What is a Deacon in the Latin (Roman Catholic) Church?
That is a question asked fairly regularly. So, the following is some information about the history and current day ministry of Deacons in the Catholic Church.
It began with the seven Deacons. 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. This is the root of the word Deacon.
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.
Today’s Deacons are called to a threefold ministry
Ministry of Charity
The Deacon is ordained to be a witness to the Gospel through a life of service. A Deacon serves through personal encounters: ministering to people that are poor, aged, sick, and prisoners. Deacons participate in programs dealing with community problems like substance or child abuse. Deacons work with youth and young adults in various parish and/or community programs. Deacons are to be a positive influence for change in the world...so that society may be renewed by Christ and transformed into the family of God.
Ministry of the Word
Deacons proclaim the Gospel. Deacons are agents of evangelization in announcing the Good News of Christ in the workplace and society. Deacons also preach at liturgical gatherings: teach in religious education programs, sacramental preparation programs, e.g. baptism, marriage, RCIA and others.
Ministry of Liturgy
Deacons assist at the Eucharistic Celebration, administer baptism, witness marriages, officiate at wakes and funerals, administer sacramentals, and preside at prayer services, e.g. communion services and benediction.
You may not see a Deacon as much as a Priest as the focus of the Deacon's ministry is different. As a carryover from the diaconal roots in Scripture, the Deacon’s ministry is of service, Which may not necessarily be at the Parish.
A Deacon’s ministry is not a job per se to pay the family bills. Rather, Deacons are usually employed in the secular world in a variety of jobs including teachers, real estate agents, bankers, doctors and others. This provides the ministry unique challenges and opportunities.
The Diaconate is a unique ministry in the Catholic Church. Deacons can be married or single. Single Deacons pledge celibacy at ordination. Whereas, a married Deacon pledges that he will be celibate upon his wife’s death.
A married Deacon is not alone in ministry. Wives are an essential part of a Deacon's ministry. In fact, the term sometimes used is "Deacon Couple". This shared ministry is an extension of the Sacrament of Marriage and a wife’s consent is required for a man to be ordained a Deacon. Wives are involved from the beginning of the formation process. This formation process is a period of time spent in formal education, spiritual direction, and practical ministry. Through all of this, wives are invited to attend all the classes, do the assignments and be present throughout the program.