Without Deacons, Priests Cannot Exercise Their Office in the Celebration of the Eucharist: A Voice from the 7th Century

by Markus Tymister

St. Isidore died in 639 in Seville, where he was bishop. In his works he succeeding in pulling together knowledge from antiquity and making it accessible. He is generally considered the last church father of antiquity.

In his work De ecclesiasticis officiis, written between 598 and 615 at the commission of his brother Fulgentius, bishop of Astigi (Ecija, 50 miles east of Seville), Isidore gives us information on, among other things, the origin and meaning of ecclesial ministries, offices, and usages. In the second book of the work is found, after the section on presbyters, a chapter on deacons. His explanation of the origin of offices is strongly informed by the Old Testament, but it also says something about how a bishop of the 7th century viewed the relationship of the various ministries:

Ipsi [diaconi] enim clara uoce in modum praeconis ammonent cunctos, siue in orando, siue in flectendis genibus, siue in psallendo, siue in lectionibus audiendis; ipsi etiam ut aures habeamus ad dominum adclamant, ipsi quoque euangelizant.

Sine his sacerdos nomen habet, officium non habet. Nam sicut in sacerdote consecratio, ita in ministro dispensatio sacramenti est; ille orare, hic psallere mandatur; ille oblata sanctificat, hic sanctificata dispensat. Ipsis etiam sacerdotibus propter praesumptionem non licet de mensa domini tollere calicem, nisi eis traditus fuerit a diacono. Leuitae inferunt oblationes in altario, leuitae conponunt mensam domini, leuitae operiunt arcam testamenti. (Isidorus Hispalensis, De ecclesiasticis officiis 2:8, 3-4, ed. C.M. Lawson [CCSL 113], Turnhout 1989, 67f.)

Let the deacons admonish all in a loud voice after the manner of a herald, whether to pray or to bend the knee or to sing psalms or to listen to the readings; they also pray publicly to the Lord and proclaim the Gospel.

Without them the priest has his name but not his office. For as it the duty of the priest to consecrate the sacrament, so it is the duty of the server [deacon] to distribute it. As it assigned to the priest to declaim the prayers, so it is the deacon’s item to declaim the psalm. The one sanctifies the gifts, the other distributes the gifts. It is not even permitted to priests, because of the danger of arrogance, that they take to themselves the cup of the Lord from the altar, but that it be extended to them by the deacon. The Levites [deacons] bring the gifts to the altar, the Levites [deacons] prepare the Table of the Lord and veil the Ark of the Covenant.

It is interesting that Bishop Isidore can only imagine the celebration of the Eucharist such that the various offices of service are exercised. A priest that “can do everything himself” is unthinkable for him. Indeed, he even sees in this the danger of arrogance. Thus, the priest may not take Communion himself from the altar: it is extended to him – like everyone else in the community – by the deacon. At this time this was also customary in papal liturgies.

Even if according to the current liturgical precepts the priest communicates himself first (before the community!) and then gives Communion to the deacon, respect for the various ministries and offices in the liturgy is just as important now as it was at that time.

Priests who think they can carry out everything alone and do without other ministries (servers, lectors, cantors, deacons, organists…) distort what is characteristic of the celebration of Mass. Ministries and offices are not an addition – actually dispensable – to elevate solemnity. Rather, they represent the hierarchically structured church, the people of God, the mystical Body of Christ, which, with Christ the head, is subject of the liturgy. The liturgy constitution of the Second Vatican Council expresses it like this in article 7:

Rightly, then, the liturgy is considered as an exercise of the priestly office of Jesus Christ. In the liturgy the sanctification of the humans is signified by signs perceptible to the senses, and is effected in a way which corresponds with each of these signs; in the liturgy the whole public worship is performed by the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ, that is, by the head and his members. From this it follows that every liturgical celebration, because it is an action of Christ the priest and of his Body which is the Church, is a sacred action surpassing all others; no other action of the Church can equal its efficacy by the same title and to the same degree. (Sacrosanctum Concilium, December 4, 1963)

Respect for various ministries and offices does not concern only the priest, but rather all who – according to their ordination or commission – preside at worship services. It is self-evident that also in a service of the Word of God led by a lay person, various ministries are responsible for their own tasks.

Translated by AWR and reprinted with permission from the blog Populo Congregato. Original: “Ohne die Diakone können Priester ihr Amt in der Eucharistiefeier nicht ausüben: Eine Stimme aus dem 7. Jahrhundert” Fr. Markus Tymister is faculty member at the Pontifical Institute of Liturgy at Sant’ Anselmo in Rome. Art: “Disputation of the Holy Sacrament” by Raphael.

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8 comments

  1. In some parishes I watch Deacons prayerfully fulfilling their liturgical ministry while, in the church up the road, they read the gospel and then go and sit down. In another church the gospel is always read by whoever is preaching that Sunday and the Book of Gospels is always carried in by the reader. In yet another church the Deacon sits un-vested in the congregation and comes up to read the first reading or to distribute Holy Communion returning to his seat..

