The following Frequently Asked Questions and answers are from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Secretariat for the Diaconate.
Q: Who is a deacon?
A: A deacon is an ordained minister of the Catholic Church. There are three groups, or “orders,” of ordained ministers in the Church: bishops, priests and deacons. Deacons are ordained as a sacramental sign to the Church and to the world of Christ, who came “to serve and not to be served.” The entire Church is called by Christ to serve, and the deacon, in virtue of his sacramental ordination and through his various ministries, is to be a servant in a servant-Church.
Q: What are these “various ministries” of the deacon?
A: All ordained ministers in the Church are called to functions of word (Scripture), sacrament, and charity, but bishops, priests and deacons exercise these functions in various ways. As ministers of Scripture, deacons proclaim the Gospel, preach, and teach in the name of the Church. As ministers of sacrament, deacons baptize, lead the faithful in prayer, witness marriages, and conduct wake and funeral services. As ministers of charity, deacons are leaders in identifying the needs of others, then marshalling the Church’s resources to meet those needs. Deacons are also dedicated to eliminating the injustices or inequities that cause such needs. But no matter what specific functions a deacon performs, they flow from his sacramental identity. In other words, it is not only what a deacon does, but who a deacon is, that is important.
Q: Why do some deacons become priests?
A: For many years ordained ministers “ascended” from one office to another, culminating in ordination to the presbyterate, or priesthood. The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), however, authorized the restoration of the diaconate as a permanent order of ministry. So, while students for the priesthood are still ordained deacons prior to their ordination as priests, there are more than 14,000 deacons in the United States alone who minister in this order permanently. There is no difference in the sacramental sign or the functions between these so-called “transitional” and “permanent” deacons.
Q: May married men be ordained deacons?
A: Yes. The Second Vatican Council decreed that the diaconate, when it was restored as a permanent order in the hierarchy, could be opened to “mature married men,” later clarified to mean men over the age of 35. This is in keeping with the ancient tradition of the Church, in which married men were ordained into ministry. Also in keeping with ancient practice is the expectation that while a married man may be ordained, an ordained man, if his wife should die, may not marry again without special permission.
Q: How do I find out more about becoming a deacon?
A: The best place to start is with your pastor, who can put you in touch with the director of deacons for your diocese. The director will be able to outline the various requirements and processes to be followed.