A QUIZ ABOUT DEACONS
by Kristen West McGuire
How much do you know about the permanent diaconate? Here's a
special challenge for you: Take the following quiz about
deacons and their role. The answers just might surprise you!
TRUE OR FALSE:
1. Deacons are ordained clergy.
2. There have always been permanent deacons in the Roman
3. A married deacon is expected to place the Church as a
priority above his wife and family.
4. The wife of a deacon is called a deaconess.
5. A single or widowed deacon is expected to remain celibate
the rest of his life.
6. The deacon works for the bishop of the diocese he serves,
not the priest of the local parish.
7. Deacons serve the Catholic Church primarily through the
liturgy of the Mass.
8. Lay ministries are not needed in parishes with a deacon.
9. Deacons do not have the same formation as priests.
10. There are more deacons in the United States than in all
other countries combined.
* * *
Here are the answers to the quiz:
1. TRUE. There are three levels of holy orders in the Catholic
Church. 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
justice, the Word and the altar. There are as many ways of
serving as there are deacons. All 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. Like John the Baptist, they lead a prophetic
life of service for the benefit of the Church.
The priesthood is the second level of holy orders. A priest is
ordained a deacon prior to being ordained a priest. Priests
stand in the place of Christ himself as they celebrate the
sacraments of Eucharist, Reconciliation, and Anointing of the
Sick. They carry a spiritual responsibility for the community
of faith they serve. Through the sacraments and ministries of
the Church, priests manifest the presence of Christ in the world.
Bishops are ordained to the fullness of holy orders. They
fully convey the leadership of Christ as Prophet, Priest and
King. They shepherd the churches entrusted to their care (with
the help of priests and deacons), and safeguard the gospel that
has been passed down to us from the Apostles themselves. They
lead their dioceses in communion with the Pope and all the other
bishops of the world.
2. FALSE. To be fair, this is a trick question! There have
always been deacons in the Church. In Acts of the Apostles, the
apostles assign the service ministries of the Church to seven
deacons. Several saints in the early Church were deacons, some
of whom later became bishops, like St. Athanasius. In general,
up until 500-600 A.D., their duties were similar to those of
today's deacons. They were especially instrumental in helping
the Church spread across Europe.
The permanent diaconate gradually disappeared during the Middle
Ages. Monasteries and convents were providing charity
originally associated with the service of deacons. The
liturgical role of the deacon received greater emphasis over
works of charity. Gradually, the diaconate became a
transitional step to priesthood.
Vatican II restored the office of the permanent diaconate.
There were three main reasons for this action. The restoration
would return to the Church the full complement of ordained
ministries handed down from the Apostles. The new deacons would
confirm and highlight the work of the Holy Spirit already
present in the Church. Finally, deacons would bring sacramental
service to areas where priests are scarce.
3. FALSE. A married man who is ordained a deacon in the
Catholic Church is expected to honor his first commitment in the
sacrament of marriage, with the Church's blessing. The Church
will not ordain the man unless his wife gives her consent in
writing. A married deacon often must juggle a secular job, his
family responsibilities and his service as deacon. This is not
a vocation for the faint of heart!
The relationship between marriage and holy orders is an
interesting one. In Eph 5:22-32, the marriage between a man and
a woman is compared to the marriage between Christ and his
Church. The passage, in effect, says that each one must serve
the other in love. Christ came to serve rather than be served.
The man has already been a deacon (Greek diakonia means "to
serve") to his wife, and she to him. Thus, his ordination to
the diaconate is an affirmation of the Christian service
evidenced in his marriage.
The unity of the deacon and his wife is a sign to the entire
parish of the unity of Christ with his Church. Often, the
deacon's wife serves the parish or local community in a concrete
way herself. After ordination, the deacon and his wife may work
together in various ways to build up the Kingdom of God. The
beauty of the diaconate is that the question of exercising
"power" is replaced with the solid emphasis upon service. Those
who would see the wife of a deacon as "used" and not appreciated
are missing the point. Christ humbled himself to union with us.
In a very real way, the deacon and his wife both embody this
4. FALSE. (But it was true at one time.) The wife of a deacon
today is not called a deaconess. She should be referred to as
"Mrs. Jones", or "Louise", if you are on familiar terms. She
remains a lay member of the parish. Some deacons' wives lament
that people treated them differently after their husbands were
ordained. This need not be so.
In the early church, the wife of a deacon was referred to as a
deaconess. (Deaconesses, single or married, were responsible
for preserving modesty during female baptisms.) However, married
deacons (and married priests in the eastern rites) were expected
to practice celibacy. Canon 13 of the Council of Tours (567 AD)
"If a presbyter be found with his presbytera or a deacon with
his deaconess, or a subdeacon with his subdeaconess, he must be
considered excommunicated for a full year and deposed from every
clerical office, and know that he is considered among the
5. TRUE. Single men ordained to the diaconate, whether
preparing for the priesthood or not, must take a vow of
celibacy. They are not allowed to marry. Deacons who are
widowed must also observe the norm of celibacy. However, the
widow of a deacon may marry with the Church's blessings.
