Where do Deacons come from?

From Apostolic times the Church has held in great veneration the sacred order of deacons. The Acts of the Apostles devotes three chapters to the seven men who were ordained by the apostles for a unique ministry of service. (chapters 6 to 8). Pope Benedict has said that "Tradition sees in this group the origins of the future ministry of deacons." St Paul sent greetings to the deacons, together with the bishops, and gave instructions as to the virtues to be sought and cultivated in them (Phil 1:1; 1 Tim 3:8-13).


Church writings from the earliest centuries describe a hierarchical and ministerial structure, which included the Diaconate. St Ignatius of Antioch considered as unthinkable a Church without bishop, priest and deacon. He described the ministry of deacons as nothing other than "the ministry of Jesus Christ".


For several centuries the deacons ministered in close cooperation with the bishops of the Church, assisting at the Eucharist, preaching the Gospel and exercising a ministry of charity. The order of deacons have numbered amongst their members great saints such as Stephen the Proto-martyr, Philip the Deacon, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, Nicolaus, Lawrence of Rome, Vincent of Zaragossa, Romanus the Melodist, Ephrem of Syria and Francis of Assisi. These 'right hand men' of the bishops had considerable administrative responsibility and their importance is highlighted by the fact that most popes in the fifth, sixth and seventh centuries were chosen from the deacons rather than the priests or bishops.


However the permanent diaconate gradually declined in the Latin Church during the first millennium; thereafter in the West the diaconate became a transitional order for future priests. The permanent diaconate always survived, however, in the Eastern Catholic Churches. The Council of Trent in 1563 directed its restoration in the West – a prescription that was not carried into effect until the twentieth century.


The horrors of World War II led many church leaders to discuss how the Church needed to be renewed to be a more effective witness of Christ to the modern world.  Following the horrific experiences of some in the Dachau Concentration camp and the insights gained and written about later, it was realised that the Church herself was a servant and that the Church needed to respond to her own diaconal nature.  A sacramental diaconate, lived as a permanent state of ordained ministry, could help restore that sense of service throughout the Church.  Deacons would have a mission from their bishop to be leaders in service to the Church and the community: they would have a responsibility to enflame and inspire the rest of the members of the Church to serve others as well.


At the Second World Congress of the Apostolate of the Laity in Rome (5 October 1957) Pope Pius XII gave an address in which he acknowledged the growing interest in the possibility of a renewed diaconate.  He encouraged bishops and theologians to continue their research into the "permanent" diaconate.  Prior to the Second Vatican Council, hundreds of bishops from around the world requested that the revived diaconate be a topic of discussion during the Council.


It was left to the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) to renew this ancient order. In Lumen Gentium (18-29) the Council elaborated upon the theology and functions of the three sacred orders of bishop, priest and deacon and directed the restoration of the permanent diaconate in the West.


This decision on the part of the Fathers of the Council was then implemented by Pope Paul VI in 1967, with the document Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem . Following the new provision by Pope Paul, many bishops' conferences and individual dioceses embraced this newly restored ministry. There are now over 36,000 permanent deacons worldwide including around 100 in Australia.  Today the diaconate exists in two forms - seminarians who are preparing for eventual ordination as priests are still first ordained deacons and permanent deacons who remain in the sacred order of deacons.


In the 1990s the Archdiocese of Sydney first began a program for the permanent diaconate. Following a process of discernment and formation, Rev Paul Naggar was ordained in August 1997; he is presently appointed to Liverpool parish. In July 2000 four more men were ordained permanent deacons: Rev Louis Azzopardi (Dulwich Hill), Rev Elliott Casalengo (Enmore), Rev Angel Portas (Spanish chaplaincy) and Rev Frank Zacka (Beverly Hills). No more aspirants were admitted to formation or ordination for the permanent diaconate in Sydney after that time.


After consultation with the bishops, priests and deacons of the Archdiocese, the Archbishop of Sydney, George Cardinal Pell, announced in 2007 his intention to re-open a programme for the selection, formation and deployment of permanent deacons in the Archdiocese. In the Archdiocesan Pastoral Plan 2008-11 Starting Afresh with Christ  provision was made for the establishment of an Office and program for the Permanent Diaconate.