It was just fifty years ago today that the Order of Deacons was renewed as a ministry to be exercised permanently in the Catholic Church. Fifty years ago today, 18 June 1967, Blessed Pope Paul VI acted on the 1964 recommendation of the world’s bishops at the Second Vatican Council. He promulgated motu proprio Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem, which you can read in full here.
Following the conclusions of the Second Vatican Council (cf. Lumen gentium, #29), the Holy Father directed the appropriate changes to canon law which would permit the diaconate to be renewed as a “particular and permanent” order, and opened the diaconate to be conferred on married as well as celibate men. The introductory paragraphs offer significant insights into the vision behind the renewal:
Beginning already in the early days of the Apostles, the Catholic Church has held in great veneration the sacred order of the diaconate, as the Apostle of the Gentiles himself bears witness. He expressly sends his greeting to the deacons together with the bishops and instructs Timothy which virtues and qualities are to be sought in them in order that they may be regarded as worthy of their ministry.
Furthermore, the Second Ecumenical Vatican Council, following this very ancient tradition, made honorable mention of the diaconate in the Constitution which begins with the words “Lumen Gentium,” where, after concerning itself with the bishops and the priests, it praised also the third rank of sacred orders, explaining its dignity and enumerating its functions.
Indeed while clearly recognizing on the one hand that “these functions very necessary to the life of the Church could in the present discipline of the Latin Church be carried out in many regions with difficulty,” and while on the other hand wishing to make more suitable provision in a matter of such importance wisely decreed that the “diaconate in the future could be restored as a particular and permanent rank of the hierarchy.”
Although some functions of the deacons, especially in missionary countries, are in fact accustomed to be entrusted to lay men it is nevertheless “beneficial that those who perform a truly diaconal ministry be strengthened by the imposition of hands, a tradition going back to the Apostles, and be more closely joined to the altar so that they may more effectively carry out their ministry through the sacramental grace of the diaconate.” Certainly in this way the special nature of this order will be shown most clearly. It is not to be considered as a mere step towards the priesthood, but it is so adorned with its own indelible character and its own special grace so that those who are called to it “can permanently serve the mysteries of Christ and the Church.”
From the beginning, then, the renewal of the diaconate as a “particular and permanent” order of ministry has been about sacramental grace. The diaconate must never be reduced simply to the sum of its various “functions” which might easily be performed by others without ordination. However, the Council and the Pope recognized that those performing those functions in the person of Christ and in the name of the Church should be strengthened by the sacramental grace of ordination.
This is a very special day for the Church and her deacons. We remember with great respect and humility the giants of the renewal of the order of deacons: the bishops, theologians, and most especially those pioneering early deacons who set out into the unknown, charting a course for the rest of us to follow.
Deacons of the Church: Happy Golden Anniversary!