The name deacon (diakonos) means only minister or servant, and is employed in this sense both in the Septuagint (though only in the book of Esther, e.g. 2:2; 6:3) and in the New Testament (e.g. Matthew 20:28; Romans 15:25; Ephesians 3:7; etc.). But in Apostolic times the word began to acquire a more definite and technical meaning. Writing about 63 A.D. Saint Paul addresses “all the saints who are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons” (Philippians 1:1). A few years later (1 Timothy 3:8) he impresses upon Timothy that “deacons must be chaste, not double tongued, not given to much wine, not greedy of filthy lucre, holding the mystery of faith in a pure conscience.” He directs further that they must “first be proved: and so let them minister, having no crime”, and he adds that they should be the husbands of one wife: who rule well their children and their own houses. For they that have ministered well shall purchase to themselves a good degree, and much confidence in the faith which is in Christ Jesus.” This passage is worthy of note, not only because it describes the qualities desirable in candidates for the diaconate, but also because it suggests that external administration and the handling of money were likely to form part of their functions.
ORIGIN AND EARLY HISTORY OF THE DIACONATE
According to the constant tradition of the Catholic Church, the narrative of Acts 6:1-6, which serves to introduce the account of the martyrdom of Saint Stephen, describes the first institution of the office of deacon. The Apostles, in order to meet the complaints of the Hellenistic Jews that, “their widows were neglected in the daily ministrations” (diakonia), called together
the multitude of the disciples and said: It is not reason that we should leave the word of God and serve (diakonein) tables. Wherefore, brethren, look ye out seven men of good reputation, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business. But we will give ourselves continuously to prayer, and to the ministry of the word (te diakonia tou logou). And the saying was liked by all the multitude. And they chose Stephen, a man full of faith, and of the Holy Ghost
(with six others who are named). These they placed “before the Apostles; and they, praying, imposed hands upon them.”
Now, on the ground that the Seven are not expressly called deacons and that some of them (e.g. Saint Stephen, and later Phillip (Acts 21:8) preached and ranked next to the Apostles, Protestant commentators have constantly raised objections against the identification of this choice of the Seven with the institution of the diaconate. But apart from the fact that the tradition among the Fathers is both unanimous and early – e.g. Saint Irenaeus speaks of Saint Stephen as the first deacon – the similarity between the functions of the Seven who served the tables and those of the early deacons is most striking. Compare, for example, both with the passage from the Acts with 1 Timothy 3:8, quoted above, the following sentence from Hermas:
They that have spots are the deacons that exercised their office ill and plundered the livelihood of widows and orphans and made gains for themselves from the ministrations they had received to perform.
Or, again, Saint Ignatius:
Those who are deacons of the mysteries of Jesus Christ must please all men in all ways. For they are not deacons of meats and drinks [only] but servants of the church of God.
Saint Clement of Rome (c.95 AD) clearly describes the institution of deacons along with that of bishops as being the work of the Apostles themselves. Further, it should be noted that ancient tradition limited the number of deacons at Rome to seven, and that a canon of the council of Neo-Caesarea (325) prescribed the same restriction for all cities, however large, appealing directly to the Acts of the Apostles as a precedent. We seem, therefore, thoroughly justified in identifying the functions of the Seven with those of the deacons of whom we hear so much in the Apostolic Fathers and the early councils. Established primarily to relieve the bishops and presbyters of their more secular and invidious duties, notably in distributing the alms of the faithful, we need not do more than recall the large place occupied by the agapae, or love feasts, in the early worship of the Church, to understand how readily the duty of serving at tables may have passed into the privilege of serving at the altar. They became the natural intermediaries between the celebrant and the people. Inside the Church they made public announcements, marshaled the congregation, preserved order, and the like. Outside of it they were the bishop’s deputies in secular matters, and especially in the relief of the poor. Their subordination and general duties of service seem to have been indicated by their standing during the public assemblies of the Church, while the bishops and priests were seated. It should be noticed that along with these functions probably went a large share in the instruction of catechumens and preparation of the altar services. Even in the Acts of the Apostles (8:38) the Sacrament of Baptism is administered by the deacon Phillip.
