There is an account in Acts 6:1-6 of the choice of seven men, one of whom was Stephen, the first martyr. Pope Benedict said last January in a general audience that “Tradition sees in this group (of seven) the origins of the future ministry of deacons”. Noting that St Stephen was a witness to the Good News, the Pope underlined the intrinsic unity of the seven’s mission of evangelisation and their charitable activity.
“Whether or not the Seven were the first deacons, as Eusebius calls them, is debatable. The one word that Luke does not use of them is diakonos, the noun from which we get our word deacon. Proclaiming the word, leading communities, representing communities and taking messages between communities and other forms of ministry are associated with those who are called diakonos in the New Testament as well as the clear delegation and imposition of a mandate for such ministry by the leaders of the community through the laying on of hands. Therefore it is reasonable to infer that the Seven may have been referred to as deacons in the early Church and that Eusebius is reflecting that understanding.”
– Anthony Gooley, art. “Deacons and the Servant Myth” The Pastoral Review November 2006.
More often, we read that the deacon is dedicated to charitable service (recently in Pope Benedict’s Encyclical Letter on the Love of God, para. 21). This interpretation has links to the very successful historical effort of non-Catholic churches in northern Europe to have a diaconate devoted to a ministry of charity. Many of these deacons are trained first as social workers. Cardinal Walter Kasper expressed this tradition in Thomistic categories of servant diakonia in Leadership in the Church New York: Crossroad, 2003, pages 13-44.
Research shows that, during the period of the early Church, deacons were not assistants to the priests who were the leaders of the village churches. Rather, they participated in the bishop’s ministry of evangelisation and service.
Luke and Paul wanted a word that expressed holiness in the midst of life because of the Christian conviction that they were chosen by God, saints, blessed. The diakonos is the bishop’s messenger, ‘executive’ (Ignatius of Antioch) who, in his preaching and other activities, radiates further the blessedness within the community from which he is sent.
- cf. John Collins Deacons and the Church pages 129-132, 135-137.
Catholic teaching since the Second Vatican Council has insisted on a balanced diaconal ministry of preaching, ministry in the liturgy, and charity. It is often said that the ministry of service and charity leads to the liturgical ministry of a deacon.
“By 1998 the Congregations for Clergy and for Education issued jointly the Basic Norms for the Formation of Permanent Deacons and the Directory for the Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons. In these two documents we find an outline of the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church on diaconate. What we find in the documents is an interweaving of two traditions, an early tradition which frames diaconate within the broader understanding of the apostolic ministry of the Gospel, and a narrower tradition with a focus on diakonia as a synonym for service.”
– Gooley, art. cit.
“The almost total disappearance of the permanent diaconate from the Church of the West for more than a millennium has certainly made it more difficult to understand the profound reality of this ministry. However, it cannot be said for that reason that the theology of the diaconate has no authoritative points of reference, completely at the mercy of theological opinion.’(Basic Norms §3) The norms list some of these reference points as an ecclesiology of koinonia/communion, the sacrament of ordination, the gifts of the Spirit received at ordination, the rite of ordination, the theology of sacraments of character and the powers conferred.”