“If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet.
I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do.”
— John 13:14-15
Who is a deacon?
Deacons are best described by who they are rather than by what they do. Men who are ordained as deacons promise to live out the charism of service to God’s people through proclaiming the Word, administering sacraments and practicing charity for the rest of their lives. A deacon is a helper of bishops and priests and a witness to the Church’s call to serve the needs of others. A deacon is the animator and promoter of what the community of faith must be: a community of service.
The vocation of a deacon
The ministry of a deacon is service. That service is exercised in three distinct areas: Word, liturgy and charity.
At ordination a deacon receives the Book of Gospels from the bishop with the charge: “Receive the Gospel of Christ whose herald you now are. Believe what you read, teach what you believe, and practice what you teach.” The ministry of the Word includes proclaiming, preaching and teaching the truths of Sacred Scripture and the Catholic faith. These functions can be done in context with the Church, in social circles, among coworkers and within families. Deacons often prepare couples for marriage, parents for baptisms and individuals for reception into the Catholic Church.
A deacon’s ministry is profoundly linked with the Eucharist at Mass. A deacon brings the needs of the Christian community to the altar and then encourages the faithful to live their baptismal responsibilities in service to one another. At Mass, a deacon leads the community in the Penitential Act — “Lord, have mercy” — proclaims the Gospel, preaches, leads the Prayer of the Faithful, accepts and prepares the gifts of bread and wine at the altar, invites the community to express the Sign of Peace, assists in the distribution of Holy Communion and dismisses the community after the final blessing. Deacons are ordinary ministers at baptisms, weddings and funerals outside of Mass.
As ministers of charity, deacons live the Church’s mission to proclaim God’s mercy, love and justice while inspiring others to do the same. Diaconal charity involves reaching out to the poor and homeless, ministering to the hospitalized and incarcerated, speaking out on behalf of those who are marginalized or whose voices are unrecognized, and advocating for the dignity of all people. Diaconal charity extends to teaching the faith, giving retreats, assisting charitable organizations and managing diocesan offices or parishes when appointed by the bishop. Given the broad experience and education that deacons bring to their ministry, the charity performed by deacons is unlimited.
How do you know if you’re called to be a deacon?
Questions to ask yourself
Do you have a regular prayer life? Do you regularly participate in the Mass and the sacrament of reconciliation?
Do you serve in a ministry in your parish or local community?
Do you feel called to dedicate yourself to the service of Christ and the Church?
Discernment is not something we do alone. Others help us to recognize God’s call and the ways we might respond to it. If you are married, have you spoken with your wife about your call to be a deacon? Have you talked with your pastor? Do you know a deacon, and if so, have you spoken with him about this?
Frequently Asked Questions
Are deacons clergy?
Yes, deacons are clerics by virtue of ordination through reception of the sacrament of holy orders. There are three ranks of clergy in the Catholic Church: bishops, priests and deacons. Bishops and priests receive the mission and power to act in the person of Christ the Head, while deacons receive the faculty to serve the people of God in the person of Christ the Servant through the ministries of liturgy, Word and charity.
The diaconate is the first rank of holy orders in the Catholic Church. Deacons are the eyes, ears, mouth, and heart of the bishop through their service, in his name, within the community and at the parish where a deacon is assigned. Diaconal ministry complements the ministries of priests and bishops for the good of the people of God. Permanent deacons are ordained to a lifelong ministry of service.
Can deacons be married?
Yes. Unlike bishops or priests, permanent deacons may be married at the time of ordination. They are responsible for their own financial support and frequently work in secular occupations to support their families. If a deacon’s spouse dies before he dies, the deacon is expected to remain single and celibate for the remainder of his life.
At what age can someone become a deacon?
Church norms specify that a man must reach his 35th birthday at the time of ordination if he is married. If a man wants to be a deacon and he is not married, he may be ordained at age 25 with a vow to remain celibate. In the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, a man may not be older than age 69 at the time of his ordination.
What do I do if I want to explore becoming a deacon?
The first step is to contact the Office of the Diaconate for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. The director of the office can talk with you to help you in the discernment process. He will also explain to you the qualifications of a deacon and the prerequisites for applying to the deacon formation program. If there is a deacon in your parish, talk with him about being a deacon. He will be happy to share his experience and what you might expect if you are called to be a deacon.
Can I investigate the diaconate even if I’m not sure about being a deacon?
Yes. In fact, the most healthy way to approach this question is to follow the guidelines of discernment that have been presented here. Just because you might be interested in being a deacon, there is no embarrassment if you later decide that it isn’t for you. The discernment process will have helped you grow in your relationship with God and will have expanded your self-understanding.