Many are still confused when we say that we are going to be ‘ordained.’ Very often they understand that we are speaking of the priestly ordination, and are quite baffled to hear that there are 2 other (thus, 3 in total) degrees (types, groups) of ordination: the diaconate and the episcopate.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks of two degrees of ministerial participation in the priesthood of Christ: the episcopacy and the presbyterate.
The subject matter of this article, the diaconate, is intended to help and serve them. The symbol of the deacon is the basin and the towel, the items used by Jesus when washing the feet of the apostles, illustrating how the deacon is called to love and serve others. While there are different degrees, all 3 are conferred by the Sacrament of Holy Orders.
Differing from a priestly ordination, during the diaconate ordination it is only the bishop who lays hands on the ordinands. This is to signify the deacon’s special attachment to the bishop in the tasks of his diakonia, thus, to the service of the community. The character of service configures the candidate to Christ the perfect deacon, the perfect servant of all. Thus, the deacon in virtue of his sacramental ordination is to be the servant in a servant-Church.
The deacon is entrusted to proclaim the Gospel. During the ordination he is ordained with these explicit words: “Receive the Gospel of Christ, whose herald you have become…” The mandate continues: “Believe what you read, teach what you believe, and practice what you teach.” The charge by bishop is to internalize and live the Gospel in all aspects of his life. He is then, always and everywhere, to be at the service of the other, to be an image of Christ the servant. Before reading the Gospel the deacon asks for the blessing, an action which highlights that the privilege and responsibility are given and not of his own making, thus gifts from God. In proclaiming the Gospel, the deacon is a visible sign to the faithful of the Gospel of Jesus in action. Furthermore, the deacon, as a herald of the Gospel, calls all the faithful to proclaim our Lord to others.
Many would ask us ‘but what exactly can you do?’ The deacons assist the bishop and priests in the celebration of the liturgy, above all the Eucharist, assists at and blessing of marriages, proclamation of the Gospel and preaching, presiding over funerals, baptizing and dedicate themselves to charity: such as visiting the infirm, the imprisoned and the needy. Deacons are entrusted the ministry of reserving and distributing the Eucharist, take Viaticum to the dying, and administer blessings. They do not celebrate Mass, hear confessions or anoint the sick.
During the mass
While the only liturgical thing that the deacon is required to do is proclaiming the gospel, there are other actions he might do during the liturgy that could be performed by other ministers. One of the important functions of the deacon is to lead the faithful in prayer, and thus Deacon Ditewig speaks of the deacon of composing and personalising the intercession prayers. Since the deacon knows the needs of the community, it is fitting that he presents these needs on the altar to God the Father.
At the end of the mass, the deacon sends off the congregation. In Latin: ‘Ite, missa est.’ An elaborated translation of this command is Go, as a mass (of people) let us continue the celebration of the Eucharist in our mission of serving the others: thus bridging the Eucharist and its practical-pastoral side: Eucharistifying the society.
In Malta we do not have permanent deacons, thus all the deacons which are currently ordained are known as transitional deacons, meaning, will eventually be ordained priests, God willing. In many other countries, they have the permanent diaconate. God, the Vocator, may call men who serve in the permanent diaconate, who may be married at the time of their ordination, but may not remarry if their spouse passes away. The permanent deacon further highlights the vocation to bring Christ’s service outside of church buildings into the workplaces and family lives. Contrary to the permanent deacon, the transitory deacon would vow celibacy prior to ordination. While there is a different state (married/celibate) there is no difference in theology. Both types of state form the same diaconate. Here it might be meaningful to say that one does not cease to be a deacon when he is ordained a priest. In fact, all priests and bishops are also deacon. As a visual sign, one can often see the bishop wearing a dalmatic (the outward garment of the deacon) under his chasuble.
The rite of ordination of the deacon
If you would like a further explanation of the rite, please visit this earlier article. However, I deemed fit to conclude this article with some extracts from the prayer of ordination over the candidate. It sums up what we have been discussing. (If you want to read the rite in Maltese please visit here. If you want an English translation please visit here.)
Almighty God, be present with us by your power. You are the source of all honor, you assign to each his rank, you give to each his ministry.You enrich it with every kind of grace and perfect it with a diversity of members to serve the whole body in a wonderful pattern of unity.
You...You remain unchanged, but you watch over all creation and make it new through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord: he is your Word, you power, and your wisdom. You foresee all things in your eternal providence and make due provision for every age. You make the Church, Christ’s body, grow to its full stature as a new and greater temple.
By prayer and the laying on of hands the apostles entrusted to those chosen men the ministry of serving at tables.
You...You established a threefold ministry of worship and service for the glory of your name. As ministers of your tabernacle you chose the sons of Levi and gave your blessing as their everlasting inheritance. In the first days of your Church under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit the apostles of your Son appointed seven men of good repute to assist them in the daily ministry, so that they themselves might be more free for prayer and preaching.
Lord, look with favor on this servant of yours, whom we now dedicate to the office of deacon, to minister at your holy altar.
Lord, send forth upon him the Holy Spirit, that he may be strengthened by the gift of your sevenfold grace to carry out faithfully the work of the ministry. May he excel in every virtue: in love that is sincere, in concern for the sick and the poor, in unassuming authority, in self-discipline, and in holiness of life. May his conduct exemplify your commandments and lead your people to imitate his purity of life. May he remain strong and steadfast in Christ, giving to the world the witness of a pure conscience. May he in this life imitate your Son, who came, not to be served by to serve, and one day reign with him in heaven.
We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.