A survey of the Early Church reveals that deacons were not assistants to the priests, or primarily Church leaders, but rather they participated in the bishop's ministry of service and reconciliation to those people who were marginalised as a result of social, economic, cultural or spiritual poverty or injustice. Essentially, the deacon's task is to learn of the needs of people in the name of the bishop, and bring word of this to the community. Deacons are called to bring the presence of Jesus to the market place where we shop, to the places where we play, to the workplace, and to family life.
Deacons are not the only members of the Church to be involved in this ministry, but they are to be (in the words of Pope Paul VI) the "animators and promoters of the Church's service." It is in this task of stirring up, mobilising and summonsing the Church to works of charity and justice that we see their distinctive identity. They are to shatter our complacency with the "ordinariness" of need and injustice, and motivate the Church to the life of service to which all the baptised are called.
"The deacon should indeed be a person who looks at the same circumstances we all look at, but who sees much more than appears to most. The deacon should be a person who can listen to what we all listen to among the voices and murmurs of humanity, but who hears more. Someone who grasps almost intuitively the dimension of need that routinely escapes our all-too-superficial hearing and sight." (US Bishops' Committee on the Permanent Diaconate.)
The image the Church presents of the deacon is that of one standing at the edge or margin of both the Church and society. It is from this vantage point that the deacon invites those people who are marginalised to meet Christ, and also invites the Church to make Christ present.
Deacons are the eyes, ears, hands, arms and feet of the bishop. Ordained by the bishop, they serve as the bishop directs. Usually this is in a parish setting, but it could be anywhere the bishop feels there is a need. The deacon works in harmony with the ministry of priests and the lay leaders of the Church.
While the ministerial tasks of a deacon may often overlap those of priests and pastoral associates, a deacon is neither a priest nor a pastoral associate. The deacon is not an "almost priest" or a "mini priest," nor is the deacon a replacement for the "pastoral associate."
The deacon is not a substitute for, or about diminishing the ministry of lay people who are called by their baptism to share in the mission of Jesus. "On the contrary, the deacon's tasks include promoting and sustaining the apostolic activities of the laity." (Pope John Paul II)
"The priest is primarily called to the service of worship and sanctification through the administration of the Sacraments and the proclamation of the Word. His service of charity in the world, and especially walking with his people in their pilgrimage through life, is an extension and a validation of his service in the sanctuary.
"The deacon, on the other hand, though truly an ordained minister, is primarily called to the service of charity in the world. His ministry in the sanctuary is an extension of his service to the world. He has a quite distinct and specific role in the Church which is not to be confused with that of the priest. The priest and the deacon represent two different poles, so to speak. (Cardinal Clancy, former Archbishop of Sydney)
The deacon's ministry is "to bring God's Word to believer and unbeliever alike, to preside over public prayer, to baptise, to assist at marriages and bless them, to give viaticum to the dying, and to lead the rites of burial. Once he is consecrated by the laying on of hands ... he will perform works of charity in the name of the bishop". The deacon is "to celebrate faithfully the liturgy of hours for the Church and for the whole world." (Rite of Ordination of a Deacon).
Deacons undertake a similar formation process to students for the priesthood, which generally includes a degree in theology, studies in canon law, homiletics, pastoral care and liturgy.
Rev Deacon Shane O'Dea