American Catholic Press
16565 S. State Street, South Holland, Illinois 60473
by Father Michael Gilligan
In this perspective, then, the deacon is another Christ, an alter Christus. Just as Christ is our mediator with God, ever interceding, so the deacon is our mediator between the bishop, who presides, and the whole congregation. Again and again (paki i paki), the deacon is interceding, because he sings the litanies and directs the people in their prayer. As St. Ignatius teaches, the liturgical role of the deacon is important and worthy of respect, especially in the Eucharist.
Much writing on the restored diaconate in the United States stresses the role of extra-liturgical service in the wider community.2 There are also many general studies on the history and renewal of the diaconate in the Western Church; these studies emphasize the deacon’s role outside the liturgy.3
Yet, as with every Christian, Sunday Eucharist for deacons is the highlight of the week. Sunday Eucharist is ordinarily the principal occasion where the deacon is known to the whole Church. In general, the deacon’s role in the Eucharist is important, not just for an understanding of who he is but also for the efficacy of the celebration itself. What, then, should the deacon do at Sunday Eucharist? What is his specific role?
II. General principles of the deacon’s role
According to the General Instruction, the bishop (or in his place, the presbyter) is the presider at the Eucharist. All others in the sanctuary are ministers, including the choir, instrumentalists, and ushers. Of all these individuals who minister, the deacon holds first place.5
Father Aidan Kavanagh, O.S.B., says that this statement has a
clear meaning: All lesser ministries come from the deacon’s
ministry they are subordinate to it and they assist it. The deacon,
therefore, should be competent in all these ministries.
He should be able to carry them out at least as well as anyone
else. The deacon is the very best lector, the very best cantor,
the very best server.6 Father
Kavanagh’s description applies to the ideal deacon or,
in a sense, to the diaconate as a whole.7
In practice, not every deacon should be expected to be expert
at all musical instruments or at singing every voice in the choir.
It does make sense, though, to expect a deacon to have developed
skills in proclaiming the Scripture, leading the singing, and coordinating
the details is the liturgy.
The tasks of the lector, the cantor, and the server are, indeed, all expressed in the role of the deacon, in a fuller and more perfect way. This is why the deacon should assume any of these roles as the situation requires. The Constitution on the Liturgy also provides a guiding principle for all ministers, that of division of roles:In liturgical celebrations, each one, minister or layperson, who has an office to perform, should do all of, but only, those parts which pertain to that office by the nature of the rite and the principles of liturgy. 8
This principle is developed in the General Instruction:
All in the assembly gathered for the Mass have an individual right and duly to contribute their participation in ways differing according to the diversity of their order and liturgical function. Thus in carrying out this function, all, whether ministers or layperson's, should do all and only those parts that belong to them, so that the very arrangement of the celebration itself makes the Church stand out as being formed in a structure of different orders and ministries.9
So, while the deacon’s role is flexible, it is also restricted by the “nature of the rite and the principles of liturgy.” The deacon’s role is a question of both “right and duty.” There is a real obligation involved.
III. Specific requirements of the deacon’s role
What are the deacon’s most important tasks? To understand the General Instruction, some background is needed, especially in the history of the liturgy.
In the West, the deacon has long been an assistant to the presiding priest; and this emphasis remains, both in official documents and in widespread practice.
On the one hand, it is true that the deacon’s ministry is subject to the leadership of the presider; the deacon is, after all, a minister of the Eucharist, not a presider.
On the other hand, in ancient tradition, as well as in the Christian East to this day, the deacon’s primary ministry is to the gathered congregation, the assembly, not the presider.11
It is fitting, for example, for the deacon to walk in the opening procession of the Mas, carrying the Gospel Book. But if the deacon is leading the singing, he would appropriately be in the sanctuary already, helping the people participate.
In fact, one of the most important functions of the deacon is to help in congregational singing, especially in the litanies.
In the East, in the typical Sunday Eucharist in Byzantine Catholic Churches the deacon (or priest, if there is no deacon) sings five litanies: at the beginning (the “litany for peace”), for the catechumens, for the faithful, at the preparation of gifts, and at the end of the Eucharistic Prayer. There are several other litanies with just a few petitions.
Several times in the course of the Eucharist, the deacon sings, “Again and again (paki i paki) in peace let us pray to the Lord.”
