In the last couple of weeks we’ve been looking at the diaconate, first by addressing the event that brought about this whole conversation and then in two parts (part 1 and part 2), briefly, the meaning of the Sacrament of Holy Orders, for I don’t think you can separate the conversation about Church hierarchy outside of the conversation about Ordination.
This leads us back to talk about the diaconate, in particular, the Permanent Diaconate.
I believe most of you are familiar with Acts 6:1-6, traditionally referred to as the ordination of the first deacons. It's the story of the seven men that were “ordained” by the Apostles to help with the service to the Greek-speaking Jewish widows. The Apostles chose seven men, among them Stephen and Philip for this task. The word in Greek that is used to describe their ministry is diakonia
. [*It’s important to note than in most places in the Gospels where the words “serve”, “servant” or “service” (Mt 20:26-28; Mt 23:11; Mk 9:35; Mk 10:43-45; Lk 22:24-27; Jn 12:26; ) is used (even “waiting” on them or “providing” for them, as in Lk 12:37 and Lk 8:1-3, and even “ministering” as in Mt 4:11 and in Mt 25:44-45), the word in Greek is a form of the word diakonos
We also see the use of this word in many of Paul’s Letters: Rm 11:13 “I glory in my ministry (diakonian
)”; 1 Cor 12:4-5, “there are different forms of service (diakonión
)”; 2 Cor 9:12-13 “through the evidence of this service (diakonias
) you are glorifying God.” In other Pauline Letters the English translation may say “minister” or “ministry” but the Greek word used is a form of diakonia
(see 2 Cor 3:2-9; Phil 1:1; Eph 3:7 and 4:11-13; Col 1:7; 1:23 and 4:17 for examples).
When Paul writes Timothy he is referring to a specific office and uses the words diakónous
(Tim 3:8-13). In English these are all translated as “deacons.” When he refers to Phoebe in his letter to the Romans he calls her a "diákonon
(translated as minister or servant) of the Church in Cenchrae” (Rom 16:1). Clearly there is something about the diaconate that has to do with ministry and service and it was a common term used at the time of the Apostles and the early Church.
There are also dozens of references in the writings of the Fathers of the early Church.
In the first century Clement of Rome (ca. 96) writes to the Corinthians about the “Apostolic Institution of the Bishops and Deacons.” Ignatius of Antioch (ca. 70-107) writes in his letter to the Ephesians about a “fellow-servant Burrhus, your deacon in regard to God...” He also mentions deacons in his letter to the Christians of Magnesia, his letter to the Trallians, his letter to the Philadelphians, his letter to the Smyrnaeans and his letter to Polycarp. Polycarp (ca. 69-155), in turn, writes about the “Duties of Deacons, Young Men and Virgins” in his letter to the Philippians and Hermas (ca. 140) in his famous work “The Shepherd” also mentions deacons. Justin and Iranaeus who also lived in the second century, wrote about deacons too.
If we were to continue this exercise, you would see that many Church Fathers, including Clement of Alexandria (True Presbyters and True Deacons), Origen (Unworthy Bishops, Presbyters and Deacons), Tertullian, Cyprian of Carthage, Cyril of Jerusalem, John Chrysostom (Gifts that a Candidate to the Diaconate Must Posses), Gregory Nazianzus, Gregory of Nyssa, Basil, Ambrose, Jerome and Augustine – pretty much all of them, wrote about deacons and the diaconate.
If we were to go to other canonical literature, like the Didache
, which dates to the first century – probably the first teaching document of the Church – the diaconate is mentioned. Another of these documents, the Didascalia of the Apostles
(3rd century document of Eastern Syrian Christianity) has a whole sections on the Dignity of Deacons and Bishops, Exhortation to Unity Among Bishops and Deacons, and The Role of Deacons and the Spirituality of Deacons.
This document is also one of the ones that refers to the ministry of “deaconesses” or “women deacons”.
References to the “Ordination of a Deacon” appears as early as the Apostolic Tradition, attributed to Hyppolytus of Rome ca. 215. Come back next week
to find out where the diaconal appears in Council documents and how it came back up in the Second Vatican Council.
Every week, Deacon Pedro takes a particular topic apart, not so much to explore or explain the subject to its fullness, but rather to provide insights that will deepen our understanding of the subject. And don’t worry, at the end of the day he always puts the pieces back together. There are no limits to deaconstructing: Write to him and ask any questions about the faith or Church teaching: firstname.lastname@example.org