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Where Deacons Are …

The deacon brings fully the life of a clergyman and the life of a layman

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Are deacons truly necessary?

It depends on what is meant by “necessary.” For the many centuries prior to the Second Vatican Council restoration of the diaconate, the Church seemed to do just fine without deacons. Minus a deacon, the Gospel was proclaimed, the bread and wine confected, babies baptized. And for many parishes in the United States, this remains the case.

However, Deacon Dominic Cerrato has effectively argued that by its nature, the diaconate is necessary: “According to the current liturgical and canonical norms, the celebration of Mass is not valid without a deacon. This is because the Liturgy of the Word is essential to Mass, the Gospel is essential to the Liturgy of the Word and it is the deacon’s exclusive role to proclaim the Gospel. When a permanent or transitional deacon is not serving, the priest, now acting as a deacon because of the permanency of his diaconal character, assumes the diaconal role because he is still a deacon” (Josephinum Diaconal Review, 2019).

This leads to the conclusion that deacons are necessary, but not sufficient, for the celebration of the Mass. A priest is still needed; he is both necessary and sufficient.

So maybe the question is not, “Are deacons necessary?” Maybe the better question is, “Are deacons needed?” At first blush, it may seem that the questions are the same, but they are not. The first question addresses the nature of the diaconate; the second addresses the role of the deacon.

The diocese adjacent to my own just recently ordained its first permanent deacon. Blessed by a relative abundance of priestly vocations, the general response to the idea of ordaining permanent deacons was: “We don’t need deacons. We have enough priests.” But this perspective illustrates the misunderstanding of the role of the deacon.

Pope Francis once tweeted: “Go forth and reach out to all people at the margins of society! Go there and be the Church, with the strength of the Holy Spirit” (June 23, 2017). As one of my formators frequently said, we are called to stand “eyelash to eyelash” with those who are in need of healing (which, of course, is everyone, but especially those on the margins). I imagine that most deacons embrace the interpretation of diakonia as self-giving service to the poor and the Church. And there is nothing wrong with this notion. But I would argue that this approach is just the beginning.

If the diaconate is to be needed, it must be more than faithful service to the Church or the poor, and this requires a better understanding of diakonia. Anthony Dragini, Ph.D., has emphasized that diakonia primarily means service on behalf of someone greater. “The term did not primarily refer to service for the benefit of others (such as the needy), which is how it is used today. Rather, diakonia was understood to mean ‘actions undertaken in the name of another person’” (“Deacons: Emissaries of the Kingdom,” EWTN Catholicism Library). As understood in antiquity, a diakonos “is one who is commissioned to fulfill a vital task, to carry out a mission on behalf of another, an executive who acts on behalf of a constituted authority” (Paul Avis, “The Diaconate: A Flagship Ministry? Theology and Ministry,” No. 2.10).

Shuttle Diplomacy

Think shuttle diplomacy: Deacons are the Henry Kissingers of the Church acting as an emissary, even an envoy, for the Church. With one foot firmly planted with the clergy and the other with the laity, the deacon fulfills a role that only he can fulfill. This is where the deacon is most needed.

It is by the grace of his ordination that the deacon becomes the emissary of the Church, able to live fully the life of a clergyman and the life of a layman. No one else can do this. This is what makes deacons most needed. The deacon brings Christ to the world and the world to Christ in a totally unique way, both sacramentally and practically. The vast majority of permanent deacons are married or widowed, and a clergyman with a wife and family gives witness to the Gospel in a way that a celibate clergyman cannot. Not better, but different.

A deacon working at a homeless shelter or performing prison ministry is certainly providing important work and answers Pope Francis’ call to go to the margins. By all means, deacons should be encouraged to develop a ministry to the marginalized; without disparaging their importance, such ministries are expected, normative. No one is surprised when Deacon John shows up at the soup kitchen.

While the deacon can and should be an emissary of the Church to the poor, the workplace is where the deacon as envoy is particularly important. Having a wife and children distinguishes the deacon from the vast majority of Catholic priests, but having a job in the secular world is even more distinguishing. According to the 2021 CARA report, only 11% of deacons are financially compensated for ministry. The vast majority of deacons are either currently employed or retired from a secular job. I would argue that the need for the diaconate is best seen in the workplace, which is probably the least cultivated field of evangelism. This highlights the necessity of fostering vocations with younger men who are still employed doing something other than full-time ministry.

Of course, there are practical but not insurmountable obstacles to the deacon as an emissary at work. If a deacon is still holding a job, more likely than not he has children at home or possibly young grandchildren. Family life is still busy. Having a job and family makes the deacon less available for service to his parish. Open dialogue between the deacon and his pastor is necessary to ensure that expectations are realistic and capacities are not overwhelmed.


As a neurosurgeon, I am fortunate that my occupation is as much a ministry as it is a job. Whether it be severe pain from a spinal condition or the sudden loss of neurological function from a brain tumor, patients often present in crisis, and crisis brings openness and desire for restoration. As such, many patients or family members will say things that reveal a belief in God: “People are praying for me” or “It is such a blessing to feel better.” Their words crack open the door and a follow-up question from me opens it further: “Do you go to church? Where? Would you like to pray?”

In 25 years of practice, not once has a patient refused if I ask him or her to pray. To be clear, whenever I pray with patients it is because they said something that invites me. I never impose, but I’m listening for the invitation, even if it is subtle. My dual vocations of physician and deacon are integrated. I do not stop being a deacon when I arrive at the hospital or clinic.

Most Needed Place

In conversations with my fellow deacons, when I propose that the workplace is where they are most needed, inevitably I receive pushback: “I have to be so careful about what I say. My employer will fire me if I try to share my faith with other people.” While there might be some valid reasons for this concern, I would argue that in most situations, the deacon can bring Christ to the workplace without being accused of proselytizing.

As an example, letting people know you are a deacon sparks curiosity and an entry point for conversations about faith. Inevitably, as the week draws to an end, someone will ask the question, “What are you up to this weekend?” The simple answer, “I’m assisting at Mass and have a couple of baptisms afterward” will likely bring a second or third question. We ought to have the same level of comfort talking about our vocation as we do about sports, our latest vacation, what are children are doing, etc.

Also, no doubt your fellow workers will experience their own crises and making yourself available to cover their shift or in some other way help offload their responsibilities will be met with gratitude.

Corporal works of mercy are not limited to strangers; fellow workers are in as much need as anyone. Even more, being present to listen in a nonjudgmental manner when a co-worker’s child is in trouble or offering words of encouragement or sympathy when someone experiences a loss are examples of spiritual accompaniment that integrates the deacon’s ministerial and work responsibilities. It just takes a bit of imagination and boldness that are sparked by the understanding that as a deacon, you are most needed at your job.

You can bring the Lord to work in your capacity as an ordained minister of the Church, configured to Christ. You can be the emissary of the Church at your job. No one else can do that.

DEACON STEPHEN DORAN, M.D./MA, is a practicing neurosurgeon and bioethicist for the Archdiocese of Omaha.

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