The Permanent Diaconate

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St Anselm’s Parish now has three permanent deacons: Michael Caruchan, Simon English and Tom McCarthy.

The Permanent Diaconate was restored by the Second Vatican Council in 1965.  This ministry has existed in the Church since earliest times but it had become a transitional sacrament on the way to ordination from about 500 AD. In a sense it became an invisible sacrament.  Vatican II therefore did not restore the diaconate but it restored the permanent nature of the diaconate.

A deacon is called to be a sacramental sign of Christ the Servant. The word deacon or DIAKONIA actually means “servant.” At the Last Supper when Jesus washed the feet of the apostles, he was demonstrating what it means to be a deacon, a servant. Jesus’ whole life was diaconal “to the point of death –even death on the cross” (Phil 2:8).

In chapter 6 of The Acts of the Apostles we read how the early Church was challenged to respond fairly to the material needs of the growing community of believers. The Apostles did not want to be distracted from preaching the Gospel so they told people to select seven men “acknowledged to be deeply spiritual and prudent”. They choose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, together with Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus of Antioch, a convert to Judaism. The seven candidates were presented to the apostles, who “prayed over them and then imposed hands on them”. The ministry of these men was not confined to serving people’s material needs. Stephen was stoned to death for his preaching of the Good News of Jesus Christ, not for his acts of charity.

As St. Ignatius of Antioch put it around 100 A.D., the deacon’s task was nothing less than to continue “the ministry of Jesus Christ”.  The deacon in the early Church was the local bishops’ “right hand man”. Apart from performing administrative tasks and advising the bishop, the deacon assisted in celebrating liturgy; he catechised, and engaged in pastoral work.   Today, deacons are still the bishop’s men but in practice they serve the parish community / deanery they belong to and are obedient to the parish priest as well as the bishop.

For a short time Bishop Cyprian of Carthage allowed deacons to hear confessions in extreme circumstances where people who had lapsed from the faith were in danger of dying and there was no presbyter or bishop available. This of course would not have been sacramental in the way we understand the sacrament of reconciliation today.

There is some evidence to suggest that women were also deacons. St. Paul describes Phoebe as a “deaconess” (Romans 16:1). Some say Phoebe and other women were not ordained as they did not receive the laying on of hands and as such were deacons in the broader understanding of the term.

We are all called to diakonia and we should not see the ordination of deacons as setting people above or apart from their fellow parishioners. In its true sense, the deacon will mainly be the one serving on the margins, never the centre of attention. To be anything else would be a contradiction making the deacon dysfunctional.

Several saints in the early Church were deacons, some of whom later became bishops, like St. Athanasius.  Up until 500-600 A.D., deacons were instrumental in helping the Church spread across Europe.  For a variety of reasons, including the rapid development of the Church, the permanent diaconate as a separate ministry started to disappear. Many deacons were ordained to the priesthood due to the growth of the Church. As celibacy was not yet required by Canon Law, being married was not an obstacle. By the middle ages monasteries and convents were providing charity originally associated with the service of deacons.  Because of this, the liturgical role of the deacon received greater emphasis over works of charity. Eventually, the diaconate became a transitional step to priesthood.   There were some very notable exceptions of course such as St Francis who was never ordained priest and has been an inspiration for Christians and non-Christians for hundreds of years.

The restoration of the permanent diaconate.

It would be easy to think that the restoration of the permanent diaconate is a desperate response to the shortage of vocations in the western world. However, even as early as the 16th century, the Council of Trent said that the permanent Diaconate, as it existed in the early Church, should be restored. This never happened due to the more pressing concerns of the Counter Reformation.

Although the restoration had a number of influences, some even dating back to 1840, an important influence was the experience of priests who were interned at a concentration camp in Dachau, Germany, during the Second World War.   Their experience of suffering provided the modern impetus for the restoration. In 1957, Pope Pius XII spoke favourably about restoring the permanent diaconate, but concluded that ‘the time is not yet ripe’. It was proposed by the Second Vatican Council in 1964. At that time, there was no shortage of priests or religious. In fact, the restoration was due to a shortage of deacons, not of priests. There was a rediscovery   that the functions of the deacon are “supremely necessary” for the life of the church. The restoration would return to the Church the full complement of ordained ministries handed down from the Apostles. It is said the new Deacons would confirm and highlight the work of the Holy Spirit.   In June 1967 Pope Paul VI implemented this decree of the Council when he published the Apostolic letter Diaconatus Ordinem, in which he re-established the permanent diaconate in the Latin Church. This should be seen as part of the overall revival which characterised Vatican II.

