Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
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The deacon in the liturgy
by Father Jan Larson
(From the June 11, 2009 edition of the Inland Register)
Deacons have been a part of the liturgy since the earliest centuries of the Church’s history. While priests are nowhere mentioned in the pages of the New Testament, there are a few references to deacons.
Indeed, deacons are likely to have been on the scene before there was an ordained priesthood as we know it today. They emerged as ministers of charity, as people who were chosen to assist the ministry of those who led the earliest Christian communities.
Married deacons gradually disappeared, and through many centuries the deacon at the liturgy was unmarried, since he was on his way to being ordained a priest. The ministry of married deacons, sometimes called permanent deacons since they do not later become priests, was restored by the Second Vatican Council, and has in subsequent years become a rich blessing for the life of the Church.
In some respects, the ministry of the deacon, particularly his liturgical ministry, has yet to be adequately understood. The deacon is the “prime minister” of the liturgy. He is not an add-on, or someone to be invited to the liturgy in order to make the ritual more solemn on special occasions. The liturgical books describe the deacon as the one who, “after the priest, in virtue of the sacred ordination he has received, has first place among those who minister in the celebration of the Eucharist.”
Unfortunately, there have been pastors and leaders of communities who have had competent deacons among their members but have ignored their presence, or allowed them to minister while depriving them of some of their important, distinctive roles, or simply treated them as if they were adult altar boys. It is still commonplace to see liturgies where the priest insists on proclaiming the Gospel while a deacon stands nearby listening. Priests have no business reading the Gospel when a deacon is present, any more than they should be proclaiming the other readings when trained readers are present. We may be used to seeing priests read the Gospel passage, but we must remember that they do so only because there is no deacon available.
The liturgical books describe the deacon’s ministry as proclaiming the Gospel reading, sometimes preaching God’s word in the homily, announcing the intentions of the General Intercessions, ministering to the needs of the priest, preparing the altar, distributing the Eucharist to the faithful, especially the consecrated wine, and from time to time giving directions regarding the people’s gestures and posture.
And what we still must come to better understand is that the deacon is a minister of charity. His presence at the liturgy makes an important symbolic connection between the celebration of the Eucharist and our Biblical obligations to assist the needy and the poor. This is why he proclaims the Gospel, telling us the stories of the compassionate Jesus. And this is why he announces the General Intercessions. Who would know better the needs of the local community and the universal Church than the one who is ordained as a minister of charity?
(Father Larson is a priest of and liturgical consultant for the Archdiocese of Seattle.)