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What is a Deacon in the Latin (Roman Catholic) Church?

The historical beginning of the Deacon's ministry is recorded in Acts (6:1-6). At that time the number of disciples was growing. Friction developed between the Greek & Hebrew followers because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food. So the twelve apostles called together the community of disciples and said, "It is not right for us to neglect the word of God to serve at table. Brothers, select from among you seven reputable men, filled with the Spirit and wisdom, whom we shall appoint to this task, whereas we shall devote ourselves to prayer and ministry of the word."

The proposal was accepted by the whole community, so they chose Stephen, a man filled with faith and the Holy Spirit, also Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicholas of Antioch. They presented these men to the Apostles who prayed and laid hands on them. The term that was used to describe Stephen and the others selected was the Greek word diacona, which is translated as servant or minister.

The early Deacons had a key role in the life of the Church. In fact, the first martyr was Saint Stephen - a Deacon. When Stephen preached that Jesus was the Messiah, the Jews treated his proclamations as blasphemies against Moses and God. Eventually, the pharisaic zealots seized him and brought him before the Sandhedrin on the charge of speaking against the Temple and the Law. Stephen proclaimed, "I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing on the right hand of God." Without even going through the formality of condemning him to death, they dragged him out of the city and stoned him to death. For more information see Acts 7:1-53 (Stephen’s discourses), Acts 7:54-60 (Stephen’s Martyrdom), and Acts 8:26-40 (Philip and the Ethiopian).

The need for Deacons diminished as time passed with Catholicism becoming the official religion of Rome, there became more and more priests and religious. Consequently, the Diaconate as a distinct Sacrament of Orders essentially became inactive in the Latin Church for some 1,000 years. The Diaconate became more of a transitional step on the way to priesthood. However, the Eastern Church continued the tradition of the Permanent Diaconate.

On June 18, 1967, the 2nd Vatican Council restored the permanent Diaconate (Apostolic Letter Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem) in the Latin Church. The Diaconate was restored to give fullness and depth to the ordained ministry and official Church presence in the business world.

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