Catholic Dictionary




Growth in the understanding of the diaconate since Apostolic times.

From Pope St. Clement in the first century through the patristic age, the diaconate assumed a broadening variety of ministries, always under obedience to a bishop. During the celebration of the Eucharist, they read or chanted the Epistle and Gospel, received the gift offerings of the laity, inscribed the names of donors in the diptychs to be prayed for at Mass, helped the priest in distributing Holy Communion or brought the Eucharist to the hones of the sick, led the faithful in congregational prayer, gave the sign for penitents and catechumens to leave the church before the Canon of the Mass, with bishop's permission baptized, instructed prospective converts, performed exorcisms, and in case of necessity could reconcile those who had "lapsed" during times of persecution.

The number of deacons was at first limited to seven for each dioceses, and in Rome the tradition survives in the seven cardinal deacons. Their office of collecting and distributing alms made them influential in the Christian community. Archdeacons, or chief deacons of a locality, began in the East but in the West assumed greater importance as principal administrative officers of bishops. When abuses crept in, successive councils either restricted the exercise of deacons' powers (Nicaea in 325) or clarified their hierarchical inferiority to the priesthood (Toledo in 633). By the Middle Ages the diaconate was practically reduced to a temporary status, preparatory to the priesthood, although numbering in its ranks such renowned persons as St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226).

Since the Second Vatican Council the role of the deacon has returned to something of its function in the early Church. The permanent diaconate was restored in the Western Church by Pope Paul VI.