Giving Deacons Their Due
It can be easy to take little notice of a deacon in the Catholic Church unless he comes plainly into view. You know, “Oh, look. Deacon Joe is going to do the homily, today.” Other than that, it’s fairly safe to say that we Catholics don’t necessarily think about our deacons all that much. Sure, we know that guys stop off at deacon on the way to priesthood (the “transitional deacon” title being a not-so-subtle clue that he won’t be at that point for long). But what about the fellows with regular jobs, guys we know from the parish, who collar-up for Mass and other occasions?
Such men are known as “permanent deacons”—a ministry that had fallen out of use but was revived by the Second Vatican Council. Just like V2’s attempt to preserve an amount of Latin in the Novus Ordo took a while to catch hold, the permanent diaconate (yes, they get a fancier name than “deaconhood”) has only become widely active in relatively recent years.
What does a deacon do?
The root word diakonos translates, essentially, as servant. Since people tend to have differing interpretations of what that means, let’s just go straight to The Catechism of the Catholic Church (1570) for our answer, “Among other tasks, it is the task of deacons to assist the bishop and priests in the celebration of the divine mysteries, above all the Eucharist, in the distribution of Holy Communion, in assisting at and blessing marriages, in the proclamation of the Gospel and preaching, in presiding over funerals, and in dedicating themselves to the various ministries of charity.”
So basically, deacons 1) assist the bishop and priests as needed in the sacramental and liturgical life of the Church, 2) dedicate themselves to the Church’s works of charity.
Any Catholic man is eligible to be a permanent deacon Even a married man can become a permanent deacon, as long as he vows to live a celibate life upon the death of his wife.
Way back when, deacons were a much more public and commonplace sight among Christians. As a matter of fact, St. Stephen, our first martyr, was a deacon. And many a tough deacon followed in his footsteps.
Today, since his feast day is January 23, we’re going to take a look at St. Vincent of Saragossa, Spain, one of the many deacon-martyrs of the Church.
A deacon versus Diocletian.
Vincent’s life straddled the third and fourth centuries. His path to the Church isn’t entirely clear but we know that he was ordained a deacon by one Bishop Valerius, and was sent out to proclaim, preach and teach the Word of God. Bishop Valerius—who is said to have had a speech impediment—also made Vincent his spokesman.
All of this was happening during the reign of Diocletian, Emperor of Rome and one of antiquity’s most prolific persecutors of Christians. Eventually, the wide net Diocletian cast caught and imprisoned both Valerius and Vincent. They were later offered their freedom if they would toss Sacred Scripture into a fire.
Vincent, speaking on behalf of himself and his bishop, refused the offer in no uncertain terms, further angering his Diocletianite captors. Valerius was banished but Vincent was brutally tortured. Why such harsh treatment? Perhaps, because he was a well-known, well-respected teacher, as well as the public voice of Valerius, Vincent seemed an effective candidate for showing Christians the error of The Way.
The best laid plans of mice and the merciless…
As it turned out, the only error was in choosing to pick a fight with Vincent. He refused to renounce his faith and suffered brutality with a serenity so amazing that his jailer was moved to become a Christian.
Specifics vary, but it’s known that Vincent’s body was viciously torn and that he was left in a jail cell to die of his wounds. His body was then tossed into the tides and later reclaimed by followers who revered Vincent and his Christian witness. From then his popularity and influence grew and grew.
Go, Deacon Joe!
Next time Deacon Joe preaches the homily at Mass, remember that he is part of a brotherhood that reaches back to such brave men as St. Vincent of Saragossa. Catch up with him after Mass and thank him for answering God’s call to the diaconate. If you know someone who is studying for or discerning the diaconate, pray for him that he will clearly see God’s will for him. If he goes forward to ordination, celebrate with him. There are some wonderful gifts you can give a newly ordained deacon.
Who knows? Perhaps within the kind local man who serves as your deacon, there beats the heart of a Vincent who would stand strong and die rather than abandon Jesus under persecution.