The Permanent Diaconate

On Saturday, June 14, in Saint Joseph's Cathedral, I ordained six excellent men to the Permanent Diaconate: Philip Amantia Sr., Paul Emerson, Mark Nowak, Thomas Scherr, Paul L. Snyder III, and Stephen Swinarski. A capacity congregation offered praise and thanksgiving to God from hearts filled with respect and appreciation for such wonderful blessings on our Diocese.

The restoration of the Permanent Diaconate has been one of the auspicious developments coming from Vatican Council II. "Permanent" distinguishes it from the "Transitional Diaconate," which is a step to Ordination to the Priesthood. (We also rejoice this year with the Ordination to the Transitional Diaconate of five superb men, who, please God, will be ordained to the priesthood next year.)

The Diaconate was an extremely important factor in the early centuries of the Church. We trace its origin to the sixth chapter in the Acts of the Apostles, when Stephen, Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicholas of Antioch were chosen by the community and ordained by the Apostles. Tremendous leaders emerged in the Diaconate: Saint Lawrence, the 3rd century administrator and martyr in the Church of Rome; Saint Ephrem, the fourth century theologian, poet, and doctor of the Church. Saint Francis of Assisi himself was a deacon.

The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church in the Second Vatican Council reestablished the Diaconate "as a proper and permanent rank of the hierarchy." Pope Paul VI implemented this restoration as "a driving force for the Church's service or diaconia toward the local Christian communities, and as a sign or sacrament of the Lord Christ himself, who 'came not to be served but to serve'" (Mt.20:28).

The very word "diakonia" in Greek means service or ministry. In the Ordination to the Diaconate we see that service having the power of Holy Orders, the grace of the sacrament.

Various documents of the Church in recent decades have addressed the Permanent Diaconate. Especially important were the Basic Norms for the Formation of Permanent Deacons and the Directory for the Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons, promulgated as a joint text by Pope John Paul II in 1998. Following up on these documents, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops indicated strong approval in our recent June meeting for a National Directory for the Formation, Ministry, and Life of Permanent Deacons in the United States. That document will go to Rome for final confirmation.

For 26 years now we have had Ordinations to the Permanent Diaconate in our Diocese. This Ordination configures the Deacon to Christ's consecration and mission. The Deacon exercises his service in the threefold ministry of the word, of the liturgy, and of charity.

The Permanent Deacon may be married or celibate, and most often he will have secular employment and be raising a family. Service is paramount. The deacon's service in the Church's ministry of word and liturgy would be very much lacking if his exercise of the Church's ministry of charity and justice did not accompany it. Pope John Paul II affirms this conviction in The Permanent Deacon's Ordination: "This is at the very heart of the Diaconate to which you have been called: to be a servant of the mysteries of Christ and, at one and the same time, to be a servant of your brothers and sisters. That these two dimensions are inseparably joined together in one reality shows the important nature of the ministry which is yours by Ordination."

The Deacon then is called to exercise special works of charity and justice, particularly on behalf of the poor. He has specific responsibilities in assisting the priest in the celebration of the Eucharist. He has other liturgical responsibilities: to baptize solemnly, to witness marriages, to bring Viaticum to the dying, to preside at wake ceremonies and burials. The Deacon can preside at the liturgies of the Word and Communion services in the absence of a priest. He may officiate at celebrations of the Liturgy of the Hours and at Exposition and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. He can conduct public rites of blessing, offer prayer services for the sick and the dying, and administer the Church's sacramentals, as designated in the Book of Blessings.

We are blessed in our Diocese with the presence and service of 106 Permanent Deacons. Virtually all the Deacons have parish assignments, but in addition we have been appointing them to other specific responsibilities: hospital ministry, correctional facilities, nursing homes, soup kitchens and food pantries, children's homes, family life ministry, Charismatic Renewal, Eucharistic Adoration Societies, bereavement ministry, retreat ministry, parish administration, coordination of the Permanent Diaconate, and direction of the formation programs for the Permanent Diaconate.

We are profoundly grateful to our Deacons for the dedication, skill, and spirituality they bring to the exercise of their ministry. We are deeply appreciative as well of their wives and family members for their invaluable collaboration with and support of the Permanent Deacons.

I believe that we are on the threshold of a vast expansion of ordained service and work for the Church through the Permanent Diaconate. We need more candidates of high caliber to offer themselves for this ministry. If you have some indication of this vocation, please speak about it with your pastor or call our Office for the Permanent Diaconate (716-847-5542). Please pray and encourage others to consider very seriously vocations to both the Priesthood and the Permanent Diaconate.

In the Rite of Ordination to the Permanent Diaconate, the Bishop places the Book of the Gospels in the hands of each deacon and says:

"Receive the Gospel of Christ, whose herald you now are.
Believe what you read,
teach what you believe,
and practice what you teach."

This commission is also our prayer, in gratitude, for all our Deacons.

Most Rev. Henry J. Mansel
Bishop of Buffalo
June 25, 2003