Any deacon would wince at Pope Francis’s comment that deacons around the altar can look like “second-class priests.” But there is, alas, some reason for people to perceive us that way. Over the same fifty years in which the number of deacons in the United States grew from zero to more than 18,000, the number of priests declined by just about that same amount. Because of that, whatever the original plan for the diaconate may have been, deacons have inevitably been drawn into many of the parish and sacramental roles formerly filled by a now-nonexistent class of assisting priests. If we are seen so often around the altar—preaching, doing baptisms, leading communion services—it’s because the work needs to get done, and there’s no one else to do it.
I know that’s very much what happened to me. Whether I planned it or not (and in many ways I did not), my work as a deacon these past twenty-five years has been very parish-centered, and perhaps I do look a little like a second-class priest. But Sunday preaching, baptizing, marriages, and teaching are rewarding work, and the need for it has only increased—and so, I quickly found that the time I could devote to ministry was entirely devoted to those tasks. To be sure, the diaconate attracts some men who like the idea of being an almost-parish-priest, men who seem to love their title and the gray Roman collars that some dioceses encourage deacons to wear. But these are the exceptions. Most deacons simply want to help the church in whatever way turns out to be most needed, and often, that has meant stepping in to fill the gaps created by the decline of the priesthood.
As Christopher Ruddy points out, too many people (the pope included, apparently) still define the diaconate as an ordained “minister of charity.” Yet the original vision of the diaconate, implied by the word diakonia, was more wide-ranging, and it has yet to be fully realized. If we thought that deacons might become “ambassadors” and “go-betweens” working the territory in between the church and the world, we’re still waiting to see it. I, for one, have always hoped deacons could be seen more as ordained field representatives of the church, working in innovative settings and ministries impossible for most priests to be a part of. Yet the adaptability of the diaconate to whatever pastoral challenges the church faces is still mostly unexploited.