Skip to comments.The Role of the Deacon in the Eastern Church
Posted on 05/16/2006 7:25:31 PM PDT by pravknight
B. David Kennedy Protodeacon, Eparchy of Toronto
The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council in the Decree on the Eastern Catholic Churches (Orientalium Ecclesiarum) mention in No.17 that "the holy council wishes the institution of the permanent diaconate to be restored where it has fallen into disuse, in order that the ancient discipline of the Sacrament of Orders may flourish once more in the Eastern Churches." Just as the diaconate in the Latin Rite prior to Vatican II had become little more than a transitional step to the presbyterate, so in the Eastern Catholic Churches a diaconate which could be conceived as a lifetime ministry was virtually non-existent.
This situation was brought about by the force of a number of factors. It is well know that those Churches which at one time had been autocephalous, had after entering a union with the Church of Rome, found themselves to be primarily in a position of submission. The overall effects have in someways been anything but ideal. This entire phenomenon which is commonly termed "uniatism" is based on the principal "to Latinize is to Catholicize".
Yet, it should be pointed out that for various reasons uniatism was often welcomed by the Eastern Catholic Churches. Union also had its benefits, both materially and spiritually. This problem has be raised because the decline of the diaconate and its subsequent revival in the Eastern Catholic Churches is directly related to it.
The clergy of the Orthodox and Non-Chalcedonian Churches often had a rather meager education in comparison with the Catholics. One of the advantages of union with Rome was a more sophisticated training for the prospective candidates for Holy Orders. However, within the frame-work of seminary preparation following the Council of Trent, there was little place for the diaconate except as a preliminary stage on the way to the presbyterate.
The theological mind set which focused almost exclusively on the priesthood as the only ministry within the Church was readily adopted by the Eastern Catholic Churches. This acceptance is confirmed by an almost total disappearance of the diaconate as a permanent ministry in these Churches after union with Rome. The diaconate seems to have lingered on only in some of the monasteries and cathedrals, and there chiefly as a liturgical role.
But even here, we can see another effect of scholastic theology on the diaconate in the Eastern Catholic Churches. It is a well know fact that the deacon has a rather active function in most of the Eastern liturgies, not only at the Divine Liturgy, i.e. the Mass, but also during the other sacraments and the liturgical hours. Since an active diaconate was allowed to lapse in the Eastern Catholic Churches, it was not uncommon for a presbyter to function as a deacon in order to enhance the liturgical action.
This practice not only pointed to a most serious ecclesiological crisis in the Church's understanding of herself but created a confusion with liturgical roles. The lex orandi derived from this pastoral practice leads to a lex credendi which permits no room for a diversity of gifts, all given by the same Spirit in order to build up the unity of the Church. Here we find a theology of orders hardly attuned to the Scriptures or the Fathers, while simultaneously based on the pious fiction that he who could do more could do less. This practice and its accompanying theology borrowed from the Latin Rite is clearly abusive.
Besides the phenomenon of uniatism in which a Western theology of orders was adopted wholesale, another determining factor leading to the decline of the diaconate in the Eastern Catholic Churches was an almost total disregard for the Church's mission of diakonia ( diakonia).
During the early centuries of Christianity in the East, the deacon was an active minister of charity. He was attentive to the needs of the poor, the sick, the prisoners, and the strangers.
After the peace of Constantine, the Church was granted the status of a legal person and this led to an abundance of legacies and charitable donations. As the Church grew richer with material goods she was able to extend her gifts to those who came to her doors, e.g. in sixth century Alexandria, the Church fed as many as 7,500 daily.
The deacon's role in this shifts from one of personal ministry to that of administration. He becomes an oeconomos (oikonomos ) and is the administrator of a deaconry or institute of charity. These deaconries consisted of lands and buildings set aside for purposes of philanthropy. In that they were attached to churches or monasteries, these deaconries took their titles from such chapels or churches. This is the origin of the titulus of the cardinal deacons of Rome.
The large influx of members into the Church from the fourth century onwards created a shift in the deacon's role in the ministry of charity. It brought the deacon more and more into the realm of administration. This coupled with his position of secretary to the bishop, along with a more developed liturgical ritual, gave birth to the office of archdeacon. Yet, all of this had the sorry effect of removing the deacons from an intimate and personal ministry of diakonia. The deacons in the Byzantine Empire eventually lost even their positions as administrators of ecclesiastical charities as the state organization developed into a welfare system.
At the present time in the Orthodox Church in Greece there are relatively few deacons and the most of them are young men who are studying theology and will later be ordained presbyters. The ministry of charity in Greece and throughout the Middle East is either under state control or the responsibility of the laity.
