by Leon Suprenaut
The permanent diaconate is still a relatively new phenomenon here in northeast Kansas.
We currently have 23 deacons serving the archdiocese. Most of them were ordained just last year, while the others have moved here from other dioceses.
One particularly visible aspect of the deacon’s ministry is his service during the celebration of Mass. He is the minister standing next to the priest wearing the vestment known as a “dalmatic.”
If we observe the deacon closely, we notice that some of his tasks, such as proclaiming the Gospel and giving the homily, are roles that we’re used to having the priest do. Other tasks, such as announcing the general intercessions and distributing Communion, are roles that we’ve grown accustomed to having the laity fill.
Therefore, since the priest and the faithful seem to have it all covered, it’s fair to ask, “Do we really need deacons?”
The answer appears to be “yes and no.” Since every bishop and priest is also a deacon, and a bishop or priest is necessary for the celebration of Mass, then, yes, we must have a deacon at every Mass. But do we really need this seemingly “extra” person, this “permanent deacon”? We might be tempted to answer “no.”
But let’s look a little deeper. All deacons are called to be reflections of Christ the servant (in Greek, “diakonos”), who came “not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mk 10:45). In the liturgy of the Last Supper, Christ the deacon washes the disciples’ feet (Jn 13:1-20), giving us a vivid example of humility and Christian service.
While all Christians are called to such service, some men are specially ordained for service as deacons, a service that flows from and leads back to the liturgy.
Sure, this is part of the ministry of bishops and priests as well. In fact, underneath their outer vestments, bishops, on occasion wear the dalmatic of the deacon. One of the most ancient and beloved titles of the pope, dating back to St. Gregory the Great, is “Servant of the Servants of God.”
An analogy may be drawn to reception of Communion under both species. When we receive only the host, which is the more common practice, we have fully received Christ. Yet, the Catechism of the Catholic Church says that “the sign of communion is more complete” when we receive both the host and the precious blood of Christ (No. 1390).
Similarly, the service dimension of holy orders is more completely represented on the altar when it is embodied in the person of the deacon. May his distinctive presence remind all of us that to serve is to reign with Christ.