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Letter to Parishioners

The Catholic Faith in Slow Motion (no. 60)

As we pray every day for an increase in vocations to the holy ministry and the consecrated religious life, we should not forget to give joyful thanks for those who are answering the call. By the time you read this article, Bob Scarpa—so well known and well loved in our parish—will have been ordained to the diaconate by our Bishop (May 1). It's a good time to reflect upon the nature and dignity of the diaconate.
The diaconate was established by the apostles themselves in the earliest days of the Church. We read in the New Testament scriptures that, in order to assist the apostles in their ministry to the fast-growing Jerusalem church, they picked out “seven men full of the Spirit of wisdom”. St. Luke finds the moment important enough to record the names of the seven. “And they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Phillip, and Prochaorus, and Nicanor and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicoaus. These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands upon them (see Acts 6:1-6).
Two of these deacons will show up at dramatic moments in St. Luke's narrative in the Acts of the Apostles. Stephen will soon become the first martyr of the Jerusalem church (Acts 6:54-60). Phillip will go far and wide preaching; he will teach and baptize a high ranking officer in the court of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who will take the Faith with him, establishing the Church in his own land (Acts 8:26-40).
In the Catholic and Orthodox Churches of the East, the diaconate has functioned continuously as a distinct order or ministry along with Bishop and Priest. In the West, in the ancient Roman Church, deacons also served as a distinct order. But over time in the West, the diaconate became a preparatory order to the priesthood, rather than a permanent order of ministry. It is still the case that those called to the order of the priesthood are first ordained to the diaconate. However, the Second Vatican Council revived and reestablished it as a permanent order of the holy ministry. So that now we distinguish between a “transitory” deacon (on the way to being ordained a priest) and a permanent deacon.
Married men may be called to the permanent diaconate. Generally, permanent deacons are not taught and formed in a Seminary. They are educated and trained by priests and lay theologians within the diocese under the supervision of the bishop. In the Diocese of Camden, candidates prepare over a period of four years. Most permanent deacons must continue to support themselves and their families. Different policies in different dioceses determine whether or not deacons are to wear clerical attire. Recently, in our diocese, the decision was made that ordained deacons (as members of the third order of the clergy) are to wear gray clerical shirts whenever they are actively involved in their ministry.
What is that ministry? Deacons may preach when so assigned by their priest or bishop. They conduct weddings and funerals (but not in the case of nuptial or funeral masses). They are authorized to baptize. But at the very heart of their liturgical ministry is the proclamation of the gospel and the assisting of the priest or bishop in the Eucharistic celebration, especially in the distribution of Holy Communion.
The word deacon is a transliteration of the Greek word diakonos. The word is translated as servant or minister. So it is that the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches: “Deacons share in Christ's mission and grace in a special way. The sacrament of Holy Orders marks them with an imprint (“character”) which cannot be removed and which configures them to Christ, who made himself the 'deacon' or servant of all.”

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