As a priest engaged in parish ministry, I sometimes get a blank look from others when I mention that I have been ordained twice. In fact, that is necessary for any Catholic priest. It is not that something goes wrong the first time around, but, rather, it is a reflection of the Catholic theology of holy orders.
When a man is in priestly formation, a major milestone along the way is his ordination as a transitional deacon; and then approximately a year later that same man is ordained a priest. Every priest you know was also ordained a deacon and served in that ministerial capacity for a period of time during the final stages of preparation for priestly ordination.
Pope Paul VI officially restored the permanent diaconate following the Second Vatican Council. Since then, thousands of Catholic men in the United States and throughout the world, under the authority of their local bishop, have been formed and trained for ordained ministry as permanent deacons. This certainly can be somewhat confusing — so blank looks are understandable. Perhaps explaining the difference between the two categories of diaconate will help clarify the meaning of ordained ministry as a whole and its dynamic function within the Church.
All deacons are ordained and have the faculty, or permission of their bishop, to preach at Mass, perform baptisms, officiate at weddings and funerals and serve in varied ways within the larger community.
The diaconate is the first rank of holy orders. The others are the presbyterate (priests) and the episcopate (bishops). This structure is hierarchical, so each rank builds upon itself and requires a separate and distinct ordination. Deacons assist priests and bishops to fulfill their ministry.
The main difference between the categories of diaconate is that a transitional deacon is a man on the road to the priesthood, a particular vocation (calling) to serve the Lord and his Church primarily as a minister of the sacraments and a pastor of souls under the direction of one’s (arch)bishop. After an extensive and multifaceted program of seminary formation, he is first ordained to the diaconate. Later, he is ordained to the priesthood, conforming his life to Christ.
A permanent deacon is not planning or preparing to be ordained a priest. The candidate also undergoes a rigorous program of formation, is often older than the typical seminarian and is often married and has children. It is important to note that the wife of a permanent deacon is officially involved in the process of discernment. Single men may be ordained to the permanent diaconate, as long as they commit to celibacy. There are some cases, even here in the Archdiocese of Hartford, in which permanent deacons have felt a call to the priesthood and ultimately have been ordained priests. This happens after the passing of one’s wife and with proper discernment and training, as well as with the approval of the archbishop and consent of others involved in the formation process.
The important common bond uniting all deacons is the profound ministry of service to the body of Christ. The diaconate has a biblical foundation rooted in the work of charity to the poor. Deacons are to be great and active servants of the Gospel and the mission of the Church, both upon the altar and in everyday life and situations. In this way, the diaconate gives witness to a spirit of joyful discipleship for all to admire and emulate.
I know that while I was preparing for ordination to the transitional diaconate during the latter years of my own seminary experience, I felt many internal stirrings of God’s grace. I remember realizing that the diaconate is a turning point at which my approach to formation for the priesthood would shift from an inward focus to an outward one. In other words, it was finally time — after years of classes, exams, assignments, retreats and direction that necessarily and extensively probed my readiness for ordination — to turn my attention squarely to the spiritual well-being of the people of God. It was a beautiful realization and one that enriches my ministry to this day. We all benefit from doing God’s will.
Therefore, when we consider what differentiates specific roles within the Church, we do better to remember exactly who unites us: Our Lord Jesus Christ, now and forever.
Father John L. Lavorgna is pastor of Mary Mother of Church Parish in Waterbury,