The reason for this is simple. Those ordained to the service
of Christ and His Church are called to consecrate themselves to
this work with an undivided heart. The sacrament of matrimony
and the sacrament of holy orders must not be in competition. A
married man is ordained a deacon with his wife's consent. The
wife usually participates in the formation and discernment
process. This is meant to safeguard against possible friction
The virtue of chastity is expected in both married and
unmarried deacons. Chastity refers to pure, self-giving love
between a man and his spouse. This pure love brings forth
physical and spiritual fruit. Married deacons usually have
children, the physical fruit of chastity. Bishops, priests and
single deacons are celibate in order to devote their
fruitfulness to the Kingdom of God. Their spouse is the Church.
The Catechism puts it nicely: "accepted with a joyous heart,
celibacy radiantly proclaims the reign of God." (1579)
6. TRUE. Only the bishop is allowed to ordain a priest or a
deacon. Thus, the deacon has a direct relationship to the
bishop. It is the responsibility of the bishop to ensure that
deacons are placed in parishes and ministries where their
talents and special charisms will bear fruit. In the economy of
sacramental order, bishops and priests were first deacons.
Their knowledge of the needs of the diocese are crucial to the
success of the diaconate.
Placement of deacons should reflect the needs of the faith
At the same time, deacons who are placed within a local parish
will obviously want to work harmoniously with the pastor and the
bishop. Priests, and bishops, do not stop being deacons when
they are ordained to the next level of holy orders. They still
serve. A deacon is not a mini-priest, nor a glorified
altar-boy. By serving the servant, the bishops, priests and
deacons will ground their relationship within the humble love of
7. FALSE. It may be that you only see the deacon serving the
Church on Sunday during the Mass. Most deacons serve the Church
throughout the week in a variety of challenging and wonderful
ways. Many deacons are involved in the pastoral care of the ill
and dying. Other deacons are spreading the good news of Jesus
concretely in soup kitchens, homeless shelters and other social
service agencies. Still others reach out to addicts and
convicts in prisons and mental health clinics.
Parish-based deacons help to encourage lay ministry within the
parish, and actively promote service to the world. Indeed, a
deacon is expected to help a parish encounter and address the
needs of the local community. In many dioceses, priests who
request a deacon to be appointed to their parish are on a
waiting list. We can only expect this trend to continue, with
the shortage of priests growing yearly.
8. FALSE. The main function of the deacon is to imitate Christ
as a sign and sacrament of service. Parishes, and deacons, are
called to be Christ's hands, feet and mouth in the world. Most
people will acknowledge that often our parishes fall far short
of this goal. The focus of the deacon is to serve in such a way
that encourages each and every Christian to imitate Christ.
Lectors, lay eucharistic ministers, acolytes, and other lay
persons need not feel threatened by the presence of a deacon.
The deacon is not a lay person, he is a member of the clergy.
His primary focus is to highlight needs that are not being met
within the life of the community. Strong lay participation in a
parish may negate the need for a deacon. (And this would
delight the deacon, you can be sure!) The exception to this may
be parishes with no priest. There have been deacons assigned to
such parishes in recent years.
9. TRUE. The formation programs are separate. Deacons undergo
a formation that takes approximately three - five years;
formation for a priest is generally a year or two longer.
Deacons and priests learn many of the same things, such as the
study of the bible, church history, interpersonal dynamics,
liturgics, and theology. However, deacons and priests are
preparing for distinctly different forms of service. Also, the
deacon must learn to balance the demands of family, secular job
The sacrament of holy orders is irrevocable. It is extremely
important that the discernment of a call be confirmed prior to
ordination. In most dioceses, the number of deacon candidates
accepted for ordination is a small percentage of those who apply
for admission to the program.
10. TRUE. There are over 11,000 deacons in the United States,
and about 20,000 deacons world-wide. When the permanent
diaconate was restored, it was expected to grow fastest in third
world countries. However, the most notable growth has been in
the United States and Germany.
There are several reasons for this growth. The Church in
America is blessed with excellent educational and financial
resources. The enthusiastic reception of Vatican II reforms in
the United States gave added impetus to the proliferation of
vocations to the diaconate. The spiritual need of the Church in
America has never been greater. I like to think that God has
raised up deacons in America to remind us that the power of the
Holy Spirit is stronger than the forces of evil in our midst.
* * *
How did you do? Here's the grading scale:
10 out of 10 correct: Wow! You must be a deacon or the wife of
At least 8 correct: Very good. Your knowledge of the diaconate
needs to be shared with friends and family!
At least 5 correct: Not bad-- some of the questions were
tricks, anyway! You might have learned a thing or two from this
Less than 4 correct: Maybe those trick questions were too
unfair! In any case, you might be interested in the following
books: The Deacon in the Church, by Lynn Swanson (Alba House
(800) 343-ALBA); Permanent Deacons: Who They Are and What They
Do by Henry Libersat (booklet from Liguori Publications
available in most Catholic bookstores); Permanent Deacons:
Guidelines on their Formation and Ministry (Publication 974-2,
USCC, (800) 235-8722.)
Next week, the "essay portion" of this test will cover
potential changes within the diaconate.
Taken from the May 14, 1995 issue of "Catholic Twin Circle." For
subscriptions contact: Catholic Twin Circle, P.O. Box 260380,
Encino, CA 91426-0380, (800) 421-3230.