The apostles in Jerusalem, finding it difficult to combine the distribution of food to the poor with preaching the word and prayer, appointed seven ministers to serve those in who were in need (cf Acts 6:1-7), charity being considered as central to the ministry of the Church. The apostles handed over this duty to ‘men of good reputation, filled with the Spirit and with wisdom’ by praying and laying hands on them. Among these was Stephen, the first Christian martyr. Saint Paul, writing about 57 AD, includes deacons in his greeting in Philippians (1:1) and writing to Timothy lists the qualities and virtues which all deacons are expected to possess and exercise in their ministry (I Tim 3:8-13), indicating that the diaconate had already become a separate office in the Church. The very term “Diakonia” describes the central characteristic of this order: the deacon is called to service. The witness of the early Fathers of the Church acknowledges the importance of the diaconal ministry. Saint Ignatius of Antioch, about 100 AD, says that it would be impossible to have the Church without bishops, priests and deacons. He explains that their task was nothing less than to continue ‘the ministry of Jesus Christ’.
After the fifth century, however, there was a decline in the permanent diaconate in the Latin Church. From the early Middle Ages the diaconate remained only as a transitional order that men received as part of their preparation for the priesthood. There were occasional exceptions to this rule however, Saint Francis of Assisi, for example, was ordained a deacon but not a priest. But the reality was that the permanent character of this order was abandoned by the Latin Church for many centuries.
During the Second World War, priests who were imprisoned in Nazi concentration camps started to appreciate the benefits that permanent deacons would bring to the Church and the idea was discussed in Catholic periodicals and books. In 1957, Pope Pius XII spoke favorably about restoring the permanent diaconate, but concluded that ‘the time is not yet ripe’.
The Second Vatican Council decided that the time was ripe. The permanent character of the order was restored and renewed when the Council in October 1963 called for the reestablishment of the ministry of the permanent deacon. In June 1967, Pope Paul VI carried out the desire of the Council when he published the Apostolic Letter Sacrum diaconatus ordinem in which he reestablished the permanent diaconate in the Latin Church. The Council, in its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, echoes the ancient image and concerns of the New Testament when it speaks of the ministry and nature of the diaconate:
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. It is the duty of the deacon, according as it shall have been assigned to him by competent authority, to administer baptism solemnly, to be custodian and dispenser of the Eucharist, to assist at and bless marriages in the name of the Church, to bring Viaticum to the dying, to read the Sacred Scripture to the faithful, to instruct and exhort the people, to preside over the worship and prayer of the faithful, to administer sacramentals, to officiate at funeral and burial services. Dedicated to duties of charity and of administration, let deacons be mindful of the admonition of Blessed Polycarp: "Be merciful, diligent, walking according to the truth of the Lord, who became the servant of all." (Lumen Gentium para. 29)
In the final years of Archbishop Cyril Cowderoy, the first Southwark permanent deacon, Edward Driscoll, was ordained by Bishop Charles Henderson in July 1975. When Archbishop Michael Bowen succeeded to the diocese in 1977 he gave the permanent diaconate his wholehearted support and lost no time in establishing a course of studies for permanent deacons (1978) and four new permanent deacons were ordained in 1980. Since then the steady flow of ordinations has brought the number of our permanent deacons to over eighty. Archbishop Kevin has recently described the restoration of the permanent diaconate as ‘one of the most notable fruits of the Second Vatican Council’ and has authorized a new programme for the On-Going Formation of deacons and put into place provisions for their pastoral care. Each year they will join the Archbishop for a Mass during which they will renew their commitment to diaconal service – from 2007 this will take place on a Saturday close to 2nd May – the anniversary of the Archbishop’s Episcopal ordination. This year, however, for the first time, all our deacons renewed their commitment at the ordination of five new deacons on 10th June – a great celebration of the permanent diaconate in Southwark, where, to date, 107 permanent deacons have been ordained.
This rapid growth has been reflected throughout England and Wales, where more men than ever – well over 100 from nearly every diocese – are now in formation (70 of whom are from the nine dioceses on our Southwark-directed formation programme at Wonersh). The permanent diaconate has also been restored in every diocese in Scotland and will soon be restored in Ireland.
Fra Angelico (Blessed Fra Giovanni Angelico
c 1400 – 1455 was commissioned by Pope Nicholas V to paint the frescoes in the Cappella Niccolina in the Vatican between 1447 and 1449. The frescoes depict scenes from the lives of two deacons, St Stephen and St Lawrence. The chapel is now part of the Vatican Museum. Fra Angelico was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1984.
The Cappella Niccolina
Saint Stephen – Acts of the Apostles (Chapters 6 and 7)
The Ordination of St Stephen by St Peter
Saint Lawrence – born at Huesca in Spain and ordained deacon by Pope Saint Sixtus II, he was entrusted with the distribution of alms to those in need. Under the persecution of Valerian, Pope Sixtus II and most of his deacons were beheaded and Lawrence was given three days to collect the church treasure and hand it over to the secular authorities. Instead he distributed it to the poor and brought them forward as the true treasure of the Church. He was reputedly martyred by being roasted on a gridiron on 10th August 258, and this day is celebrated as a feast rather than a memoria.
Ordination of St Lawrence by St Pope Sixtus ii
St Lawrence is entrusted with alms for the poor
St Lawrence distributes alms to the poor
Saint Lawrence is condemned by Valerian
The martyrdom of St Lawrence