by Father Mike Stubbs
Before the Second Vatican Council, seminarians were often ordained deacons shortly before ordination to the priesthood, sometimes only a few days beforehand.
In some cases, if it were longer, their time as a deacon might be viewed as an internship getting them ready for priesthood.
We still have transitional deacons who are preparing for priesthood. Besides them, though, we also now have permanent deacons. They can be married, as long as they were already married before ordination to the diaconate.
So, what do these deacons do?
Sunday’s first reading, Acts 6:1-7, can shed some light on this question.
Some of the Christians in the city of Jerusalem complain to the apostles. Since the city of Jerusalem was destroyed in the year 70, this happened early on in the history of the church. At the time, some of the Christians were Jewish and spoke Aramaic, while others spoke Greek and perhaps were Gentile in origin.
The Greek-speakers complain that their widows were being neglected in the distribution of food. In response, the apostles designate seven men to address this issue. They are the first deacons.
Once chosen, these men are brought to the apostles, “who prayed and laid hands on them.” This is the rite of ordination. We consider it part of the sacrament of holy orders.
The two other orders belonging to that sacrament are the priesthood and the episcopate (the office of bishop). All three rites of ordination involve the laying on of hands. This gesture derived from the Jewish tradition at the time, to represent the passing on of authority.
The English word “deacon” derives from the Greek word for “servant.” In other words, deacons are meant to be devoted to serving others.
In our times, that service may involve something other than the distribution of food.
For example, some deacons may provide ministry to those in jails and prisons. Others may go into the hospitals and nursing homes. Deacons also play a role in the liturgy.
They may proclaim the Gospel reading and preach at Mass. They may administer the sacrament of baptism and preside at weddings outside of Mass and graveside services.
In any case, our deacons can set an example for the whole church as to how we should serve others.
They can remind us of how Jesus identified himself as one “who came, not to be served, but to serve.”
They can point to that essential dimension of every Christian: to be a servant.