A Short History of the Permanent Diaconate


Traditionally, the beginning of the order of deacons is traced back to the story in Acts of the Apostles, Acts 6: 1-6. Whether this pertains to the history of the ordained order of deacons as they developed in the early centuries of the church is in dispute, but it is very much in the spirit in which the diaconate was and has been understood ever since. Very early in the history of the church, deacons were understood to hold a special place in the community, along with bishops and presbyters. The role of all ordained ministries is to be modeled on the life of Christ, and that of deacons especially was and still is, that of Christ the servant. Perhaps the earliest reference to deacons in this sense (ca. 53 A.D.?) occurs in St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians in which he addresses “all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons”.

However, it would be a mistake to interpret the servant role too literally as one of “waiting on tables”. One of the seven first deacons, Stephen, was stoned to death because of his bold preaching of the Gospel, Acts 6: 8-15, 7: 54-60 . He is the first recognized martyr of the church, and his feast day is celebrated on December 26. Of the remaining seven, those of whom we have historical knowledge, it is clear that their ministry also quickly broadened to preaching and spreading the Gospel message.

The deacon became the eyes and ears of the bishop, his “right hand man”. The bishop’s principal assistant became known as the “archdeacon”, and was often charged with heavy responsibilities, especially in the financial administration of the local church, above all in distribution of funds and goods to the poor. One measure of the importance of the deacon in the early church is the number of deacons elected pope in the early Middle Ages. Of the thirty-seven men elected pope between 432 and 684 A.D., only three are known to have been ordained to priest before their election to the Chair of Peter. (Llewellyn)

During the first Christian millennium deacons undertook, as the bishops’ assistants, the functions that are today those of the vicar general, the judicial vicar, the vicar capitular, the cathedral chapter and the oeconome, or finance officer. In current canon law these are almost exclusively priests’ functions. (Galles)

John Collins, writing in Pastoral Review, has this to say about the meaning of “diakonia” as understood in the early church:

“Two final segments: firstly my description of the semantic character of diakon- as applied to deacons in the early church (from Appendix I, Diakonia, p. 337). 
5.0 The designation “deacon” does not derive from attendance at table but from attendance on a person. 
5.1 This person is not the needy person or the congregation or community but the episkopos (the later “bishop”), whose “agent” the “deacon” is. 
5.2 The word was chosen as a title of this Christian officer because the word had currency in religious language. 
5.3 The title is not derived directly from non-Christian religious guilds, in which this common noun designated ceremonial “waiters”, but is an original Christian designation for an “agent in sacred affairs”. 
5.4 The title probably originated in cult. [“cult” is the word I used then and, outside of the context of the study as a whole, is possibly misleading or mystifying; the intention was to register the regularly religious character of the usage… ]. 

Secondly, a few reminders of what Ignatius and Hippolytus recorded about deacons. In Trallians 2.3 Ignatius stressed that “[deacons] are not diakonoi [plural of diakonos] of food and drink but are hypêretai of the church of God”, and his terms are carefully chosen. Diakonoi appears here in the sense of “table waiter”, and Ignatius explains that, unlikely as it may seem to some, their title does not derive from their liturgical function. Their true identity is expressed in the second Greek term, hypêretai. This is a very interesting term, often understood as just an alternative term for a household servant but really having a life of its own in designating people like public servants, that is, people who have an official role for which they are responsible. For brevity’s sake, I translate the word here as “officers”. This then requires that deacons have responsibilities outside of the ecclesial gatherings. (For further on Ignatius’ terminology, see Deacons and the Church, pp. 104-09.) 

Hippolytus is a shadowy figure from Rome of about 220 CE. The Apostolic Tradition, accordingly, is a very early testament indeed to early Christian thinking. Bernard Botte’s edition (La Tradition Apostolique… , 1963, p. 22) states (in my translation of the Latin translation of the Coptic): 

‘Why did we say that only the bishop places hands on him? For this reason: because he is not ordained to priesthood [sacerdotium], but to ministry [ministerium (hypêresia)] of the bishop, that he will do what [the bishop] commands.'”

As is well known, Vatican II cited this “not unto the priesthood, but unto the ministry” in Lumen Gentium. Thus it was understood that deacons were ordained not for any specific set of duties for serving the needy but to serve the bishop in whatever set of duties he would determine. The circumstances today are, of course, far different than in the early church. The size and complexity of the modern diocese makes such an intimate relationship with the bishop impractical. Although deacons serve in a wide variety of settings, including hospitals and prisons, the focus for today’s deacon is normally parish based. However, he retains the historical tie with his bishop, whose “servant” he remains. The major point we should take from a study of early church history and the witness of the early Fathers of the Church is that they acknowledge the importance of the diaconal ministry. Saint Ignatius of Antioch, about 100 AD, says that it would be impossible to have the Church without bishops, priests and deacons. He explains that their task was nothing less than to continue ‘the ministry of Jesus Christ’.