Pope Gelasius (492-496) introduced in Rome a litany with 18 petitions, sung by the deacon at the beginning of Mass and on other occasions, such as Lauds and Vespers.
While the petitions of the deacon were in Latin, the response, as in the East, was in Greek: Kyrie eleison. Some of the wording of the petitions (“For an angel of peace. . .”) also comes from the Byzantine East.12
In the West, there are three litanies in the Latin Rite Mass as it is today; perhaps in the future there will be more. All three litanies have their origin in the East.
Overall, the invocations of the litany found in the United States sacramentary are more acclamatory than penitential; they are all directed to Christ.14
A more extended form of this litany, for example, during the entrance procession, would appropriately also be acclamatory in character. As in the Apostolic Constitutions, it could also appropriately be directed to God through Christ.15
The second litany in the Mass is that sung after the Creed, the General Intercessions. This litany in the West has long been called the oratio fidelium, the prayer of the faithful, that is, the prayer of the baptized (as opposed to the catechumens). It is not the prayer of the laity, as opposed to the clergy. In this manner of speaking, bishops, priests, and deacons are “faithful,” since they are baptized.
The third litany in the Mass is the Agnus Del, which may be repeated as many times as needed, to accompany the breaking of the bread. (The Order of Mass presumes that a large loaf is used, so that the breaking of bread takes some time. As a rule, people receive Communion from bread consecrated at the altar, not from the tabernacle.) 19
Of its nature, the Agnus Del is directed to Christ, not Christ passively present in bread and wine but Christ who is risen and glorious, interceding for us.21 The Agnus Del, then, is not a quiet litany of adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. As the Kyrie usually is, the Agnus Del is a confident and hopeful acknowledgement of Christ as Lord.
In the presence of a deacon who can sing these litanies well, even a good cantor will yield that role; it belongs to the deacon. In this case, the cantor can join in the people’s responses, to support them.
Overall, this role of the deacon in helping the people’s singing is not to be under emphasized; it is, even today, the most obvious function in any Byzantine Eucharist celebrated with a deacon. While the Latin Rite Mass has fewer litanies, singing of the people is just as important as it is in the East. In many respects, singing is a primary form of participation.22
Father Kavanagh says that people will bear with a priest who preaches poorly, since, in any case, they still hear the Gospel proclaimed.
But a deacon who cannot sing, he says, is like a lector (a “reader”) who cannot read, a presbyter (an “elder”) without wisdom, a bishop (an “overseer”) who cannot see, or a presider who cannot preside.23
Father Kavanagh’s rhetoric is metaphorical and should not be taken literally. There might be good reason to ordain someone a deacon who does not sing well, just as we might ordain someone a priest who does not preach well. But that is an imperfect decision, made in an imperfect world. As with other traditions (more than one Mass on Sunday, for example), we have adapted and compromised so much down through the years that we have forgotten what is primary.
In the case of the deacon, his role of singing in the Eucharist is especially valuable. This is so, above all, in the United States, where singing at Mass is not always as good as it should be. According to long tradition, the deacon should be responsible for singing the litanies at Mass. In the absence of a competent cantor, he can announce and lead many of the songs, even the Responsorial Psalm after the First Reading.
Singing is an important part of the deacon’s ministry, not because he needs it but because the Church needs it.
During the celebration, the deacon sees that everything moves in an orderly way, with dignity and decorum; he makes certain that all lesser ministries function well. He gives whatever directions are required; he is the one to announce “Let us stand” or “Let us kneel.” If it is the custom to do so for the Eucharistic Prayer, especially for Eucharistic Prayer I, the Roman Canon, the deacon may read aloud the names of the living and the dead at the proper times.
Should the deacon announce, “Let us proclaim the mystery of faith” after the Last Supper narrative? The Order of Mass assigns this invitation to the presider; it is a translation of myserium fidei, an interjection in the Roman Canon, in the middle of the words said over the chalice. Liturgical research showed that this lection was not a diaconal invitation, so the Order of Mass does not assign these words to the deacon.
However, as an introduction to the Memorial Acclamation, “Let us proclaim the mystery offaith,” is of the same nature as other directions to the congregation. For this reason, Father Kavanagh thinks it appropriate for the deacon to give this invitation.24 In some4ioceses in the United States, the bishop has permitted his deacons to do so.
Helping in the singing, coordinating lesser ministries, and giving directions to the people all indicate how the deacon primarily ministers to the congregation.
