I have been asked this question so often over the last few years and every time I stop and think. I have no standard answer, different things and different people pop into my head and every time I try and answer "What is a deacon?" I end up giving a completely different answer each time. I think the reason for this is that every man who steps forward and asks to be considered for the diaconate is different. They have different skills and different gifts. But there is one thing I have seen in every deacon I have met, it's a desire to serve. So in it's simplist terms, a deacon is a man who desires to serve.
The word Deacon comes from the Greek word Diakonia which means Service. So the name and actions are the same. But all Christians are called to serve, it is part of who we are. But deacons are ordained to serve, they draw strength from the laying on of hands by the Bishop. They have a position in the hierarchy of the church. My Parish Priest, the lovely Fr. Frank, describes himself as a 28 and deacons as a 29. This confusing statement is based on the Vatican II document Lumen Gentium which in paragraph 28 describes Priests and in Paragraph 29 describes Deacons. I like the way that priests and deacons only get one paragraph each and the laity get the next 10 (30 through 39), it just shows how important that whole church is not just the ordained.
The full text of Lumen Gentium can be found on the Vatican web site here: Lumen Gentium
But to save you clicking way from here to read it here is the paragraph about deacons.
- At a lower level of the hierarchy are deacons, upon whom hands are imposed "not unto the priesthood, but unto a ministry of service." For strengthened by sacramental grace, in communion with the bishop and his group of priests they serve in the diaconate of the liturgy, of the word, and of charity to the people of God. It is the duty of the deacon, according as it shall have been assigned to him by competent authority, to administer baptism solemnly, to be custodian and dispenser of the Eucharist, to assist at and bless marriages in the name of the Church, to bring Viaticum to the dying, to read the Sacred Scripture to the faithful, to instruct and exhort the people, to preside over the worship and prayer of the faithful, to administer sacramentals, to officiate at funeral and burial services. Dedicated to duties of charity and of administration, let deacons be mindful of the admonition of Blessed Polycarp: "Be merciful, diligent, walking according to the truth of the Lord, who became the servant of all."
So a deacon is called to Serve, in the service of the Word, in the Service of the Liturgy and in Service of Charity. For me it was charity that first called me to the diaconate. I have been going out on a Soup Run once a month for nearly 10 years now. The service to the homeless in Bristol taught me a great deal and really helped build my faith. My diaconal formation over the last seven years has developed first a knowledge and now a love of the liturgy, and I am proud to serve on the alter. My calling to the Word I guess started as my journey in faith started at the St. Augustine's RCIA group. I now help deliver the course and the weeks where I lead are wonderful. You learn so much about scripture when trying to teach it to others.
I hope this has given you a small clue as to what a deacon is. If you want to know more your might like to read the book of Acts in the new testament where the role of deacon started. Or you could speak to a deacon about how they see their ministry.