A reader of the New Testament would not hesitate to answer that, referring to Acts 6:1-4, which first mentions the deacon’s role:
In those days, as the number of disciples grew, the ones who spoke Greek complained that their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food, as compared with the widows of those who spoke Hebrew. The Twelve assembled the community of the disciples and said, "It is not right for us to neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables. Look around among your own number, brothers, for seven men acknowledged to be deeply spiritual and prudent, and we shall appoint them to this task. This will permit us to concentrate on prayer and the ministry of the word." This proposal was unanimously accepted by the community.
A deacon, then, is a servant. That's what the word means in Greek and that's what deacons are for: to serve. He relieves the higher clergy (bishop and presbyter) of their less priestly duties that they may concentrate on their more specifically sacerdotal ministry.
The deacon's original and special competence is in the area of charitable work, which was the first area of temporal service in the apostolic Church: a community which had no property or buildings to maintain. A deacon today may be expected to assist - and conceivably direct - the temporary administration of the community. His most valuable ministry, however, will be in the area of leading the community in the exercise of works of mercy.
The deacon takes his strength from the Holy Table, at which he also serves, assisting the bishop and the presbyter in conducting the divine services. Here, too, the deacon assists the higher clergy by assuming responsibility for the temporal conduct of the service: calling the people to prayer, directing them during worship, and supervising the work of the servers. The Byzantine tradition accords a major liturgical role to the deacon, and it can be rightly said that a Byzantine liturgical service is not complete without the participation of a deacon.
In addition to assisting at the Holy Table, a deacon may be called upon to preach and instruct, if so qualified and authorized by the bishop. In the absence of a priest he may also be called upon to lead the non-sacramental services of the Church (typica, hours, etc.).
In both East and West deacons have played an important role in the life of the Church. St. John Chrysostom preached his greatest sermons as a deacon in Antioch and St. Athanasius wielded his most decisive doctrinal influence as a deacon in Alexandria. Other well-known saints - such as Stephen the first martyr, Ephraem the Syrian, Romanos the Melodist, and Francis of Assisi spent their whole ministry as deacons.
Who can serve as a deacon?
In line with the injunction of the apostles and the unbroken tradition of the Eastern Churches, any man of the community “acknowledged to be deeply spiritual and prudent,” may consider serving as a deacon. But his spiritual commitment must be of paramount importance in his life. He need not and more likely would not - look toward full time employment by the Church. Like St. Paul, his professional life would continue. But, as Paul was an apostle first and foremost despite his occupation, so too the deacon should be first and foremost a minister to God's people at heart.
What personal background is necessary?
A candidate, married or single, should be able to demonstrate that his life has achieved that stability which can be expected from any mature adult, and to establish that he is living a truly Christian life. If he is married, he must have the strong support, encouragement, and cooperation of his wife and family. If he is unmarried, he becomes bound to remain celibate after ordination. He must also have the support and encouragement of both his pastor and his parish.
The current policy in the eparchy, based on the above principles, stipulates that candidates for the diaconate must be:
(a) thirty-three (33) years old by the time of ordination;
(b) married for at least five (5) years, if not single;
(c) actively involved in the local parish for at least five years before entering the program.
What educational background is necessary?
More important, perhaps, than previous education is the curiosity to learn and to deepen oneself that a program such as this requires. Candidates are, however, expected to demonstrate college-level skills, such as doing directed reading and preparing papers. In addition, while previous college training does not guarantee religious effectiveness, it or its equivalent seems necessary for meeting the usual problems of any professional today.
What does the training require?
To function as any kind of knowledgeable religious leader demands training. The basic program consists of a four-year cycle, having two parts:
(a) Four intensive two and one-half week sessions in June
while the candidates reside at the seminary during which formal classes
(b) Continuing formation during the year when the candidates may do directed reading, prepare papers, and take courses on topics not covered in the summer sessions under the guidance of the teaching staff, and be introduced to increased parish involvement and liturgical praxis under the guidance of the local pastor.
In addition, wives and families of candidates are to be prepared so that they can assimilate and understand the changes introduced by the ordination of the husband/father. Each candidate's family will be "adopted" by the family of a nearby deacon, which will be assigned to help them understand the impact of the ministry upon the family. Whenever possible, meetings will be held, either regionally or nationally, for the wives of candidates and deacons.
How could I enter the program?
Pray about the matter. Read 1 Timothy 3:8-13. Consult your family, if you are married. Then, discuss the possibilities with your pastor. Complete the required application forms which are available from and are processed through the seminary. Final decisions on all applications are made by the Eparch.
Entrance into and completion of the program do not insure
ordination to the diaconate. Once the training is completed, the
candidate is evaluated both by the seminary and the local parish in terms
of his grasp of the Church's faith, his ability to function fruitfully
as a deacon, and his involvement in the local community. The Eparch
then makes the final decision as to ordination.
For further information, contact:
Director of the Deacon Program
Saint Gregory's Seminary
233 Grant Avenue
Newton Centre, MA 02159
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