He has several other functions, which are understood in the same way. For example, the deacon is to help in the distribution of Communion, especially Communion from the chalice. Partly because of this, the deacon is to elevate the chalice at the end of the Eucharistic Prayer, while the presider sings “Through him, with him, in him.”
By right and duty, the deacon also proclaims the Gospel. So. even at a Mass With one or more priests concelebrating, the deacon should still proclaim the Gospel, elevate the chalice, and help with Communion. Only in the absence of a deacon should the presider proclaim the Gospel or elevate the chalice.25
By the same token, the “principles of liturgy” require that priests and deacons distribute Communion. Neither priest nor deacon should sit down during the procession and yield to a lay person who distributes Communion. So, if a deacon is present in the congregation, it is his place to help with Communion, if help is needed. Lay people are to be used only if there is an insufficient number of deacons; lay people are “extraordinary” ministers of Communion.
As we ordain more and more deacons, there will be fewer and fewer lay people needed to distribute Communion. This is not a diminution of a properly lay function; it is a gradual restoration of the proper ministry of deacons.26
It is not a question of what is a “more sacred” or a “more important” function; it is a question of what the gathered congregation most needs, what is the best choice to be made, to help the people pray, as the “nature of the rite and liturgical principles” demand. The deacon’s perspective must always be directed to the needs of the assembly, not his own place in the hierarchy.
In some Masses, there will be too many functions to be carried out by one deacon. For example, one deacon will not conveniently lead all the songs and also assist the priest. This is why the General Instruction says that, if two or more deacons are present, they may divide up the functions among them. It will often be the case that two or more deacons are needed for Communion.
Especially with Communion under both kinds, even three or four deacons can have a useful role in the Mass.27
With regard to imitating a presider, a deacon at no time in the Eucharist extends his arms for prayer in the Orans position, as a presider does. (An exception to this rule would be those situations where all present raise their arms in this way, for example, during the Our Father, as suggested in the Italian sacramentary.)
Especially with regard to preaching, the bishop or priest has a special role. Preaching is an integral part of his ministry. While the deacon can and should preach a homily when he presides at baptisms, funerals, or weddings, the Sunday homily should normally be given by the presider.28 This responsibility is his by the nature of the rite, namely, the gathering of the community of which he is the head; this is why he speaks to the Church, as its presider.
Open to question
In view of this understanding of preaching, it remains open to question why deacons in the United States are required in some dioceses to undergo as long as four years of study before ordination. While such extensive training may be needed for preaching or teaching, it is not needed for singing the litanies at Mass, for supervising the order of celebration, or for helping with Communion. Yet that is what deacons are ordained to do.
Last to receive
There are other ways in which the deacon should not take the place of a bishop or priest.
He does not sing “Through him, with him, in him...,” as does a priest.31 The deacon does not give the brief introduction to the Our Father; this pertains to the presider.
Nor at Communion does the deacon take a host or a portion of the host in his own hands, as does a priest. Instead, he receives Communion after the presider and from the presider who says to him,
In many cases, Communion will be given from the chalice to the people; the deacon is to be the very last to receive from the chalice, which he then purifies.34 This is required by the principle of division of roles, from the Constitution on the Liturgy, so that the deacon is clearly differentiated from the presider. Such a differentiation has been required since the year 325, by the Council of Nicea:
If the deacon should not imitate the role of the priest, neither should he usurp the role of other ministers. For example, if a cantor is present who can sing the General Intercessions well, and if the deacon does not sing well, then the cantor should do the General intercessions. This choice, too, is according to the nature of the rite.
Litanies are more effectively sung than recited, so it is not good ministry for the deacon to take his part but to function less effectively than another.36 Again, it is a question of meeting the needs of the gathered congregation, before other considerations.
Similarly, a lay person should function as lector for the reading of Scripture. A deacon may carry out this function, for example, if no one is present who can read well; but a deacon normally just reads the Gospel. not the first or the second reading.
The deacon’s private prayers at the preparation of the chalice and at other times should be said secret to himself; they should be audible to no one.
When the deacon seeks the blessing before the Gospel, only the presider should hear; the people should be singing the Gospel Acclamation. It is a mistake to wait until the acclamation is finished and then to seek the blessing.