A number of other ministries including the ministry of lectors (readers); acolytes (ministers of Holy Communion), and catechists which had been common in the early Church were also restored at the Council.    We have had some of these for many years already, but until recently the diaconate was something that was still mainly seen as a step towards ordination to priesthood.   The current shortage of priests may of course be an impetus to work towards the permanent diaconate being made a part of the structure of the Church as it was at the beginning. It will never however be a substitute for priests. Deacons receive the Sacrament of Holy Orders, just as priests do, but they are ordained ‘not unto the priesthood, but unto the ministry.” As of 2010 the number of deacons in England and Wales totalled 736 and there are 20,000 deacons world-wide.

Three levels of holy orders in the Catholic Church

There are three levels of holy orders in the Catholic Church: deacon, priest and bishop.  The diaconate is the first level; it functions as the service ministry of Christ.  In other words, deacons are servants, called to embody the work of Christ in service of the poor, the Word and the altar. Deacons can baptize, witness marriages, bring the viaticum to the dying, and preside at funerals.  They proclaim the gospel and may serve as the homilist at Mass.

In a parish like St Anselm’s, which is blessed with many people serving as ushers, cleaners, sacristans, lectors, acolytes, catechists, administrators, liturgists, altar servers, etc., one might ask where is the need for a deacon? Some might be inclined to see a deacon as a “mini priest” or a fancy altar server or a step up from a Benemerenti. The reality is there is nothing a deacon does which cannot be done by any baptised confirmed Catholic.   The question as to what a deacon does misses the point, namely that a deacon is about being, not just about doing. He is an ordained member of the clergy.  Once ordained, a deacon is a deacon all the time and forever. He is in a sense a bridge between the congregation and the priest.   He is very much part of the community and can identify closely with the challenge of having a spiritual life in a secular world of employment or business.

The diaconate is open to married men with families. A married man who is ordained a deacon is expected to honour his first commitment in the sacrament of marriage. A married deacon’s primary responsibility remains his commitment to his first vocation of marriage and his family.  The deacon’s wife has a central supportive role during formation and after ordination. In a real way the relationship of a husband and wife is a real expression of diakonia. The man has already been a deacon to his wife, and she to him.

Diaconate Formation:

Students for formation in the Permanent Diaconate undergo a four-year programme. As part of the selection process, they attend a selection day after which they undergo a psychological and spiritual assessment at St Luke’s Institute in Manchester.   The first year is a year of discernment referred to as the “propaedeutic” period which literally means to prepare someone for something. At the end of the propaedeutic year, they are admitted to candidacy for Holy Orders. During the following three years, students undertake a foundational degree in pastoral ministry at St John’s Seminary, Wonersh.   To support their spiritual and academic development, students are assigned a mentor and a spiritual director.   Although not required by Canon Law until they are ordained, students commit to praying Morning and Evening prayer of the Church. They also endeavour to attend Mass daily. Important steps along the journey to the Permanent Diaconate, include the conferring of minor orders of Lector and Acolyte.   The former is the ordinary Minster of the Word and the latter assists at Mass by purifying the sacred vessels.


Vatican II said that Jesus’ mission was threefold or the “tria munera” (three tasks) of

(LG2) All Christians have a part to play in the “tria munera” of Christ’s threefold mission Christ. The Deacon is ordained to this threefold Ministry of

In the rite of ordination, deacons receive the imposition of hands not unto the Priesthood, but unto a ministry of service.”

During ordination, the candidate for diaconal ordination swears respect and obedience to the Bishop and his successors. The Bishop lays his hands on the head of the candidate prayingLord, send forth upon him the Holy Spirit, that he may be strengthened by the gift of your sevenfold grace to carry out faithfully the work of the ministry”.

After this the Bishop prays the prayer of consecration. The newly ordained deacon is then vested with a stole and a dalmatic.  The Bishop then presents the newly ordained Deacon with a Book of the Gospels saying:

Receive the Gospel of Christ, whose herald you now are.

Believe what you read, teach what you believe,

and practise what you teach.”

The Role of the Deacon at Mass:

The deacon is the waiter at God’s Table, not the host. He proclaims God’s Word, not his own. He is the unobtrusive servant enabling the liturgy to unfold smoothly to achieve God’s purposes.

His presence should be drawing attention to Christ not to himself. The definition of `diakonia’ is kenotic self-giving and service at both the table of sacrifice and the table of charity. If the deacon serves at the altar, he must serve too in charity among the people of God. He must be the voice of God’s people as they articulate their needs before him.

The deacon needs to be ever mindful that there is an inherent unity between the three dimensions of apostolic ministry (Word, Liturgy, Charity) and the Eucharist is at the core of his being.   As Ministers of Christ, deacons must fully exercise their ministry, in preaching, in liturgy, and in charity.                      

Liturgical Role of the Deacon

The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) presumes that when a deacon is present at Mass, he will function liturgically wearing sacred vestments. The following is a summary of the deacon’s role at Mass.

