The deacon is not a ‘mini-priest’ who fills gaps left where no priests are available, nor is his ministry a mere transitional stage on the path to the priesthood. It is an autonomous ministry, a specific articulation of the ministerial service entrusted to the Church by Jesus Christ….
They are neither substitutes for a parish priest nor social workers. They represent the deacon Jesus Christ in a sacramental manner, bringing into our world the love of God, which the Holy Spirit has poured out into our hearts (Rom 5:5). They are pioneers of a new “civilization of love.” They are a blessing for the Church and for the people entrusted to us. This is why we must press on with renewal of diaconia and of the diaconate, translating ever more fully into the reality of ecclesial life the impetus given by the Holy Spirit through Vatican II….
It is the deacon’s special call to be on the front line, an attentive listener and a pioneer who leads the Church’s response to these challenges. As a married man and father, the deacon can often find it easier to make contact with people than a celibate priest. This is why deacons should not seek to take over as large a slice as possible of the specifically priestly ministry of leadership: their task is different, and it is important and urgent enough!… The deacon’s place is in these marginal areas of Church and society, where breakthroughs can occur. He is not to think only of those who “still” belong to the Church and to accompany them, but also to invite those who perhaps may belong to the Church tomorrow….
Directory for the Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons
The service of deacons in the Church is documented from apostolic times. A strong tradition, attested already by St Ireneus and influencing the liturgy of ordination, sees the origin of the diaconate in the institution of the “seven” mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles (6:1-6). Thus, at the initial grade of sacred hierarchy are deacons, whose ministry has always been greatly esteemed in the Church. St. Paul refers to them and to the bishops in the exordium of his Epistle to the Philippians (cf. Phil 1:1), while in his first Epistle to Timothy he lists the qualities and virtues which they should possess so as to exercise their ministry worthily (cf. 1 Tim 3:8-13).
From its outset, patristic literature witnesses to this hierarchical and ministerial structure in the Church, which includes the diaconate. St Ignatius of Antioch considers a Church without bishop, priest or deacon, unthinkable. He underlines that the ministry of deacons is nothing other than “the ministry of Jesus Christ, who was with the Father before time began and who appeared at the end of time”. They are not deacons of food and drink but ministers of the Church of God….
Up to the fifth century the Diaconate flourished in the western Church, but after this period, it experienced, for various reasons, a slow decline which ended in its surviving only as an intermediate stage for candidates preparing for priestly ordination.
The Council of Trent disposed that the permanent Diaconate, as it existed in ancient times, should be restored, in accord with its proper nature, to its original function in the Church. This prescription, however, was not carried into effect.
The second Vatican Council established that “it will be possible for the future to restore the diaconate as a proper and permanent rank of the hierarchy … (and confer it) even upon married men, provided they be of more mature age, and also on suitable young men for whom, however, the law of celibacy must remain in force”, in accordance with constant tradition. Three reasons lay behind this choice: (i) a desire to enrich the Church with the functions of the diaconate, which otherwise, in many regions, could only be exercised with great difficulty; (ii) the intention of strengthening with the grace of diaconal ordination those who already exercised many of the functions of the Diaconate; (iii) a concern to provide regions, where there was a shortage of clergy, with sacred ministers….