In the Catholic Church, deacons play a significant role. You’ll often see them around priests, helping and aiding them in every way possible. But who exactly are they, what are their function, and how are they different from priests? Let me explain in this article.
Deacons are ordained members of the Catholic clergy. They are one of the 3 degrees of the Sacrament of Holy Orders, along with priests and bishops. The diaconate, the office of deacons, is a degree of service with a ministry that includes liturgy, word, and service. Their special role is to assist priests.
Now, deacons have many duties that are similar to priests, but with some limitations. There are also two types of deacons, which have different implications. So what do these all mean? Continue reading to learn more about deacons, their functions, and what they are in the Catholic Church.
What is a Deacon?
A deacon is a member of the Catholic clergy and one of the three degrees of the Sacrament of Holy Orders. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church #1554: “Catholic doctrine, expressed in the liturgy, the Magisterium, and the constant practice of the Church, recognizes that there are two degrees of ministerial participation in the priesthood of Christ: the episcopacy and the presbyterate. The diaconate is intended to help and serve them.”
Diaconate, the office of deacons, is a degree of service, and presbyterate (priests) and episcopate (bishops) are degrees of priesthood. Thus, deacons are ordained clergy who might have similar responsibilities to priests – but are not priests. Their special role is to help priests, which is very fitting since the term “deacon” is derived from the Greek words “Diakonia – service” and “Diakonos – servant, attendant, helper, or minister”.
That said, a deacon is “at a lower level of the hierarchy” (CCC #1569). At the top, there’s the Pope, then followed by cardinals, then bishops, priests, and finally deacons. Furthermore, only men can be ordained as deacons, and “only the bishop lays hands on the candidate” (CCC #1569).
Now, there are two types of deacons: transitional and permanent. Here’s a quick comparison of the two:
- Transitional Deacons: They are seminary students who are in the process of becoming priests. Usually, they will serve as deacons for a year before getting ordained as priests by the bishop.
- Permanent Deacons: These are ordained men who have no intentions of becoming priests. They can be either married or single. That said, those who are single at the time of ordination are not allowed to marry after. They will also be required to follow celibacy. On the other hand, married deacons whose wives pass before they do are not permitted to remarry. If divorced, they will need to be annulled by the church before they can be ordained.
What is the Role of a Deacon?
A deacon’s role or ministry has 3 dimensions: liturgy, word, and service. He assists the bishop or priest during liturgy. At a mass, he helps at the altar, proclaims the Gospel, and preaches the homily. Regarding sacraments, he can also baptize, witness a marriage ceremony, and distribute the Holy Eucharist.
Aside from that, a deacon can offer the invocations of the Penitential Rite, preside over prayer services, bring Viaticum to the dying, and officiate at funerals, burial services, and wakes. He can also bless religious articles.
A deacon is a minister of service, too. Meaning, part of his responsibilities can include:
- Visiting the sick at home, in hospitals, or nursing homes
- Outreach to the poor and needy
- Taking care of inmates in prisons
- Teaching religious education classes and preparing candidates for the sacraments
- Various administrative duties
Some of these are mentioned in the Catechism of the Catholic Church #1570, which says: “Among other tasks, it is the task of deacons to assist the bishop and priests in the celebration of the divine mysteries, above all the Eucharist, in the distribution of Holy Communion, in assisting at and blessing marriages, in the proclamation of the Gospel and preaching, in presiding over funerals, and in dedicating themselves to the various ministries of charity.”
What’s the Difference Between a Deacon and a Priest in the Catholic Church?
The Code of Canon Law (#1009, 3) states that: “Those who are constituted in the order of the episcopate or the presbyterate receive the mission and capacity to act in the person of Christ the Head, whereas deacons are empowered to serve the People of God in the ministries of the liturgy, the word, and charity.”
That said, priests are the second highest of the Sacrament of Holy Orders. He helps the bishop and performs the sacraments except for the Holy Orders. To be specific, he baptizes, celebrates mass and the Holy Eucharist, administers confession in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, anoints the sick, and officiates marriage ceremonies.
On the other hand, deacons are third in the Holy Orders. As mentioned, they can participate in many of the Church’s activities, services, and sacraments, but with limitations. They are like the clerks and laymen in the Catholic Church. From the Catechism of the Catholic Church #1596: “Deacons are ministers ordained for tasks of service of the Church; they do not receive the ministerial priesthood, but ordination confers on them important functions in the ministry of the word, divine worship, pastoral governance, and the service of charity, tasks which they must carry out under the pastoral authority of their bishop.”
Moreover, deacons – particularly permanent deacons – can be married as long as they’re already married during ordination. Meanwhile, priests can’t as they are expected to live a life of celibacy. “This permanent diaconate, which can be conferred on married men,” as explained in the Catechism of the Catholic Church #1571, “constitutes an important enrichment for the Church’s mission.
Indeed it is appropriate and useful that men who carry out a truly diaconal ministry in the Church, whether in its liturgical and pastoral life or whether in its social and charitable works, should ‘be strengthened by the imposition of hands which has come down from the apostles. They would be more closely bound to the altar and their ministry would be made more fruitful through the sacramental grace of the diaconate.”