A Brief History of the Diaconate (Part 1 of 10)

Throughout the first centuries of the Church, the deacon served as “the ears, mouth, heart, and soul of the bishop.” (Didascalia Apostolorum 2) Baptizing, taking communion to the sick, and caring for the poor, the deacon’s ministry was truly one of service. The Council of Nicaea (325) subordinated deacons to presbyters (who represented the bishop in local communities and presided at the Eucharist), thus signaling the beginning of the end of the ministry of permanent deacons in the early Church. As the number of men who wanted to remain deacons all their lives decreased, the diaconate evolved into a brief, final “step” in preparation for priesthood. The Council of Trent (1545-1563) did propose the restoration of the permanent diaconate, but it was not until the 1964 that the bishops at Vatican II approved its restoration. In 1967, Paul VI issued guidelines for the permanent diaconate and gave permission for national bishops’ conferences to restore the diaconate. The United States’ bishops did so in 1971 when they published guidelines for the ministry and formation of permanent deacons. In our archdiocese, the first class of permanent deacons was ordained in 1976. The Icon image above is of St. Stephen, one of the original seven deacons of the Church and martyred for the faith.