In Ukraine, Russia and other lands formerly under Communist rule charitable activity by the Church was prohibited by the state. Only recently have these Churches been able to engage in charitable acts again. Yet the Church and the deacons themselves must also bear some responsibility for the decline of the ministry of charity - too often they have been concerned with wealth and power giving little attention to the poor and hungry. They have neglected the distribution of alms and forgotten the joy of emptying the Church's treasury upon those in need.
The deacon was often involved in the administrative processes of the Church's life. The position of the archdeacon was not unlike that of the modern day vicar-general or protosyncellus. This role increased in prestige and power until the ninth century. At present deacons in the East no longer hold positions of juridical authority. Some of them may assist the bishop as secretaries and treasurers but they do not exercise juridical powers. Today the protodiaconate and the archdiaconate are honorary titles which bestow upon the recipients liturgical precedence.
While the administrative and charitable ministries declined, the liturgical role blossomed forth. The deacon in the Byzantine Rite has an active role in the Divine Liturgy, the Mysteries of Baptism, Chrismation, Crowning, Holy Orders, and the Anointing of the Sick. He also plays an important part in the Offices of Vespers, Matins, Great Compline, the Royal Hours, the Greater and Lesser Blessing of Waters, Funeral Services, Molebens and many of the occasional offices found in the Euchologion or Trebnyk.
The deacon is the regular minister of the censings. He chants the Gospel at the Divine Liturgy, and sings the Prokeimenon (a responsorial psalm) at Vespers and Matins. It falls to him to be the usual minister of the synapte or litany. These litanies bear a certain resemblance to the Latin Rite Prayer of the Faithful.
Throughout the services the deacon acts as master of ceremonies and calls the assembly to order with phrases such as "Wisdom" or "Let us be attentive." He exhorts the bishop or priest to begin the service and to the deacon falls the responsibility of asking the priest to bless the bread and wine making them the Body and Blood of Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. The assembly are invited to exchange the Kiss of Peace and are summoned to communion by the deacon.
At Pontifical Services - where the role of the deacon is most clearly revealed - a number of deacons usually serve. The current Archieratikon in the Ruthenian Recession calls for a protodeacon to carry the bread on the veiled diskos on his head and four more deacons carrying ripdia (liturgical fans), two above the diskos, and two above the chalice carried by the senior priest, at the Great Entrance or Transfer of the Gifts.
The deacon might preach the homily, although this is more usually delivered by the presiding bishop or priest.
It is of fundamental importance to realize that the function of the deacon in the Eastern liturgies is essentially and exclusively one of liturgical diakonia or assistance.
In the Byzantine Liturgy which is rich in symbolism, the deacon is the living image or icon of Christ the servant or diakonos. The deacon is also seen as an angelic servitor assisting at the heavenly liturgy which is manifested here on earth. Even when a priest is not present the deacon does not presume to take a presidential role. It is clearly the function of the bishop or priest to preside in the liturgy while the deacon ministers or assists both to the presiding minister and to the assembly as a whole.
Why then ordain deacons? It is well known that all the baptized share in the responsibility of the Church's ministry of diakonia. But just as the priest is an icon of Christ who presides, orders are conferred upon a man for the diaconate so that there might be a sacramental manifestation of the Church's mission of diakonia and of Christ the servant.
It is precisely because the deacon is powerless even in the sacramental jurisdiction that he can present the image of Christ who serves. This is an image which the presider cannot present without risking confusion in the symbolic aspect of the liturgy and confusion in his own liturgical function as president of the liturgical assembly - he cannot be both presider and servant simultaneously. The Holy Spirit fills the Church with a diversity of gifts for the building up of the Body of Christ. The liturgical life of the Church ought to reflect this diversity which is part of her essence.
When the Eastern Orthodox Churches entered into union with Rome, the diaconate had already begun to decline - in the orient from about the ninth century. This deterioration was hurried along by uniatism so that by the twentieth century the diaconate in the Eastern Catholic Churches had as in the Latin West become virtually a stepping stone to the presbyterate. It is only since the Second Vatican Council that the diaconate in the Eastern Rite Churches has been revived. And just as North America is a place of diaconal renewal for the Latin West, so it is for the Byzantine East.