An attempt has recently been made, though regarded by many as somewhat fanciful, to trace the origin of the diaconate to the organization of those primitive Hellenistic Christian communities, which in the earliest age of the Church had all things in common, being supported by the alms of the faithful. For these it is contended that some steward (oeconomus) must have been appointed to administer their temporal affairs. The full presentment of the subject is somewhat too intricate and confused to find place here. We must content ourselves with noting that less difficulty attends the same writer’s theory of the derivation of the judicial and administrative functions of the archdeacon from the duties imposed upon one selected member of the diaconal college, who was called the bishop’s deacon (diaconus episcopi) because to him was committed the temporal administration of funds and charities for which the bishop was primarily responsible. This led in time to a certain judicial and legal position and to the surveillance of the subordinate clergy.
DUTIES OF DEACONS
1. That some, if not all, members of the diaconal college were everywhere stewards of the Church funds and of the alms collected for widows and orphans is beyond dispute. We find Saint Cyprian speaking of Nicostratus as having defrauded widows and orphans as well as robbed the Church. Such speculation was all the easier because the offerings passed through their hands, at any rate to a large degree. Those gifts which the people brought and which were not made directly to the bishop were presented to him through them and on the other hand they were to distribute the oblations (eulogias) which remained over after the Liturgy had been celebrated among the different orders of the clergy according to certain fixed proportions. It was no doubt that from such functions as these that Saint Jerome calls the deacon mensarum et viduarum minister. They sought out the sick and the poor, reporting to the bishop upon their needs and following his direction in all things. They were also to invite aged women and probably others as well, to the agapae. Then with regard to the bishop they were to relieve him of his more laborious and less important functions and in this way they came to exercise a certain measure of jurisdiction in the simpler cases which were submitted to his decision. Similarly, they sought out and reproved offenders as his deputies. In fine, as the Apostolic Constitutions declare, they were to be his “ears and eyes and mouth and heart”, or, as it is laid down elsewhere, “his soul and his senses.” (psyche kai aisthesis).
2. Again, as the Apostolic Constitutions further explain in some detail, the deacons were the guardians of order in the church. They saw that the faithful occupied their proper places, that none gossiped or slept. They were to welcome the poor and aged and to take care that they were not at a disadvantage as to their position in church. They were to stand at the men’s gate as janitors to see that during the Liturgy none came in or went out, and as Saint Chrysostom says in general terms: “if anyone misbehave let the deacon be summoned”. Besides this they were largely employed in the direct ministry of the altar, preparing the sacred vessels and bringing water for the ablutions, etc., though in later times many of these duties devolved upon clerics of an inferior grade. Most especially were they conspicuous by their marshaling and directing the congregation during the service. Even to the present day, as will be remembered, such announcements as Ite, missa est, Flectamus genua, Procedamus in pace, are always made by the deacon; though this function was more pronounced in the early ages. The following from the newly discovered “Testament of Our Lord”, a document of the end of the fourth century, may be quoted as an interesting example of a proclamation such as was made by the deacon just before the Anaphora:
Let us arise; let each know his own place. Let the catechumens depart.
See that no unclean, no careless person is here.
Lift up the eyes of your hearts. Angels look upon us.
See, let him who is without faith depart.
Let no adulterer, no angry man be here.
If anyone be a slave of sin let him depart.
See, let us supplicate as children of the light.
Let us supplicate our Lord and God and Savior, Jesus Christ.
3. The special duty of the deacon to read the Gospel seems to have been recognized from an early period, but it does not at first appear to have been so distinctive as it has become in the Western Church. Sozomen says of the church of Alexandria that the Gospel might only be read by the archdeacon, but elsewhere ordinary deacons performed that office, while in other churches, again it devolved upon the priests. It may be this relation to the Gospel which led to the direction in the Apostolic Constitutions, that the deacons should hold the book of the Gospels open over the head of a bishop elect during the ceremony of his consecration. With the reading of the Gospel should also probably be connected the occasional, though rare, appearance of the deacon in the office of preacher. The second Council of Vaison (529) declared that a priest might preach in his own parish, but that when he was ill a deacon should read a homily by one of the Fathers of the Church, urging that deacons, being held worthy to read the Gospel were a fortiori worthy of reading a work of human authorship. Actual preaching by a deacon, however, despite the precedent of the deacon Philip, was at all periods rare, and the Arian bishop of Antioch, Leontius, was censured for letting his deacon Aetius preach. On the other hand, the greatest preacher of the East Syrian Church, Ephraem Syrus, is said by all the early authorities to have been only a deacon, though a phase in his own writings throws some doubt upon the fact. But the statement attributed to Hilarius Diaconus, nunc neque diaconi in popolo praedicant (nor do the deacons now preach to the people), undoubtedly represents the ordinary rule, both in the fourth century and later.