    The “characteristic” elements often hide behind bad formation, poor implementation and some very strange notions of what the actual instructions are. It is far too often clearly said, “we don’t want Deacons here” by those who lead parishes.

    Imagine where a business would be if after 50 years they still had not been able to implement their model? … or where a school would be if after half-a-century they still had not figured out their curriculum?

    Thank you for this article. It reveals a small part of the richness that our “story” intended for us.

  2. One of the impactful statements made to me during my diaconate formation was – ‘as a deacon, always allow others to perform their ministry’… meaning if there are lectors at Mass, though as a deacon you are also a lector, allow them to lector. Same with altar servers, and EM’s, sacristans, etc. Same would be true for priests and bishops with respects to allowing deacons to perform their ministry in word, altar, and charity. All of which helps bring Christ present to the faithful, for the Glory of God.

  3. In terms of the Church, 50 years is not all that long, and I think the progress we’ve made in figuring out the diaconate as a permanent order in the Church is pretty good (if not great). On the liturgy front, I generally see deacon’s fulfilling their role appropriately though I do find that, when I serve with a priest who does not have a lot of experience celebrating with a deacon, it occasionally happens that he steals my line, especially at the sign of peace and the dismissal. But I chalk this up to celebrants being on auto-pilot. I did serve at a wedding Mass this past summer and there was a moment of confusion as the celebrant and I both went to read the Gospel (he was preaching). But this kind of stuff is becoming increasingly rare.

    Oddly, I find that my diaconal role is more likely to be usurped by laity than by other clergy. Not infrequently I see a lay person lead the Universal Prayer, even when a deacon is present, and I have on occasion been asked to sit out on the distribution of communion because there were extraordinary ministers who had already been scheduled. The former is something I am willing to live with and the latter doesn’t happen frequently enough for me to go on a crusade. I do wonder if the usurpation of diaconal roles by the laity doesn’t reflect a view that hangs on in some quarters of deacon’s as glorified laypeople (at least one hears the silly term “lay deacons” with decreasing frequency).

    1. Brother Deacon;

      Your description of being asked to sit out of Holy Communion has happened to me at least once. I serve a small rural Parish and we are very fortunate to have 3 Deacons and two priests so we have no shortage of clergy on the staff. Shortly after I was first ordained I asked if I could please assist at a Mass as an extra Deacon, simply to distribute Holy Communion.

      I was told by another person they were already enough extraordinary ministers scheduled! Father and myself were having a chat at the rectory one day that I had mentioned to him that this had happened.

      “That will never happen again,” he assured me “People need to understand that you are an ordinary minister of Holy Communion, they need to understand what ordination means.” He went on to explain that he would never ask me to assist at a Mass where I was not scheduled, since he understands that I have a young family, unlike many of my brother Deacons. However, he also said that any time that I wish to assist with Mass all I had to do was show up and vest whether I am scheduled or not.

  4. It’s been well over a decade now, and I couldn’t source it to save my life, but I once read an ancient text describing the different churches in the city of Rome ca. the 4th-5th centuries and the number of personnel assigned to them, from bishop down through the minor orders. It was essentially a pyramid, with one bishop and a LOT of porters. A discussion of minor orders isn’t my intention, but there’s something to be said for the notion of having more deacons than priests or bishops.

    1. You are probably referring to Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, IV 43, 11:
      “This avenger of the Gospel then did not know that there should be one bishop in a catholic church; yet he was not ignorant (for how could he be?) that in it there were forty-six presbyters, seven deacons, seven sub-deacons, forty-two acolytes, fifty-two exorcists, readers, and janitors, and over fifteen hundred widows and persons in distress, all of whom the grace and kindness of the Master nourish.”
      The situation described is c. 250 AD. Translation is courtesy of New Advent http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/250106.htm

  5. There is, I agree, something to be said for having more deacons than priests (than bishops), at least in order to serve in the conditions of the modern (Western) Church. But the quote from Eusebius is evidence that in the ancient world this was not the rule. Rome long limited itself to 7 deacons despite the proliferation of priests and the minor orders to provide for the liturgical needs of the “parishes”. The 4th-century council of Neo-Caesarea prescribed the same restriction on deacons for other cities, regardless of size, relying on the precedent of the Acts of the Apostles. As a rough characterization, whereas the presbyter extended the bishop’s liturgical/sacramental ministry, (whose instances were manifold and also had a particular need to work more or less simultaneously across the city on Sunday morning), the deacon extended the bishop’s administrative authority (particularly in distributing the church’s goods) and could fulfill this charge on a broader territorial basis. Sometime between ca. 325 and St. Isidore’s writing, however, the diaconate as he knew it had clearly come more into its own liturgically in even non-episcopal rites, and I believe that to have been an enrichment.

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