John Hunwicke analyses a modern Roman view of the diaconate


We saw last month how the pre-conciliar Pontifical preserves the idea, found in the first-century Roman text known as I Clement, that the diaconate is a primarily cultic institution, the purpose of which is to serve the High Priest – the Bishop – in the Eucharistic celebration, distributing the Sacrament and proclaiming the Gospel; that it is not seen in terms of lowly service to the needy. In the earliest formulæ, elements taken from Acts 6 (such as ‘serving at tables’ and the example of St Stephen) are not even mentioned. In the Middle Ages, occasional references to St Stephen gradually make their way into the rites, but without any great suggestion that deacons should follow his particular example of philanthropic endeavour towards the needy.1

Recent Protestant responses to the conclusions established by John N. Collins2 tend towards a disgruntled acceptance of his philological conclusions accompanied by a faintly ashamed assertion of a grim determination to ignore it in practice, on the grounds that ‘we’ have invested too much in the old mistake to be able to drop it now! So much, then, for all that Reformation waffle about the supremacy of sola Scriptura as the judge of merely human traditions in the Church.

Naturally, the post-Vatican II reformers – deeply infected by liberal Protestant notions of diakonia-as-service and of the Servant Church – found the rites they inherited profoundly unsatisfactory. When they got their hands on the rite for the consecration of a Bishop, they robbed it entirely of its ancient Roman consecratory prayer with its Clementine, first century, doctrine of the Bishop. Happily, the rite of diaconal ordination fared a little better and was fortunate enough not to be deprived of its ancient consecratory prayer. But the text of this venerable formula was badly corrupted by the interpolation of phraseology expressing the novel Protestant dogma.

After the diaconal prayer has referred to the Levitical ministry at the Tabernacle, an entire paragraph was added in the post-Conciliar period, based on Acts 6 and ending – inevitably – with a reference to serving at tables. After the words which, according to Pius XII, are the ‘form’ of the sacrament, phrases were added about ‘love that is sincere … concern for the sick and the poor’. And, with equal inevitability, the prayer is made to end ‘May they in this life imitate your Son, who came not to be served but to serve’.3 The Collect as rendered by ICEL refers to ‘serving their brothers and sisters’ and ‘concern for others’. The super oblata, meanwhile, reminds us of the Lord’s washing of the disciples’ feet.

The diaconate did not feature particularly largely in the decrees of Vatican II. Sacrosanctum Concilium says that deacons can preside at Services of the Word, to which I can think of no objection. Ad Gentes advises that those unordained laymen who are de facto fulfilling diaconal roles should be ordained deacons so that they can be altari arctius coniungi – bound more closely to the altar – which I think implies rather nicely the essentially cultic nature of the diaconate. Lumen Gentium gives no suggestion that deacons are to be philanthropically inclined; there is just the tiniest hint in a sensible list of cultic activities that concludes with ‘ministries of charity’. Vatican II need cause no problems to those whose thought has been formed by the Tradition of the Church.

Meanwhile, Paragraph 1569 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church very laudably draws upon the Tradition to remind us that the deacon is Episcopo speciatim annecti – particularly attached to the Bishop – which is why the Bishop alone lays hands on him at ordination. Paragraph 1541 alludes to the Aaronic priesthood and the services of the Levites as prefiguring the ordained ministry of the New Testament, and the next two paragraphs appropriately quote the prayers of Ordination in support of this; including a section (ancient and authentic) from the prayer for the diaconate.

In these two major documents of the Magisterium of the last six decades there is no suggestion that the essence of diaconate is found in service to the needy, or any determination to import St Stephen and the Seven into consideration of the diaconate. Nothing in them contradicts the teaching of the old Roman Prayers of Ordination; so, despite having no mandate from the Council to change the Church’s teaching on Holy Order as expressed in her lex orandi, the activities of the post-Conciliar liturgical ‘reformers’ offered us, as they so often did, an unedifying example of illiterate mischief. They corrupted the Roman Ordination rites, and did so contrary to both the oldest Roman Tradition and the consensus of modern non-Catholic New Testament Scholarship. To be wrong in the court of each of those two very different judges is quite an achievement.


1 St Stephen, after being ordained deacon, is martyred for his witness to the Gospel; and another of the seven deacons (St Philip) goes off to preach the Gospel, not to run welfare schemes. Austin Farrer pointed out that ‘the supposition that the Seven are regarded by St Luke as “deacons” is a very old error,’ and remarked that, in Acts 19.22, Timothy and Erastus were among those who were diakonounton: not to the needy but to Paul.

2 John N. Collins, Diakonia: Re-interpreting the Ancient Sources, OUP (1990). See last month’s edition.

3 The old prayer ended instead with petition that the neo-ordinati ‘having always the testimony of a good conscience, and continuing ever stable and strong in Thy Son Jesus Christ, may so well behave themselves in this inferior office, that they may be found worthy to be called unto the higher ministries in Thy Church’. This is Cranmer’s free but basically honest translation of the Sarum rite: it is diverting that the realism of the last two clauses seemed unexceptionable to a Reformation Zwinglian but impossibly politically incorrect to liturgical tamperers in the 1960s. Incidentally, those last clauses also raise difficult problems about ‘permanent’ deacons in the sense that they are forbidden to be ordained beyond the diaconate; which may itself be a disorder.