4. With regard to the great action of the Liturgy it seems clear that the deacon held at all times, both in East and West, a very special relation to the sacred vessels and to the host and chalice both before and after consecration. The Council of Laodicea forbade the inferior orders of the clergy to enter the diaconicum or touch the sacred vessels, and a canon of the first Council of Toledo pronounces that deacons who have been subjected to public penance must in future remain with the subdeacons and thus be withdrawn from the handling of these vessels. On the other hand, though the subdeacon afterward invaded their functions, it was originally the deacons alone who
- presented the offerings of the faithful at the altar and especially the bread and wine for the sacrifice,
- proclaimed the names of those who had contributed,
- carried away the remnants of the consecrated elements to be reserved in the sacristy, and
- administered the chalice and, on occasion, the sacred host, to communicants.
A question arose as to whether deacons might give communion to priests but the practice was forbidden as unseemly by the first Council of Nicaea. In these functions which we may trace back to the time of Justin Martyr it was repeatedly insisted, in restraint of certain pretensions, that the deacon’s office was entirely subordinate to that of the celebrant, whether bishop or priest. Although certain deacons seem locally to have usurped the power of offering the Holy Sacrifice (offerre), this abuse was severely repressed in the Council of Arles (314), and there is nothing to support the idea that the deacon was in any proper sense was held to consecrate the chalice, as even Onslow fully allows, though a rather rhetorical phrase of Saint Ambrose has suggested the contrary. Still the care of the chalice has remained the deacon’s special province down to modern times. Even now in a high Mass the rubrics direct that when the chalice is offered, the deacon is to support the foot of the chalice or the arm of the priest and to repeat with him the words: Offerimus tibi, Domine, calicem salutris, etc. As a careful study of the first “” shows, the archdeacon of the papal Mass seems in a sense to preside over the chalice, and it is he and his fellow-deacons who, after the people have communicated under the form of bread, present to them the calicem ministerialem with the Precious Blood.
5. The deacons were also intimately associated with the administration of the Sacrament of Baptism. They were not, indeed, as a rule allowed themselves to baptize apart from grave necessity (the Apostolic Constitution expressly rejects any inference that might be drawn from Philip’s baptism of the eunuch), but inquiries about the candidates, their instruction and preparation, the custody of the chrism – which the deacons were to fetch when consecrated – and occasionally the actual administration of the Sacrament as the bishop’s deputies, seem to have formed part of their recognized functions. Thus, Saint Jerome writes: “sine chrismate et episcopi jussione neque presbyteri neque diaconi jus habiant baptizandi.” (Without chrism and the command of the bishop neither presbyters nor deacons have the right of baptizing. Analogous to this charge was their position in the penitential system. As a rule their action was only intermediary and preparative, and it is interesting to note how prominent is the part played by the archdeacon as intercessor in the form for the reconciliation of penitents on Maundy Thursday still printed in the Roman Pontifical. But certain phrases in early documents suggest that in cases of necessity the deacons sometimes absolved. Thus Saint Cyprian writes that if “no priest can be found and death seems imminent, sufferers can also make the confession of their sins to a deacon, that by laying his hand upon them in penance they may come to the Lord in peace” (ut mano eis in poenitetiam imposita veniant ad dominum cum pace). Whether in this and similar cases their can have been question of sacramental absolution is much debated, but certain Catholic theologians have not hesitated about returning an affirmative answer. There can be no doubt that in the Middle Ages confession in case of necessity was often made to the deacon; but then it was equally made to a layman, and, in the impossibility of Holy Viaticum, even grass was devoutly eaten as a sort of spiritual communion.
To sum up, the various functions discharged by the deacons are thus concisely stated by Saint Isidore of Seville, in the seventh century, in his epistle to Leudefredus:
“To the deacons it belongs to assist the priests and to serve [ministrare] in all that is done in the Sacraments of Christ, in baptism, to wit, in the holy chrism, in the paten and chalice, to bring the oblation to the altar and to arrange them, to lay the table of the Lord and to drape it, to carry the cross, to declaim [proedicare] the Gospel and Epistle, for as the charge is given to lectors to declaim the Old Testament, so it is given to deacons to declaim the New. To him also pertains the office of prayers [officium precum] and the recital of the names. It is he who gives warning to open our ears to the Lord, it is he who exhorts with his cry, it is he also who announces peace.”
In the early period, as many extant Christian epitaphs testify, the possession of a good voice was a qualification expected in candidates for the diaconate.
Dulcea nectareo promebat mella canore was written of the deacon Redemptus in the time of Pope Damasus, and the same epitaphs make it clear that the deacon then had much to do with the chanting, not only of the Epistle and Gospel, but also of the psalms as a solo.