The comments of the deacon should be brief and to the point; they should not be prolonged exhortations or brief sermons. His every action and every word should facilitate prayer and inspire the people. Like every member of the congregation, the deacon should take part in the songs with enthusiasm, listen to the readings with reverence, and follow the presider’s prayers with faith.
Like every minister, the deacon should be modest in action, gentle in spirit, clear in expression. He should obey the presider, guide the other ministers, and inspire the congregation. He should be a servant to all, marked by humility and generosity.
The deacon has an important ministry in baptisms, vigils for the deceased, funerals, weddings, and other occasions. But in the Sunday Eucharist, the deacon’s role is paramount. He should be a part of every Sunday celebration.
In general, the deacon chants the litanies, supports congregational singing, coordinates lesser ministries, gives directions to the people, proclaims the Gospel, and helps with the chalice.
The deacon should be respected and esteemed, as we respect Jesus Christ.
1. Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Trallians 2:3-3:1.
For original Greek text, see Ignace d’Antioche and Polycarpe
de Smyrne, Lettres: Martyre de Polycarpe, trans.
Th. Camelot, O.P., 4th ed. revised, vol. 10 of Sources Chrëtiennes
(Paris, 1969), pp. 94- 105, esp. p. 97. For English translation and
commentary, see Robert Nowell, The Ministry of
Service (New York, 1968), p. 23, and James M. Barnett, The
Diaconate: a Full and Equal Order (New York, 1981), pp. 47-
3. For general introductions to the history
of the diaconate and its recent restoration, see Barnett, The
Diaconaie; Le diacre dans l'eglise et le monde d’aujourd’hui, ed.
Paul Winneger and Yves Congar, OP. (Paris, 1966); Jean Colson, la
diaconale aux origines de I’ église (Bruges.
1960); Der Diakon: Wiedeientdeckung und Erneuerung seines
Dienstes. ed. Josef G. Ploger and Hermann. J. Weher, 2nd. ed.
(Freiburg, 1980); Edward P. Echlin, S.J., The Deacon in thc Church:
Past and future (New York, 1971); Joseph Hornet. Reierrons-nous
le diacre de l' eglise primitive?, trans. Nicole
Durieux. vol. 57 of Rencontres (Paris, 1960); A. Kervoorde, O.S.B.. Où
en est le probleme du diaconat, vol. 51 of Paroisse
et Liturgie: collection de pastorale liturgique (Bruges, 1961; Michael
Kwatera. O.S.B., The Liturgical Ministry of Deacons (Collegeville.
Minnesota, 1985); J. Robert Wright, “The Emergence
of the Diaconate,” Liturgy. 11(1982). no.4, pp. 17-23,
67-68. The entire issue is dedicated to the diaconate. See also TheDeacon's
Ministry. ed. Christine Hall (Herefordshire, Britain, 1992);
even this recent collection does not adequately consider the deacon’s
sung role in the Eucharist.
6. Aidan Kavanagh, O.S.B., Elements of Rite (New York, 1982), pp. 75-77.
11. See Heinzgerd Brakmann, “Zum Dienst
des Diakons in der Liturgisehen Versammlung, “Der Diakon, pp.
147-163. Cf. Gabe Huck, Liturgy with Style and Grace, 2nd
ed. (Chicago, 1984), pp. 48-49 and Lawrence J. Johnson, The Mystery
of Faith: The Minister.c of Music (Washington, D.C., 1983),
pp. 33-34. In fact, the reason why the deacon has long been considered
as primarily an assistant to the priest is that the deacon’s
role became fixed at a time when the congregation had little part
in the celebration. See Joseph Gelineau, S.J., Voice and instruments
in Christian Worship, trans. Clifford Howell, S.J. (Collegeville,
Minnesota, 1964), p. 75.
24. Ibid., p. 76. Since the Memonal Acclamation
will normally be sung. according to its nature, so too should the
invitation, “Let us proclaim the mystery of faith.” At
the very least, it can be sung recto
26. Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy Newsletter, XXIV (1988), p. 8.
31. GI, 178, 182; LD, p.77 GI, 186, 191; LD, p.78.
36. Recited litanies are an imperfect prayer. To be more effective, in the “nature of the rite,” a litany should be sung and sung well. See Felice Rainoldi, “The Litany: The Liturgical History,” Pastoral Music, 12:6 (August-September, 1988), pp. 39-43. The entire issue of this magazine is dedicated to the litany in the liturgy.