What is a Deacon?
To really understand what a deacon is, we have to study a little bit of history. I know, this sounds like school, but I promise it is important for us to be able to get the idea.
Here’s how it was going in the earliest days of the Church. The first bishops, then called apostles, were doing what Jesus told them to do. They were running all around the world sharing the good news that God loves us, and loves us so much, that he would not only endure the condescension of becoming human, but would even live that human life in poverty and eventual death to prove it. Well, not just to prove His love, there is more going on there, but the key thing for this topic is this: The apostles were busy with a really important job, building up the People of God.
There is a problem with people though, and that is that even when they are trying to be nice, they aren’t always nice. There were complaints of unfairness within this new community, and when the apostles looked, they found it was probably true. They were too busy to deal with this! They had more important stuff going on than deciding who should get how many apples, and whether or not it was fair to give so and so a sheep when other people didn’t have a sheep. In other words, there was bickering. I know right? It’s certainly not that way now! (That was sarcasm, in case you missed it.)
So they thought, “Hmm, we need trustworthy guys to handle this community stuff for us, we can’t let the mission be bogged down with all this.” So they found seven guys, and ordained them to a new order, called deacons.
Deacons. It basically means servant. They serve the community in the name of, and with the authority of, the bishop. If a priest is the hands of the bishop, very often, a deacon is the tools.
Some people make the mistake of thinking a deacon is like a “mini priest.” That’s not really a good way to think of it. Rather, a priest is a “mini bishop”, he has real charge of the area the bishop gives him, real authority. This is why all but one of the Sacraments a bishop can perform can also be done by a priest. (I know, Confirmation is the bishop’s too, but it can be done by a priest in an emergency…) Bishops and priests share in the “headship” of Christ.
A deacon is something different entirely, they only serve. The only Sacraments a deacon can perform are the same Sacraments a lay person can perform. The only difference is a deacon can perform them as an ordinary part of his ministry, whereas a layperson can only perform them in an emergency. He has no “headship” and only shares in the “service” of Christ. A deacon is never the boss.
I know, some deacons might seem really bossy, and while that is not nice, they may have a reason. Very often, the service they are called to perform is one of leadership. They might be asked to handle marriage preparation, prison ministry, religious education or any number of other apostolates. The thing to remember is this: at the end of the day, the pastor can override the deacon any time he wants. The pastor is the boss. The deacons just there to help, and keep helping.
What a blessing! I know in these days everyone wants to be a general and no one wants to be a soldier, but for the deacon, he knows he is called to the grunt work. There is great peace of mind to be able to focus on the work God has given you, and not worry about things that are not yours to do.
While that should give you a good idea of what a deacon is, I have a couple more thoughts for you.
First, a deacon is clergy, that is, they are ordained. They are not lay people, and have true power to act for God in their service. While most deacons are very humble men and would never be rude, it might be wise to remember they, like bishops and priests, are sworn to God’s service. Most deacons do not wear the roman collar, but they are no less clergy.
Second, deacons are often split into two categories, permanent and transitional. Permanent deacons are men called to be a deacon and only a deacon, with no intention of becoming a priest. Theirs is a lifelong call of service. Transitional deacons intend to be deacons for a short time, usually a year, before they are ordained priests. Theirs is a call to leadership. Either way, they are deacons, but as transitional deacons will become priests, they often have a different set of rules and roles as they move towards priestly ordination.
Third, deacons can’t get married. I know, you are thinking, “I know a married deacon though!” Indeed you may, I myself am married, but I can’t GET married. I can BE married when I am ordained, but if my wife dies, I cannot remarry. This doesn’t mean a single person can’t be called to be a deacon, they would be called to celibacy like a priest though. Married deacons too are called to celibacy should our wives predecease us.
Lastly, if you feel called to be a deacon, I would encourage you to find out more. Finding out about becoming a deacon is not a commitment, it’s just exploring the idea. In fact, you may find that the Church does not call you to this ministry, and that’s okay. Remember, the highest role in the Church is not ordination, it’s Sainthood!