Occasionally a bishop will ordain men to the order of deacon, one of the ministries included in the sacrament of Holy Orders. Many of these deacons are called “permanent” because they normally are not going on to be ordained priests. Permanent deacons may also be married. The ministry of permanent deacons was restored to the Church in 1967, by mandate of the Second Vatican Council.
The liturgy of ordination refers to the deacon as “a minister of the word, of the altar, and of charity.” Although he may be a minister of the word by preaching and religious instruction, may preside at baptisms and marriages, and though he may be involved in numerous charitable activities, it will be the experience of most of us to see the deacon in his liturgical role at Sunday Mass. Here we see him bringing the Book of Gospels into the assembly, proclaiming the gospel, and perhaps announcing the general intercessions. He may preach the homily on occasion, and is also the minister of the cup.
It is important that we see the deacon at the liturgy as much more than a functionary who performs what at first glance may appear to be relatively unimportant or unrelated actions. Rather his purpose at the liturgy is to ritually represent none other than Christ himself in his ministry to the poor and oppressed. Thus if the deacon by ordination represents Christ the compassionate one, then who better to carry the Book of Gospels in which are recorded the deeds the Jesus who reached out to the poor and marginalized? Who better to proclaim the gospel in the assembly, the gospel that reveals to us Christ proclaiming good news to the poor? (A priest or bishop proclaims the gospel reading only when no deacon is present.) If the deacon is ordained to be a “minister of charity,” who would know better the needs of the parish or local community, and therefore who would be more appropriate to announce those needs in the general intercessions? He might even, quite appropriately, compose those intercessions each week. Even his ministry of the Communion cup during the liturgy symbolizes the care of Christ for those who need to be nourished.
The secret to understanding the meaning of the various roles we see people exercising in the liturgy lies in understanding symbolism. Symbolic actions point to some invisible reality that lies beyond, and symbols have many layers of meaning and therefore are open to more than one interpretation. The symbol of the deacon as Christ is ancient. In fact St. Ignatius of Antioch seemed to prefer the deacon over the priest as the representative of Christ. In the early second century he writes, “the bishop is to preside in the place of God, while the presbyters (priests) are to function as the Council of the Apostles, and the deacons, who are most dear to me, are entrusted with the ministry of Jesus Christ...” In the same spirit he writes in another letter, “Let all respect the deacon as representing Jesus Christ, the bishop as a type of the Father, and the presbyters as God’s high council and as the Apostolic college.”