Thus of the archdeacon Deusdedit in the fifth century it was written:
Hic levitarum primus, in ordine vivens
Davidici cantor carminis iste fuit.
But Pope Gregory the Great in the council of 595 abolished the privileges of the deacons in regard to the chanting of Psalms, and regular cantors succeeded to their functions. However, even as it is, some of the most beautiful chants in the Church’s Liturgy are confided to the deacon, noteably, the proeconium paschale, better known as the Exultet, the consecratory prayer by which the paschal candle is blessed on Holy Saturday. This has often been praised as the most perfect piece of Gregorian music, and it is sung throughout by the deacon.
DRESS AND NUMBER OF DEACONS
The early developments of ecclesiastical costume are very obscure and are complicated by the difficulty of identifying securely the objects indicated merely by a name. It is certain, however, that in both East and West a stole, or orarium (orarion) which seems to have been in substance identical with what we now understand by the term, has been from an early period the distinctive attire of the deacon. Both in East and West also, it has been worn by the deacon over the left shoulder, and not round the neck, like that of a priest. Deacons, according to the Fourth Council of Toledo (633), were to wear a plain stole (orarium – orarium quia orat, id est, proedicat) on the left shoulder, the right being left free to typify the expedition with which they were to discharge their sacred functions. It is interesting to note as a curious survival of an ancient tradition that the deacon during a Lenten high Mass in the Middle Ages took off his chasuble, rolled it up, and placed it over his left shoulder to leave his right arm free. At the present day he still takes off his chasuble during the central part of the Mass and replaces it with a broad stole. In the East, the Council of Laodicea, in the fourth century, forbids subdeacons to wear the stole (orarion), and a passage in Saint John Chrysostom refers to the light fluttering draperies over the left shoulder of those ministering at the altar, evidently describing the stoles of the deacons. The deacon still wears his stole over the left shoulder, only, although, except in the Ambrosian Rite at Milan, he now wears it under his dalmatic. The dalmatic itself, which is now regarded as distinctive of the deacon, was originally confined to the deacons of Rome, and to wear such a vestment outside of Rome was conceded by early popes as a special privilege. Such a grant was apparently made, for example, by Pope Stephen II (752-757) of Abbot Fulrad of Saint-Denis, allowing six deacons to array themselves in the stola dalmaticae decoris (sic) when discharging their sacred functions. According to the ““, Pope Saint Sylvester (314-335) constituit ut diaconi dalmaticis in ecclesia uterentur (ordained that deacons should use dalmatics in church), but this statement is quite unreliable. On the other hand it is practically certain that dalmatics were worn in Rome both by the pope and by his deacons in the latter half of the fourth century. As to the manner of wearing, after the tenth century it was only in Milan and southern Italy that deacons carried the stole over the dalmatic, but at an earlier date, this had been common in many parts of the West.
As regards the number of deacons, much variation existed. In more considerable cities there were normally seven, according to the type of the Church of Jerusalem in Acts 6:1-6. In Rome there were seven in the time of Pope Cornelius, and this remained the rule until the eleventh century, when the number of deacons was increased from seven to fourteen. This was in accord with canon xv of the Council of Neo-Caesarea incorporated in the ““. The “” speaks of twelve priests, seven deacons, four subdeacons, and three widows with precedence. Still, this rule did not remain constant. In Alexandria, for example, even as early as the fourth century, there must apparently been more than seven deacons, for we are told that nine took the part of Arius. Other regulations seem to suggest three as a common number. In the Middle Ages nearly every use had its own customs as to the number of deacons and subdeacons that might assist at a pontifical Mass. The number of seven deacons and seven subdeacons was not infrequent in many dioceses on days of great solemnity. But the great distinction between the diaconate in the early ages and that of the present day lay probably in this, that in primitive times the diaconate was commonly regarded, possibly on account of the knowledge of music which it demanded, as a state that was permanent and final. A man remained a simple deacon all his life. nowadays, except in the rarest cases (the cardinal-deacons sometimes continue permanently as mere deacons), the diaconate is simply a stage on the road to the priesthood.
