessed Virgin Mary, who in her “Fiat” represents the full surrender of love to the invitation of God. Since most deacons are married and have children, they are called to demonstrate the grace of the Sacrament of Marriage and the holiness of a consecrated family life. They are called to “give clear witness to the sanctity of marriage and family.”
A Deacon is a Deacon
What we now call the permanent diaconate has been opened to married men of mature age. However, it is also open to and encouraged as a permanent rank of orders for celibate men. The decision for marriage or celibacy is to be made before ordination to the order of deacon. However, a deacon is a deacon, whether it is a permanent ministry or a transitional one on the way to ordination to the Holy Priesthood.
That is the reason I do not personally like the adjective permanent, when used for Deacons. I well understand that it is intended to signal the restoration of this order of Clergy as a permanent gift for the Church and, as a loyal son of the Church I accept and use it when appropriate. But, sadly, after over twenty years, I have seen it devolve into something else, though perhaps not intended. That is to promote a view that the married deacon as less a member of the clergy than the celibate deacon on the way to ordination to the priesthood.
Sadly, there are Catholics, some of whom self-identify as traditionalists, who have a problem with those of us who are ordained to serve as Deacons. It expands beyond that self-identification. One profoundly gifted priest academic and writer I know insisted several years ago in an email that I was not a member of the Clergy. He said to think otherwise was to misunderstand theology and the Second Vatican Council. He admitted my theology on most matters was orthodox, but wanted me to know that I was simply wrong to believe that I was ordained. I was offended, and for good reason.
I had only one thing to say, adjust Father. I am. And, all my deacon brothers are members of the clergy are as well. In fact, you were ordained a deacon before you were called to the holy office of priest. I respect and honor your beautiful office. And, to claim that the ordained deacon was not a part of the tradition is not only mistaken theologically, it is historically inaccurate. You cannot get more deeply rooted in the Catholic tradition than the first martyr of the Church named Stephen, a Deacon. God chose well. He must have intended that this first witness to shed his blood imitation of Jesus the Servant would be ordained, not to the priesthood but to the ministry.
Either the Catholic Church made a mistake in reinstating the Order as a permanent rank of clerical service, or you have. We know the proper answer. Most of us have much in common with you. We are older men, seriously committed to the Magisterium (teaching office) of the Church and sacrificially serving the Lord and the mission of His Church in an age desperately in need of her message and her mission.
On this Feast of St Stephen, Deacon and Martyr of the Church, we continue our celebration of the Octave of Christmas by reflecting on this soldier of Jesus Christ whose life was so conformed to the Lord that he imitated him in his death. Let us pray for our deacons, that they can continue bearing witness to the truths of the ancient faith, following in the footsteps of Deacon Stephen. May Deacons take their place in the New Evangelization of the Church. May they serve as soldiers of love in a new missionary age of the ancient, yet ever new, One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.
In the Catholic Church, Christmas is celebrated for eight days (Octave, from the Latin Octava) and then opens into a liturgical season, the Christmas season. On this second day of the Octave of Christmas we are invited to reflect on the great Proto-Martyr (First Martyr) of the Church, St. Stephen, the Deacon. To understand why we celebrate a Martyr on the second day of our Feast of the Nativity of the Lord, consider this insight from Pope St. John Paul II, shared in a sermon he preached on this Feast in 2002:
The Church calls the day of martyrdom a “dies natalis” (day of birth). Indeed, by virtue of Christ’s death and Resurrection, the death of the martyr is a birth in Heaven. This is why it is so meaningful to celebrate the first martyr the day after Christmas: Jesus who was born in Bethlehem gave his life for us so that we too, reborn “from on high” through faith and Baptism, might be willing to give up our own lives for love of our brothers and sisters”.
I conclude this reflection on the ministry of a catholic Deacon with this excerpt from an inspired homily given by a great Bishop. It gives us food for our continued Christmas meditation:
A sermon of St Fulgentius of Ruspe: The Armor of Love
Yesterday we celebrated the birth in time of our eternal King. Today we celebrate the triumphant suffering of his soldier. Yesterday our king, clothed in his robe of flesh, left his place in the virgin’s womb and graciously visited the world. Today his soldier leaves the tabernacle of his body and goes triumphantly to heaven.
Our king, despite his exalted majesty, came in humility for our sake; yet he did not come empty-handed. He brought his soldiers a great gift that not only enriched them but also made them unconquerable in battle, for it was the gift of love, which was to bring men to share in his divinity. He gave of his bounty, yet without any loss to himself. In a marvelous way he changed into wealth the poverty of his faithful followers while remaining in full possession of his own inexhaustible riches.
And so the love that brought Christ from heaven to earth raised Stephen from earth to heaven; shown first in the king, it later shone forth in his soldier. Love was Stephen’s weapon by which he gained every battle, and so won the crown signified by his name. His love of God kept him from yielding to the ferocious mob; his love for his neighbor made him pray for those who were stoning him.
Love inspired him to reprove those who erred, to make them amend; love led him to pray for those who stoned him, to save them from punishment. Strengthened by the power of his love, he overcame the raging cruelty of Saul and won his persecutor on earth as his companion in heaven. In his holy and tireless love he longed to gain by prayer those whom he could not convert by admonition.
Now at last, Paul rejoices with Stephen, with Stephen he delights in the glory of Christ, with Stephen he exalts, with Stephen he reigns. Stephen went first, slain by the stones thrown by Paul, but Paul followed after, helped by the prayer of Stephen.
This, surely, is the true life, my brothers, a life in which Paul feels no shame because of Stephen’s death, and Stephen delights in Paul’s companionship, for love fills them both with joy. It was Stephen’s love that prevailed over the cruelty of the mob, and it was Paul’s love that covered the multitude of his sins; it was love that won for both of them the kingdom of heaven.
Love, indeed, is the source of all good things; it is an impregnable defense,- and the way that leads to heaven. He who walks in love can neither go astray nor be afraid: love guides him, protects him, and brings him to his journey’s end.
My brothers, Christ made love the stairway that would enable all Christians to climb to heaven. Hold fast to it, therefore, in all sincerity, give one another practical proof of it, and by your progress in it, make your ascent together.