It all started way back…
“At that time, as the number of disciples continued to grow, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. So the Twelve called together the community of the disciples and said, “It is not right for us to neglect the word of God to serve at table. Brothers, select from among you seven reputable men, filled with the Spirit and wisdom, whom we shall appoint to this task, whereas we shall devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” The proposal was acceptable to the whole community, so they chose Stephen, a man filled with faith and the holy Spirit, also Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicholas of Antioch, a convert to Judaism. They presented these men to the apostles who prayed and laid hands on them. The word of God continued to spread, and the number of the disciples in Jerusalem increased greatly; even a large group of priests were becoming obedient to the faith.” -Acts 6:1-7
A deacon is fundamentally the first “rank” in the clergy of the Catholic Church. They can be ordained to be a deacon permanently, or they can be ordained as a step to a fuller reception of Holy Orders. To become a priest, a man must first be ordained a deacon. (In the same way, a bishop must first be ordained a priest) They are ordained as assistants to their bishop, to serve the needs of the People of God. This is a vital ministry because the bishop simply cannot serve all of his diocese in a personal capacity.
I think it is important to this about what a deacon is, rather than what he does. Often our first impression of a deacon is almost like a “mini-priest”, we see them serving at the alter, and they have fancy clothes on like the priest, so it must be the same kind of thing, right?
Most certainly not.
I think the confusion lies in the fact that a priest, and for that matter, a bishop, were first ordained deacons, and therefore have within their respective orders the ministry of the deacon as well. One does not lose the gifts God has given simply because God has given more gifts. God’s effect on the human person is cumulative, not subtractive. So when there is no deacon, you will often see the priest fill in, and do what is properly a deacons function, because he is, in fact, a deacon as well as a priest. A priest’s vocation is however different in nature than a deacon’s. A priest is ordained to stand in for Christ, a deacon is called to serve.
The fundamental nature of the deacon is that of a servant, especially to those whom the bishop or priest does not have the time to serve. This mandate obviously covers a very wide spectrum, from working with the homeless, youth, elderly, working in prisons, education, or whatever else the bishop or priest needs. A deacon is not ordained because he is a swell guy, he is ordained because the Church needs help that is faithful and that can vow obedience to her teachings.
Deacons have a different function in the Church, working from within the world to bring the gospel to the world. For this reason, it is important that they be men of good character and of firm faith. While their commitment to the Church must be absolute, the nature of their ministry does not require them to work for the Church full time or be celibate. They can have regular jobs and they can be married. There is however a caveat. They can be ordained if they are married, but they cannot get married if they are ordained. (It would be rather inappropriate for a member the clergy to be prowling the pews for a date!) If a deacon is widowed, he is to remain unmarried for life.
What better way to close then with words from Pope Benedict XVI:
“At the same time, it can equally be the link between the lay world, the professional world, and the world of the priestly ministry — given that many deacons continue carrying out their professions and maintain their positions — important or those of a simple life — while on Saturday and Sunday they work in the Church. In this way, you give witness in the world of today, as well as in the working world, of the presence of faith, of the sacramental ministry and the diaconal dimension of the sacrament of Orders. This seems very important to me: the visibility of the diaconal dimension.
Naturally as well, every priest continues being a deacon, and should always think of this dimension, because the Lord himself made himself our minister, our deacon. We can think of the gesture of the washing of the feet, with which he explicitly shows that the master, the Lord, acts as a deacon and wants those who follow him to be deacons that they fulfill this role for humanity, to the point that they also help to wash the dirtied feet of the men entrusted to us. This dimension seems very important to me” -Benedict XVI, 2008
Amen your Holiness, Amen.