Beginning as early as the fifth century, there was a gradual decline in the permanent diaconate in the Latin church, although it remained, right to the present, a vital part of the Eastern churches, both Catholic and Orthodox. One important factor was simply a failure on the part of both presbyters and deacons to understand the unique value of the diaconate as a distinct order in its own right. Deacons with too much power were often self-important and proud. Presbyters, on their part, were resentful at the fact that often deacons had power over them! St. Jerome demanded to know why deacons had so much power – “After all, deacons could not preside at Eucharist, and presbyters were really the same as bishops”. By the early middle ages, the diaconate was perceived largely as only an intermediate step toward the reception of ordination to the priesthood. It was this prevailing attitude of the “cursus honorum” that was most responsible for the decline of the diaconate. The “cursus honorum” was simply the attitude of “rising through the ranks”, following a tradition of gradual promotion, inherited from practices of secular government of the Roman Empire. Most older Catholics will be familiar with the many levels of “minor orders” and “major orders”. First came the liturgical rite of “tonsure” which conferred upon a man the status of “cleric”, and made him eligible for ordination. Then came the minor orders of porter, lector, exorcist and acolyte.  These were ordinations but they were not sacraments. Finally came the major orders of sub deacon, deacon and priest. Sub diaconate, although a major order, was not a sacrament. The sub deacon did not receive a stole. Deacon and priest were, of course, sacramental in character. The whole process is well illustrated in a drawing (thanks to Dr. William Ditewig):

“Then, in 1972, Paul VI, following the direction of Vatican II, issued Ministeria quaedam, which realigned these things for the Latin Rite.  Tonsure was suppressed, and now a person becomes a cleric through SACRAMENTAL ORDINATION AS A DEACON; this  was a change to a pattern of more than 1000 years standing!  The Pope also suppressed the minor orders altogether, converting two of them into “lay” ministries no longer requiring ordination; he also suppressed the subdiaconate, shifting the promise of celibacy to the diaconate.  That left only two orders, both sacraments, from the old schema.  Since Vatican II itself had taught about the sacramental nature of the bishop, we wound up with the three-fold ordained ministry that we have now, all of which are conferred by ordination and all of which confer a sacramental “character.”  Finally, the three orders are further subdivided by those orders that are sacerdotal (bishop and presbyter) and the orders that are diaconal (bishop and deacon).  Yes, right now, presbyters are also deacons because they were ordained transitional deacons on their way to the presbyterate, BUT, as Guiseppe points out, this could be easily changed, and many are arguing for that (it’s not likely anytime soon, but the case still needs to be pushed!)” (Ditewig)

It should be understood that efforts at renewal of the diaconate as a permanent and separate order came as early as the Council of Trent, which suggested this as part of the reform measures. The problem was, the implementation was left to the Popes, and none saw fit to implement this until Paul VI and Vatican Council II. Modern movements toward restoration of the diaconate as a permanent order began as early as the middle of the 19th century, although most trace it to discussions by priests in concentration camps of the Nazis during World War II. These priests pondered the nature of the Church after the war, and suggested restoring deacons as an order devoted to service of the church and its people. Further articles by theologians explored this possibility and paved the way. In 1957, Pope Pius XII spoke favorably about restoring the diaconate as a permanent order, but concluded “the time was not yet ripe”.

The time finally came during deliberations of the Second Vatican Council in 1963, calling for restoration of the diaconate as a permanent level of Holy Orders. In June 1967 Pope Paul VI implemented this decree of the Council when he published the Apostolic letter Diaconatus Ordinem, in which he re-established the permanent diaconate in the Latin Church. The Council in its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium) returns to the roots of the diaconate which we have previously discussed, roots going back to the New Testament and the early church Fathers:

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. It is the duty of the deacon, according as it shall have been assigned to him by competent authority, to administer baptism solemnly, to be custodian and dispenser of the Eucharist, to assist at and bless marriages in the name of the Church, to bring Viaticum to the dying, to read the Sacred Scripture to the faithful, to instruct and exhort the people, to preside over the worship and prayer of the faithful, to administer sacramentals, to officiate at funeral and burial services. Dedicated to duties of charity and of administration, let deacons be mindful of the admonition of Blessed Polycarp: “Be merciful, diligent, walking according to the truth of the Lord, who became the servant of all.” (Lumen Gentium para. 29)

And so we have come full circle. The permanent diaconate has proved to be a resounding success, growing at an astounding rate throughout the world, but nowhere so much as here in the United States. The theology of the diaconate has yet to be fully explored, but with the help of the Holy Spirit, it will mature.

Source: Peter Llewellyn, “The Popes and the Constitution in the Eighth Century” English Historical Review, 101:CCCXCVIII (January 1986) 42-67 without attribution.