Privileges of a deacon



Editor’s note: This column is being repeated by Catholic News Service. Father Doyle is now retired.

Q. Often, I have been at a Mass where the deacon reads the Gospel, which is fine. But then, sometimes, the deacon goes on to give the homily while the priest watches. This disappoints me and makes me feel that the deacon is overstepping his bounds. Why should a deacon, rather than the priest, comment on church teachings? Is this a new function in the church today? (Missouri)

Q. Our parish recently had a baptism at a Mass, with both a priest and a deacon on the altar. When it came time for the baptism, the deacon went to the (baptismal) font and performed the ceremony. I was under the impression that a deacon could baptize only if a priest were not available. Has this been changed? (Richmond, Virginia)

A. Although the permanent diaconate was restored by Pope Paul VI in 1967, the questions above would seem to indicate that even today, nearly half a century later, there is still some confusion about a deacon's role. Deacons can baptize, witness marriages, perform funeral and burial services (outside of Mass), distribute holy Communion and preach a homily. They cannot celebrate Mass, hear confessions or administer the sacrament of the anointing of the sick. They are obligated each day to pray the Liturgy of the Hours. Deacons were first appointed in the earliest days of the church with the special ministry of serving the poor.

There are two kinds of deacons: transitional deacons, who are seminarians in the final stage of their training for the priesthood, and permanent deacons. Permanent deacons, ordained after several years of theological preparation, may be single or married. They often have secular jobs but also assist parish communities at liturgies and in service ministries such as visiting the sick or counseling families.

When joining the priest at Mass, a deacon normally introduces the penitential rite, reads the Gospel and the prayers of intercession (petitions), helps in distributing Communion and proclaims the dismissal rite.

When a deacon baptizes or preaches, there is no requirement that a priest be unavailable. The church's Code of Canon Law, in No. 861, for example, says simply that "the ordinary minister of baptism is a bishop, a presbyter or deacon." Sometimes when a deacon baptizes or accepts wedding vows, it is because he has a particular relationship with those receiving the sacrament but that is not necessary.

Often in parishes that have a deacon, the deacon preaches the homily on a regular rotation (perhaps once a month, perhaps at one Mass each weekend). Parishioners have often commented that a deacon, especially if he has a family, can share a different perspective.

Pastorally, when a deacon is scheduled to do a baptism, wedding or funeral service, it is best for the priest to advise the family in advance -- since many still expect that a priest will officiate.