For those people who are fortunate enough to have a deacon assigned to their parish in the Ukrainian Catholic Church, usually one sees a man who piously assists the priest or the bishop in the celebration of the Divine Liturgy. He is prominently seen standing before the iconostas leading the petitions of intentions that the congregation is offering up in worship. But has this always been the case?
The office of the deacon has been with us ever since biblical times. We hear about the deacon starting with Stephen the Protomartyr (first martyr) and Protodeacon (first deacon), who was stoned in Jerusalem for his beliefs when he boldly gave witness to the life and actions of Jesus Christ in front of the assembly at the Temple of Jerusalem. While Stephen was never explicitly called a “deacon,” (this title would not appear until Paul’s later pastoral letters), nonetheless, what was described in the Acts of the Apostles was the establishment of a service of ministry for selected me to assist the Apostles in managing the distribution of alms. The deacon, as later the office came to be, was a person who was chosen for their piety, good reputation, and wisdom to help out the church in ministering to the day to day activities of the church (i.e., help with food and alms distribution to the poor, assisting the priest/bishop with various tasks, etc.) The Bible and other documents indicated the existence of women acting as deaconesses – however, their exact role in the church community and what functions they performed is not very clear other than the fact that the office of deaconess has died out.
“O God our Saviour, who have by your holy voice instituted the law of service for your Apostles; Who have chosen the protomartyr Stephen for your first deacon; Who yourself have first exercised the office of deacon as it is written in your holy Gospel: If any man wishes to be first among you, he shall be your servant . . . “
Excerpt of the prayer over the newly ordained deacon from the Euchologion
The Diaconate - An In-Depth Explanation
With the expansion of the Church starting after the legalization of Christianity as the official state religion of the Roman Empire in 315 AD by Emperor Constantine the Great, the office of deacon by this time had taken on a very important role. Deacons had great responsibilities assigned to them. In fact, Pope Fabian, from 236-250 AD, divided his area of governance of Rome into 7 districts, with each district being governed by a deacon, not a priest or bishop. They not only assisted in worship, but played a definite role in ministry to the Church at large. However, after the 4th century AD, as Christianity expanded and the role of the priest and bishop began to change, so did the diaconate. The priesthood became firmly rooted in its role as a parish administrator united to the local bishop, and as priests took on more and more ministries, the diaconate became a liturgical ministry, seen only as a transitional training ground for those preparing for priesthood.
This state would not change until very recently after Vatican II, whereby the ministerial role of the diaconate would slowly be reintroduced, especially with the global demand for ministers capable of working for the Church in various capacities. The diaconate was one way of bringing the word of God to many people who did not have easy access to a priest. The deacon is a man constituted and configured to Christ, but in a very specific way – like Ignatius of Antioch says his Letter to the Trallians, the deacon is the living image of Christ the Servant. What this means is that the deacon is a living link between the altar and the people; he serves at the altar by assisting the bishop and priest and proclaiming the word of God, but he also serves the people by assisting the poor and needy, bringing communion to the sick and the suffering, and so forth. The deacon is a reminder to us all that Christ is in the world and present to all of us as a servant. For Christ has said himself, If any man wishes to be first among you, he shall be your servant . . .
So what does this mean to us today? The deacon participates in the ministry of Christ by teaching the people the Word of God (remember Stephen’s witness to the assembly of Christ before his stoning), sanctifying the people of God through his preaching the Gospel and assisting in the administering of sacraments (we are reminded here again with the story of Philip preaching to the Samaritans in Acts 8:5-6 and Philip’s conversion and baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8:26-40), and being an ikon of God’s love and charity through the office of service to the people (the appointment of men to care for the people in Acts 6:1-6). Deacons today in the Ukrainian Catholic Church fulfill this role of being the image of Christ the Servant. They are either married or single men, men of piety and who are role models in their communities, filled with zeal for God and for serving their fellow men and women. They not only assist at Church, preaching the Gospel and helping the priest/bishop lead the congregation in worship, but also visit the sick and the suffering, bring the sacrament of communion to those who cannot come to church, comfort and consoling the sad and the depressed, and working to ease the burdens of the poor. No longer is the view that the deacon was merely a stepping stone to the priesthood, for the diaconate is, in its own right, a critical ministry for the Church.
Perhaps you are a man who has considered assisting in the Church, helping to spread the Word of God, but did not feel the call to the priesthood? Then maybe God is calling you to service as a deacon!