SACRAMENTAL CHARACTER OF THE DIACONATE
Although certain theologians such as Cajetan and Durandus, have ventured to doubt whether the Sacrament of Order is received by deacons, it may be said that the decrees of the Council of Trent are now generally held to have decided the point against them. The council not only lays down that order is truly and properly a sacrament but it forbids under anathema that anyone should deny “that there are in the Church other orders both greater and minor as which as by certain steps advance is made to the priesthood”, and it insists that the ordaining bishop does not vainly say “receive ye the Holy Ghost”, but by that a character is imprinted by the rite of ordination. Now, not only do we find in the Acts of the Apostles, as noticed above, both prayer and the laying on of hands in the initiation of the Seven, but the same sacramental character suggestive of the imparting of the Holy Spirit is conspicuous in the ordination rite as practiced in the early Church and at the present day. In the Apostolic Constitutions we read:
A deacon thou shalt appoint, O Bishop, laying thy hands upon him, with all the presbytery and the deacons standing by thee; and praying over him thou shalt say: Almighty God….let our supplication come unto Thy ears and make Thy face to shine upon this Thy servant who is appointed unto the office of deacon [eis diakonian] and fill him with the Spirit and with power, as Thou didst fill Stephen, the martyr and follower of the sufferings of Thy Christ.
The ritual of the ordination of deacons at the present day is as follows: The bishop first asks the archdeacon if those who are to be promoted to the diaconate are worthy of the office and then he invites the clergy and people to propose any objections which they may have. After a short pause the bishop explains to the ordinandi the duties and the privileges of a deacon, they remaining the while upon their knees. When he has finished his discourse they prostrate themselves, and the bishop and the clergy recite the litanies of the Saints, in the course of which the bishop thrice imparts his benediction. After certain other prayers in which the bishop continues to invoke the grace of God upon the candidates, he sings a short preface, which expresses the joy of the Church to see the multiplication of her ministers. Then comes the more essential part of the ceremony. The bishop puts out his right hand and puts it upon the head of each of the ordinandi, saying, “Receive the Holy Ghost for strength, and to resist the devil and his temptations, in the name of the Lord”. Then stretching out his hand over all the candidates together he says: Send down upon them, we beseech Thee, O Lord, the Holy Ghost by which they may be strengthened in the faithful discharge of the work of Thy ministry, through the bestowal of Thy sevenfold grace”. After this the bishop delivers to the deacons the insignia of the order which they have received, to wit, the stole and the dalmatic, accompanying them with the formulae which express their special significance. Finally, he makes all the candidates touch the book of the Gospels, saying to them: “Receive the power of reading the Gospel in the Church of God, both for the living and for the dead, in the name of the Lord.” Although the actual form of words which accompanies the laying on of the bishop’s hands, Accipe Spiritum Sanctum ad robur, etc., cannot be traced back further than the twelfth century, the whole spirit of the ritual is ancient, and some of the elements, notably the conferring of the stole and the prayer which follows the delivery of the book of the Gospels, are of much older date. It is noteworthy that in the “Decretum pro Armenis” of Pope Eugene IV the delivery of the Gospels is spoken of as the “matter” of the diaconate, Diaconatus vero per libri evangeliorum dationem (traditur).
In the Russian Church the candidate, after having been led three times around the altar and kissed each corner, kneels before the bishop. The bishop lays the end of his omophorion upon his neck and marks the sign of the cross three times upon his head. Then he lays his hand upon the candidate’s head and says two prayers of some length which speak of the conferring of the Holy Ghost and of strength bestowed upon the ministers of the altar and recall the words of Christ that “he who would be first among you must become as a servant” (diakonos): then there are delivered to the deacon the insignia of his office, which, besides the stole, include the liturgical fan, and as each of these is given the bishop calls aloud, axios, “worthy”, in a tone increasing in strength with each repetition.
In later times the diaconate was so entirely regarded as a stage of preparation for the priesthood that interest no longer attached to its precise duties and privileges. A deacon’s functions were practically reduced to the ministration at high Mass and to exposing the Blessed Sacrament at Benediction. But he could, as the deputy of the parish priest, distribute the Communion in case of need.
DEACONS OUTSIDE THE CATHOLIC CHURCH
It is only in the Church of England and in the Episcopal communions of Scotland and North America that a deacon receives ordination by the imposition of hands of a bishop. In consequence of such ordination, however, he is considered empowered to perform any sacred office except that of consecrating the elements and pronouncing absolution, and he habitually preaches and assists in the communion-service. Among the Lutherans, however, in Germany, the word deacon is generally applied to assistant, though fully ordained, ministers who aid the minister in charge of a particular cure or parish. However, it is also used in certain localities for lay helpers who take part in the work of instruction, finance, district visiting, and relieving distress. This last is also the use of the word which is common in many nonconformist communions of England and America.