Deacons don’t have a monopoly on diakonia


As university students, you are often asked “what are you going to do with your degree after you graduate?” At one time or another, everyone gets asked the question “what are you going to do when you grow up?” This predilection towards the utility of our lives impacts our understanding of deacons. 

When I meet someone who has had little exposure to the diaconate, the first question is always “What does a deacon do?”. It is an innocuous question with a relatively straightforward answer. Deacons, in conjunction with priests, assist the bishop in the exercise of their threefold munera of teaching, sanctifying and governing. 

For deacons, this manifests itself as a ministry of Word, altar and charity. Deacons are empowered to marry, bury and baptize. Deacons serve at Mass: we assist the priest, proclaim the Gospel, preach, prepare the altar and care for the vessels, distribute the Eucharist as “ordinary” ministers of Holy Communion and direct the actions of the people. We can bless items and people. And these liturgical tasks are only part of the deacon’s ministry. 

We are also called to serve those on the fringes, the outcast, the marginalized and places where resources are scarce yet the Church needs to be. These are just the main points, but all are good and holy functions of a deacon.

So why does Pope Francis constantly caution against taking a “functionalist” approach to the diaconate? Why should we look beyond what a deacon “does”? There are a couple of reasons. The first is that a functionalist approach to the diaconate generates an image of a “mini-priest.” Despite the overlap in “function,” despite deacons and priests both receiving Holy Orders, priests and deacons have two very distinct vocations. 

Another reason Pope Francis cautions against functionalism is that in our obsession with “doing,” we often pay little attention to “being.”

If you look at the various functions of a deacon, all of them can be performed by priests and bishops, and some can even be accomplished by the laity. So if none of the functions of the diaconate are unique, from where does diaconal identity flow? The answer: the identity of a deacon flows from the ontological change that occurs during the sacrament of Holy Orders. 

This change in the very nature of a deacon’s being configures him to be a holy icon of Christ the Servant, to act in persona Christi servi. Even if a deacon is not “doing” anything, he is still the sacramental presence of Christ the Servant amongst the faithful.

So why then is the title of this article “Deacons don’t have a monopoly on diakonia”? If the deacon is the one ordained to represent diakonia, service, how does this apply to all, to everyone? The answer to this question is rooted in our baptism. 

We are all baptized into the priestly, prophetic and kingly ministry of Jesus Christ. We all participate in this ministry in various ways, but the foundation of all our ministry must be rooted in love. To love as Christ loves necessarily results in service, for one cannot love as Christ loves and yet be self-centered or self-serving. The deacon is simply called to love as Christ loved, to be a beacon that calls others to that service. That is “being” a deacon.

When it comes to the “doing” part, the deacon is called to be an icon that reminds all that Christ is in their midst, that he came “not to be served, but to serve” (Mk 10:45). Rather than having a monopoly on diakonia, the deacon is simply the one standing next to you, encouraging you to roll up your sleeves and join him in serving those whom Christ loves.


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