Q+A: What is the history of the diaconate?

A. The diaconate traces it’s roots to apostolic times. The first men to fill the role of deacon are mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles (6:1-6). The apostles identified a need for assistance with some of the more basic tasks of carrying out their ministry, in this particular instance to providing bread to the widows. They asked the community to select 7 men “of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task”. Of these 7 men was St. Stephen, who is the patron saint of the Diaconate. Diaconos means “serve at table”.

Deacons were first formally noted as being part of the hierarchy of the Church in the Letter of St. Paul to the Philippians (1:1) in which he references “To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and the deacons:”.

St. Ignatius wrote in his Letter to the Magnesians 2, 6:1 “Take care to do all things in harmony with God, with the bishop presiding in the place of God, and with the presbyters in the place of the council of the apostles, and with the deacons, who are most dear to me, entrusted with the business of Jesus Christ, who was with the Father from the beginning and is at last made manifest.” For almost 500 years deacons played an important role in the growth of the church. However, during the fifth century the diaconate experienced a gradual decline until it became almost exclusively a transitional state during the path to ordination into the priesthood.

In the mid 1500s, the Council of Trent attempted to revive the diaconate to it’s original and proper state. However, there was no true movement towards it’s restoration until Vatican II, at which time the “permanent” diaconate (in contrast to the “transitional” state of those seeking ordination to the priesthood) was restored by Pope Paul VI. Influenced by a shortage of priests and a desire to see the fullness of the Holy Orders, Vatican II finally set the stage for the return of deacons into the service of the Church.

Ryan Sales & Fr. Andrew

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