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The role and function of the permanent diaconate

By Fr Jason Boatswain, Director of the permanent diaconate programme

History During the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965), it was decided to restore the permanent diaconate to a clerical state in the Church. Though the initial call for restoration of the permanent diaconate came at the Council of Trent (1545–1563), the bishops at Council discerned that this was the kairos moment to reinstitute the clerical state which is conferred upon mature married men in stable relationships and single men who are willing to accept an obligation to celibacy.

This initial idea of the restoration of the permanent diaconate was first conceptualised in Nazi concentration camp of Dachau, during the Second World War, where many priests were incarcerated.

These priests-prisoners asked themselves an important question: “Where was the Catholic Church in preventing this tragedy?”.

Real theology is done not in armchairs but having the courage and the faith to ask hard questions of faith even when facing the possibility of death! These ideas that came to light in the concentration camps were then shared by priest-survivors in articles, books and periodicals until it was accepted at the Second Vatican Council.


The reinstitution of the permanent diaconate had three major goals: firstly, to bridge the gap between official church structures and the ordinary people; secondly, to coordinate the charitable outreach of the Church; thirdly, it was realised that the permanent diaconate had strong biblical and patristic origins and as such they were needed to complete the traditional triad, firstly expressed by Ignatius of Antioch, of deacon, presbyter and bishop.

As one who receives the sacraments of Holy Orders and Marriage, the essence of diaconal ministry involves service to the Church’s sacramental life combined with practical service. It is in this sense the deacon is seen as a bridge which joins the secular and the sacred or the lay and clerical states.

Hence, John Paul II states that: “A deeply felt need in the decision to re-establish the permanent diaconate was and is that of the greater and more direct presence of the Church’s ministers in various spheres of the family, work, school etc in addition to existing pastoral structures.”

From its very inception in the Acts of the Apostles 6:1–6, the institution of the permanent diaconate was intended to draw near the tangible, concrete mercy and love of God in the distribution of food to the Greek widows.

William Ditewig states that the call to serve as men of justice and mercy became the identifying mark of the deacons in the early Church. They were responsible for administering the temporal goods of the Church in the service of the poor.

Pope Benedict sums up this idea when he states, “Deacons in every age must incarnate this ‘fundamental ecclesial principle,’ this ‘essential core,’ this ‘constitutive element’ of the Church: namely, that Love, as expressed through charity, justice, and mercy of God, must be more than the responsibility of each individual disciple. But must be ordered and organized within the very structures of the Church herself.”

One can question whether it is mere coincidence or the impulse of the Holy Spirit, that the reason for the initial institution of the permanent diaconate in the times of the apostles and the reason for its reinstitution 2,000 years after, are almost identical.

The Second Vatican Council saw the idea of service in the spirit of hierarchical communion as being the key to understanding the role and function of deacons.

Lumen Gentium 29 states: “At a lower level of the hierarchy are deacons, upon whom hands are imposed ‘not unto the priesthood, but unto a ministry of service.’ For strengthened by sacramental grace, in communion with the bishop and his group of priests they serve in the diaconate of the liturgy, of the word, and of charity to the people of God”.

Though we have seen a very strong emphasis on charitable service, the ministry of the permanent diaconate evolved, even in the time of the apostles, in which Philip and Stephen became preachers of the Word (Acts 7, 8:5) and servants of the liturgy.

Permanent Diaconate Now

Today, with the reinstitution of the permanent diaconate, many dioceses, especially in the Caribbean, have ordained men to the diaconate. One of the reasons given in the Basic Norms for the Formation of the Permanent Diaconate for the reinstitution of the permanent diaconate is a concern to provide regions, where there is a shortage of clergy, with sacred ministers”.

A misinterpretation of this statement, however, has been understood that deacons are needed because of a shortage of priests. Such a misunderstanding will create a wrong expectation from the people, will form a distorted self-image in the minds of the deacons and create role confusion between priests and deacons.

Nathan Mitchell—with respect to the shortage of clergy—states, that the restoration of the diaconate is important because it affirms the principle that the recognition of pastoral leadership is the fundamental basis for calling a Christian to ordained ministry. The deacons are then expected to be men who are capable of organising and leading the Christian community in the absence of a priest.

We all know of excellent lay ministers and pastoral agents in rural and suburban communities who have kept these communities alive and vibrant. It is in this light that the Basic Norms for the Formation of the Permanent Diaconate gives the second reason for the reinstitution of the permanent diaconate, namely: “to strengthen with the grace of diaconal ordination those who already perform many of the functions of the deacon”.

In fact, canon 512, #2 states that in the cases where there is a shortage of priests, the diocesan bishop can appoint a deacon whose primary function would be to exercise on-scene pastoral leadership in organising the parish which will be directed by a priest to ensure the full care of the faithful.

If, because of a lack of priests, the diocesan bishop decided that the participation in the exercise of the pastoral care of a parish is to be entrusted to a deacon, to another person who is not a priest, or to a community of persons, he is to appoint some priest who, provided with the powers and faculties of a pastor, is to direct the pastoral care.

Therefore, to refine the vision of the role and function of deacons in the Archdiocese of Port of Spain, we must examine what Pope Paul VI calls a “novus habitus mentis,” or a new way of thinking.

Paul VI envisaged that this new way of thinking has a practical end of concrete pastoral care and meeting the needs of God’s people. This is making sure that the deacon is focused on everything that deacons can do in meeting the very real and messy realities and various needs faced by people every day.

In this sense, keeping in tune with Pope Paul VI, the deacons—along with the Church— must see themselves as servants of humanity, in the ways in which they feed the existential widows in our contemporary times.

Thus, they are called to be involved in ministry on the margins that offer pastoral care to those in prison, hospitals, youth on the streets, migrants, schools, marriage and family life and in at-risk communities.

This, therefore, is in line with the vision of Pope Francis, who calls the Church to a pastoral conversion and mandates her to move from ecclesial introspection to a missionary option to the poor and less fortunate. It is in this ecclesial context that the permanent deacon will be asked to exercise his diakonia as humble servant of Christ and His Church.