July 4, 2008

Tracing the history of the diaconate

By Sean Gallagher

In 2003, Archbishop Daniel M. Buechlein, after consulting with archdiocesan priests and parish life coordinators, established the first archdiocesan deacon program, naming Benedictine Father Bede Cisco as its director.

Over the course of the next year, men interested in learning more about the diaconate attended information sessions held in parishes across central and southern Indiana.

Some of them then applied to become members of the first group to be formed for the diaconate in the archdiocese. Twenty-five men were ultimately chosen and they began their formation in August 2004.

Since then, they have attended weekend formation sessions 11 months each year and had pastoral ministry assignments in archdiocesan parishes and agencies.

Although permanent deacons in the archdiocese are a new phenomenon, the roots of the diaconate in the life of the Church go back to its beginnings when the Apostles chose seven men—as recounted in Acts 6:1-6—to assist them in caring for widows in the Church in Jerusalem.

Later, the diaconate was recognized as an ordained ministry in which deacons gave special assistance to bishops and often focused on the Church’s ministry of charity. They were often prominent members of the Church’s leadership during the first several centuries of the Church.

By the sixth century, the diaconate began to be seen primarily as a step toward ordination to the priesthood. In the Middle Ages, permanent deacons largely disappeared.

The bishops at the Council of Trent in the 16th century mentioned the possibility of restoring the permanent diaconate, but this did not occur until the years following the Second Vatican Council.

In the years leading up to Vatican II, the permanent diaconate became a widespread topic of discussion among bishops and theologians.

This discussion sprang primarily from those interested in the topic in Germany and France, and those who saw the potential importance of deacons ministering in missionary territory.

Pope Paul VI, following the lead of the bishops at Vatican II, allowed dioceses around the world to restore the permanent diaconate in the years after the council.

The first permanent deacons in the United States were ordained in the Archdiocese of Detroit in 1972.

Today there are approximately 14,000 permanent deacons ministering in most U.S. dioceses. That number represents a little less than half of all permanent deacons in the world.

(Information on the history of the diaconate is taken from The Deacon Reader, Paulist Press, 2006.)

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