Where does the diaconate come from?

Decrease font size
Increase font size
Print this page
Email to friend
Share to Facebook
Share to Twitter
Home > Media > News > Where does the diaconate come from?
Where does the diaconate come from?

By Deacon Nick MacFarlane

Deacons were part of the ordained ministry of the Church from New Testament times, but this ministry fell into disuse for many centuries.  Today the restored diaconate brings something new to our Church to meet the challenges of our times.

From the beginning of the Church, the order of deacons grew up in parallel with the order of bishops.  The apostles were the prototype bishops, and similarly the seven helpers they ordained in Acts, chapter 6 were the prototype deacons.  The New Testament refers in various places to deacons.  For instance, in 1 Timothy 3, St Paul gives the 'selection criteria' first for bishops (overseers) and then for deacons (ministers). 

During the first centuries of the Church, ordained ministry settled into the tri-partite system we know today, with each diocese having a bishop at its head, assisted by priests and deacons.  Two famous early deacons were St Lawrence of Rome, who was martyred a few days after his bishop in 258 AD.  Another was St Ephrem (306-373AD), a Syriac poet and theologian known as the ‘Harp of the Holy Spirit’, who fought heresies and wrote beautiful hymns.

So for the first millennium of the Church, deacons were a permanent order of ministry, but gradually they became fewer and fewer.  One of the later permanent deacons was St Francis of Assisi (1181 – 1226AD), who was ordained a deacon, and was a great preacher.  

But by then there were very few deacons.  The Council of Trent called for the restoration of the diaconate as a permanent order of ministry, no doubt influenced by one of its leading lights, Cardinal Reginald Pole (1500 – 1558) who was a deacon.  However, nothing was done until the Second Vatican Council finally restored the diaconate as a permanent order of ministry. 

Vatican II taught us that Christ, through the Holy Spirit, provides the three ordained ministries of bishop, priest and deacon to the Church as one of the gifts that constitutes her inner nature and that she is incomplete without the ministry of deacons (Lumen Gentium 20, 29).  It also permitted married men to be ordained deacons. Worldwide there are now some 47,000 permanent deacons in the Church.