Vocations: The character, mission, witness of permanent deacons
By Deacon Dan Lupo
It’s been almost 50 years since the permanent diaconate was restored by Pope Paul VI. Yet, many Catholics still might not fully understand the purpose and role of permanent deacons. By examining one of the church’s first deacons, St. Stephen, we can discover some key insights about today’s deacons.
St. Stephen was recognized by his early Christian community as reputable and wise (Acts 6:3). They saw him as “a man filled with faith and the Holy Spirit” (6:5), and recommended him to the Twelve, who laid hands on him, ordaining him as one of the church’s first seven first permanent deacons (6:1-7).
Similarly, pastors and parishioners today identify men from their parish communities whose reputation, wisdom and faith life mark them as potentially having a call by the Holy Spirit to diaconal ministry. Asked to consider the diaconate, the men then discern their call –– along with their wives (if married), families, pastor, spiritual director and most importantly the church.
The goal of discernment is to determine whether the Holy Spirit has indeed placed it on their heart to to enter into a deeper relationship with Christ, to pursue a deeper dimension of their baptismal call, and to make a greater commitment to serve the people of God in his name.
As a deacon, St. Stephen served widows, who –– no longer having a husband to provide for and protect them –– were marginalized by society. He also served others who were marginalized for various reasons: the sick, the poor, the imprisoned, those suffering afflictions such as blindness, lameness or deafness.
The primary service of the deacon was to bring Christ in the consecrated bread left over from Mass –– “the breaking of the bread” (Acts 2:42) –– to those who could not attend. But deacons also served the pastoral needs of the people, too, offering them Christ the healer in their compassionate presence, prayers and words of consolation.
Today’s permanent deacons are considered “custodian(s) and dispenser(s) of the Eucharist” (Lumen Gentium, 29). Deacons bring the Eucharist to the homebound, the sick in hospitals, the incarcerated in prisons and jails, the dying in hospices, the elderly in nursing homes, the poor and displaced in shelters, and the homeless on the streets.
St. Stephen became the first Christian martyr (the Greek word martyr means “witness”); he was stoned to death for the “blasphemy” of teaching, preaching and witnessing about Jesus. St. Stephen was so filled with the Holy Spirit that he forgave his murderers, praying, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60).
Today’s deacons also witness to the mercy and love of Christ. They “die to themselves,” pouring out their lives in loving service to others, in the name of the church. At ordination the deacon surrenders his will to God, and receives faculties to teach and preach the Good News of God’s love, to baptize, to receive a couple’s wedding vows, and to preside at funeral services.
In 2018, a National Diaconate Congress will be held in New Orleans to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the restoration of the permanent diaconate in the Catholic Church. Because he is the model for today’s permanent deacon, St. Stephen will most assuredly be there in spirit.
For more information on the diaconate in the Diocese of Austin, contact Deacon Guadalupe Rodriguez at (512) 949-2410 or Deacon Dan Lupo at (512) 949-2411.