The majority of Eastern Catholic deacons are in North America, about 200 at present. Numbers tend to fluctuate as some of these deacons are at times ordained presbyters, marriage not being an impediment for ordination to the priesthood. Many of these deacons have received their training in Roman Catholic permanent diaconate training programs, some have attended the programs offered by Eastern Rite Eparchies, while a few have studied at seminaries or faculties of theology. Due to the influence of these training programs there has been a revival of the ministry of diakonia among these deacons.
The revival of the diaconate that is taking place if it is to be more than a resucitation will need to meet the pastoral needs of the Eastern Churches but within the Apostolic Tradition.
The Eastern Catholic diaconate must also look to the paradigms of diakonia and diaconate in the Orthodox Churches lest more acute sins of disunity be committed against the Body of Christ. The Eastern Catholic Churches as well as the Orthodox can learn much from the diaconate in the West. But the West should also be mindful of the Eastern Churches and be willing to learn from them for the East has maintained a living diaconate with a historical continuity often under the severest of persecutions, viz. in the Orthodox Churches of Ukraine and Russia.
The Byzantine Rite has laid great emphasis on the ecclesial tradition which sees the protomartyr Stephen as the first deacon. The east has always maintained the close relationship of diakonia to leitourgia ( leitourgia). It has also stressed the inseparable bond between diakonia and martyria (marturia).
During the Rite of Ordination, the deacon is called to lay down his life in witness to the Gospel of Christ a did St. Stephen. The Byzantine Rite Churches, Catholic and Orthodox who have suffered such great persecution, especially in the 20th century for confessing Christ bear witness to Christ who came to serve, whose love was so great He laid down His life for the world and its salvation. Appendix A
Deacon: a secular or diocesan cleric who has received cheirotonia or ordination to the diaconate and who functions in the ministries of liturgy, word and charity as diakonos or minister to the bishop.
Hierodeacon: a monk who has received cheirotonia to the diaconate. He might be in any one of the three grades of the monastic life B rasophore, stravrophore, or megaschemos.
Protodeacon: the "first" or principal deacon. This rank within the diaconate is conferred on a non-monastic Byzantine-rite deacon. Protodeacons enjoy liturgical precedence among deacons, i.e. they are to stand at the head of the deacons and they have the responsibility to set "an example of good" among the deacons.
(For The Order of Making and Raising an Archdeacon or Protodeacon confer with the Archieratikon. Rome. 1974. 270-271. An English translation is to be found in the Euchologion. The Basilian Press. 1986. 410-411.
This prayer that can only be pronounced by a bishop is used for ordaining both archdeacons and protodeacons. The distinction between the title of archdeacon and protodeacon in current Byzantine practice where such a distinction occurs, lies in the following: archdeacons are attached to the monastic clergy and protodeacons are attached to the secular or diocesan clergy.)
The example of good to which protodeacons and archdeacons are called should be a ministerial example in the diaconal functions of liturgy, word and charity. The use of the following insignia may be granted to protodeacons: the double or extended orarion, the purple skoufia, and the purple kamilavka.
Archdeacon: the "chief" or principal deacon. This rank within the diaconate is conferred on a hierodeacon or monastic deacon. It should be noted that when there is a distinction between protodeacons and archdeacons as there is in the current Archieratikon for the Ruthenian/Ukrainian rite, this rank is only to be bestowed on monastic deacons.
The Instruction for Applying the Liturgical Prescriptions of the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches states, "Moreover, it is not appropriate to confer monastic titles, with the associated insignia and attire, to secular clergy. This applies even more so to married clergy" (No. 78).
Archdeacons enjoy liturgical precedence and are to set an example of good in their ministry. According to Byzantine usage, monks precede diocesan or secular clergy; thus archdeacons should precede protodeacons because they are monks. The use of the following insignia may also be granted to archdeacons: a double or extended orarion. Since archdeacons are monastics they are not granted the use of the purple skoufia or kamilavka.
The skoufia of the archdeacon is of black velvet, the kamilavka is of black velvet and the klobuk is of black stuff. Usually, when an archdeacon serves, he wears the kamilavka and not the klobuk. At one time the archdiaconate was an office in the Byzantine Churches but this has virtually ceased except for the office of the Great Archdeacon of Constantinople.
The title of archdeacon/protodeacon at present is little more than an honorific but it is still conferred by cheirothesia thus conferring upon the candidate a blessing and grace to fulfill the role.
Another good article, I often feel that the Vocation of Deacon in which a man takes on the role of "Christ the Servant" is better represented in the Eastern Rites....and I think many Latin Rite Deacons would agree.
FYI, if you are curious the famous Phil Lawlor's dad is the Deacon at the Melkite Cathedral of the Annunciation here in Boston having switched rites many years ago.