Short History of the Permanent Diaconate

History of the Permanent Diaconate

Most Catholics know about the first Deacons; Acts 6 tells their story.  The Hebrew Christian community had a system in place to support its widows. The Hellenist [Jewish Christians who had long lived in Greece] lacked such a system and felt their widows were ignored.  The Hellenists nominated seven men - the first deacons. Among those seven was the church’s first martyr [proto-martyr] – St Stephen.

Many people know of St. Lawrence – another deacon and martyr. He lived in the mid-200s.  If you’ve visited Rome, you may have visited the church built over his tomb – it’s one of Rome’s seven principal churches. He’s mostly remembered for his deathbed request.  The Roman Emperor Valerian had him placed on a gridiron and suspended over a bed of hot coals.  After many hours, Lawrence looked at his torturers and said “It is well done. Turn me over!”

The most well-known of the church’s deacons is probably St. Francis of Assisi, although sometimes people are surprised to learn he was a deacon. 

Permanent deacons were a vital vocation in the early church. Between 432 and 684, 34 of the 37 popes were deacons at the time of their election. The diaconate remained part of the church hierarchy until the 10th century and by the 13th century became a step on the path to the priesthood instead of a permanent order. The seeds of the beginning of its restoration were sown in 1940 in Nazi Germany.

It was then that the Nazis decided to imprison all clergy at Dachau [just outside Munich]. As 1945 and the war’s end approached, the priests began to talk about what would happen post-war; “How,” they discussed, “could the church respond to the great needs of the survivors”. They discussed the concrete needs, things like food, clothing, and shelter and wondered how the church could respond.  They knew there were too few priests – almost 1,000 of them had perished right there at Dachau – to do everything that would be needed.

Searching for answers, they turned to the first source the church always consults, scripture.  It didn’t take them long to turn to Acts and read about how the apostles – facing a very similar dilemma – had solved their problem. They returned to their discussion many times, and by the time of their liberation, they were ready to make their appeal to restore the diaconate as a permanent order.  It would be two more decades before their vision would take form.

From 1938 to its liberation in 1945, the Dachau concentration camp held a total of 2,579 priests; 1,034 died there. As reports on the state of the war in Europe reached the priests, they turned their attention to the question of how the church could meet the people’s needs when the war ended. Using scripture as their inspiration, they concluded that the church once again needed permanent deacons.

Post war Germany was far worse than the priests imagined. To meet the massive needs, some of the former Dachau priests formed “Deacon Circles” – groups of lay people and clergy who banded together to serve the spiritual and temporal needs of the war’s survivors. Their success, and the continued call from other surviving priests, reinforced the potential of the diaconate. In 1957, Pope Pius XII spoke favorably about restoring the diaconate as a permanent order but felt the time wasn’t right.  Then, when Pope John XXIII called for Vatican II, formal discussions regarding renewal the diaconate began.  Some of the Dachau priests were now bishops and would help shape the discussions within the council. The first of those discussions took place in 1963, then on 21 Nov 1964, the church fathers voted 2,151 to 5 to approve The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church which opened the door to the restoration of the diaconate.  It defines deacons and their responsibilities in this manner: “At a lower level of the hierarchy are deacons, upon whom hands are imposed "not unto the priesthood, but unto a ministry of service". For strengthened by sacramental grace, in communion with the bishop and his group of priests they serve in the diaconate of the liturgy, of the word, and of charity to the people of God”.

Pope Paul VI formally authorized ordination to the permanent diaconate in 1967, and the U.S. bishops received permission to renew the order the next year.  Now, over 50 years later, there are over 18,000 deacons in the U.S. with some 2,500 men in formation annually. There are 27 deacons in our diocese. Diaconal ministries are as varied as the deacons themselves.  You’ll find deacons in jails and prisons, working in soup kitchens, hospice programs, nursing homes, marriage preparation programs, and any number of other ministries. You can hear them preach, and watch them officiate at baptisms, weddings and funerals. They serve the people of God in liturgy, word, and charity wherever and however they’re needed.

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