Deacon Tom McCarthy: My Diaconal Journey

Deacon Tom McCarthy

Deacon Tom McCarthy


Some people might think that those who are deacons are “Holy Joes” but nothing could be further from the truth as far as I am concerned.

In 2009, I was sitting at the back of the church one Sunday evening after Holy Hour when Fr. Will, the Parish Priest, approached me and asked me in a whisper if I had ever considered the Permanent Diaconate. To which I replied I did not feel worthy.   (This was not from any false sense of humility.   Although born a Catholic and spent four years studying for the priesthood, I had also experienced years of apathy as a lapsed Catholic. It was Fr. Will who reminded me in 2000 that the Catholic Church is my home and encouraged me to return. What he said resonated deeply within me. Sitting in the church on the day in question, I was still finding my way home). Fr. Will told me none of us are worthy enough.   I told him I would consider it over the next few days and discuss it with my wife, Bebie. Wives must give their husbands written permission to study for the diaconate and later to be ordained.  I was not sure if God was calling me but Fr Will assured me that he was calling me on behalf of the Church.   I knew that I would enjoy studying theology even if I was unsure.   In 2010, my wife and I attended a day long selection process involving interviews by several people. We were then interviewed by Archbishop Peter Smith. Prior to beginning a propaedeutic year of discernment at Maryvale Institute in Birmingham, there was a few days of spiritual, psychological and psychosocial assessments at St Luke’s Centre in Manchester.   However, it was not until the call to candidacy at the Cathedral that I began to realise fully what was happening. During the propaedeutic year I was assured that if the Holy Spirit was behind the call, it would lead to ordination and if the Holy Spirit was not behind the call it would not, so why worry.

In 2012, I began a three-year formation programme at St John’s Seminary, Wonersh studying Pastoral Theology at Foundation Degree level followed by an MA in Theology (ongoing).   Classes were usually one Saturday a month plus two residential weekends.   In between there were set readings and essays and other assignments.   This was combined with earning a living and family responsibilities as well as being involved with catechesis in the parish. Two important steps along the way included the induction to the minor orders of Lector and Acolyte which all students for the diaconate and priesthood receive. Annual weekend retreats at Worth Abbey and a week-long pre-ordination retreat at Douai Abbey are an important part of formation.

To support me in formation I was assigned a spiritual director and a mentor. Students are encouraged to pray Morning and Evening Prayer of the Divine Office as it is a requirement once ordained.   They are also expected to attend Mass daily. Students are also encouraged to see Our Lady as a friend and seek her help constantly.   For me the most important part of formation was deepening a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and recognising my need for him in my unworthiness and brokenness. Without prayer and daily Mass this would be impossible.

At the beginning of the third year of study, I thought my journey had come to an end when I underwent a heart operation.   However, if I was ambivalent about being called prior to this, it suddenly became very clear and important to me. Most important was being able to receive the Eucharist every morning while in hospital. I also discovered how kind people at St Anselm’s are. Mass was said for my recovery and I knew people were praying for me and my family. Emails and cards encouraging me to hang in there were as important as the great medical care I received.   We even had one fellow parishioner offer to pay our mortgage as I was unable to work for about three months. Being self-employed, benefits and sick pay was not an option.

I did recover and although I had missed a whole module of study, the formation team kindly allowed me to resume my studies and were flexible about deadlines for assignments.

And so on July 4th 2015 along with three other men I was ordained by Archbishop Peter at St George’s Cathedral, Southwark. In the weeks leading up to ordination I was apprehensive about the ordination ceremony and the enormity of what was happening. On the day itself I was surprised by how calm I felt but during the ordination I was overcome with emotion and tears of joy flowed. As I lay prostrate on the floor the first reading from Jeremiah 1 resounded in my ears:

“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you;

Before you came to birth I consecrated you.”

After the Archbishop ordained me by laying his hands on my head, he placed the Book of the Gospels in my hand and said:

“Receive the Gospel of Christ,

Whose herald you now are.

Believe what you read,

teach what you believe

and practise what you teach.”

 This was not the end of the diaconal journey but rather the beginning.   Deacons receive the Sacrament of Holy Orders, just as priests do, but we are ordained ‘not unto the priesthood, but unto the ministry.” As ordained members of the clergy, we participate in the three munera (duties) of the ordained: Munus docendi – to proclaim the Scriptures and instruct the people. Hence the presentation of the Book of the Gospels during ordination. Munus sanctificandi – to be a man of prayer, to solemnly administer baptism, to be responsible for the custody and distribution of the Eucharist, assist in blessing marriages, preside at the rites of funeral and burial and the administer sacramentals and, Munus regendi – dedication to works of charity. This is the ministry most characteristic of the deacon.

The threefold office of word, sacrament, and charity is associated in its fullness with the bishop. There is an “inherent unity” between the three functions.   As a deacon I am very conscious that I am a sacramental sign of Christ the servant and hope to serve the community in humility as a servant.




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