The Prayer of the Faithful and the Deacon

The General Introduction of the Roman Missal assigns the reading of the intentions of the Universal Prayer (Prayer of the Faithful) to the deacon. Articles 71 and 94 clarify that other people can also read the intentions, but the deacon is the first choice. I do not know how this is administered in the US, but here in Austria, you will not often find deacons reading the intentions.

First of all: There are not many deacons here. Most parishes do not know what to do when such a rare specimen shows up. The intentions are commonly read by other people – men, women (one of the few opportunities where women have a chance to speak publicly in a Roman Catholic Mass), or kids (quite often this is one of their first appearances on a public stage).

Secondly: Many deacons prefer to leave the intentions to laypeople. The deacon has enough to do in the Mass anyway, so why should he disappoint others by taking that role from them? This has to do with respect for laypeople’s commitment to liturgy.

Thirdly: Many deacons do not know that reading the intentions is their job.

The question is obvious: Why are the intentions appointed to the deacon?

As far as I can see, every Universal Prayer in the fourth and fifth centuries – when solemn public liturgy evolved in the Roman Empire – was led by deacons; except for the concluding prayer which has always been appointed to the bishop or priest. In Eastern liturgies, singing the intentions is still one of the deacons’ major jobs. That is why the ability to sing is one of the most important skills a candidate for deaconry should have. (You can listen to a beautiful example here.)

But this only shifts the question into ancient times: Why are the intentions assigned to the deacon?

One of the main aspects of deaconry is that the deacon is meant to be sort of “Secretary of Social Affairs”. This might have been forgotten for a long time. But after the Second Vatican Council – reintroducing the permanent deaconry in Lumen Gentium 29 – the Roman Catholic Church started to adopt this biblical (cf. Acts 6) and ancient tradition. It is the deacon’s mission to take care of people in need. Of course, this is every Christian’s mission, but deaconry makes it a visible, public, personalized ministry, representing Christ as the servant of the people (the “deacon of all”, as Marc 9:35 says in Greek).

What is the meaning of the Universal Prayer? Confiding people in need to God.

The deacon takes care of people in need in everyday life. Consistently it is his job to remind the others of people in need during the liturgical gathering. How does he do that? By reading the intentions of the Universal Prayer! The deacon, as the Secretary of Social Affairs, is the personalized link between what Christians do in liturgy and what Christians do (or should do) in everyday life.

I understand why laypeople love to read the intentions. But we should leave them to the deacon. His ministry has a very serious meaning: It is the link between liturgy and charity.

While we talk so much about priest shortage, we should realize that our deacon shortage is even bigger – so big that parishioners do not even miss anything in a deacon-less liturgy.

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22 comments

  1. Deacons were also delegated charge of church property and finances (as well as church music, though control of that shifted earlier) – which makes sense given their role in distributing the goods of the church to those in need – and were administratively more “powerful” arms of bishops than presbyters, especially the diocesan archdeacon.

    1. As the 20th century has somehow rediscovered the old meaning of deaconry and the connection of liturgy and charity, I would prefer that the diocesan Vicar General should be a deacon (sort of archdeacon then). But the Canon Law does not allow that.

  2. As I have mentioned before, at my parish the Prayer of the Faithful was always lead by lay people, who took responsibility for composing them for that week. Though occasionally we had wacky intercessions, for the most part they were very thoughtful, and sometimes more connected to both the day’s Scriptures and the events of the previous week than the homily was. I thought that grabbing this role for myself would not acknowledge the excellent job that lay people had done as servants of the assembly’s prayer. So after a couple of years I simply asked to be added to the roster of those leading the Prayer of the Faithful (“poffers” as we tend to call them), and now I do it about once every six weeks.

    Were we starting from scratch, I would give the role to the deacon. But we’re never starting from scratch, are we?

  3. Then you have our parish – wacky pastor has gotten rid of all deacons and then moved prayer of faithful to celebrant, of course. He also does announcements, etc. after the prayer of the faithful and before the collection/preparation.

    1. You would almost never find here (Austria, Germany) celebrants reading the intercessions themselves, except in very small parishes or in badly prepared services where the priest does not find anyone who assists him. Announcements are sometimes read by the celebrant (especially when he is the official parish priest), sometimes by others.

  4. This is a very good post.

    In my experience in the Chicago Archdiocese, when a deacon is present, he leads the Universal Prayer. The connection between charity and liturgy which is expounded so well in the post, is the same that was taught to us in our diaconate formation. Naturally, formation changes from time to time and place to place, and we don’t always remember very well what we were taught, so it wouldn’t surprise me if there are a lot of deacons who don’t have an appreciation for this liturgy-charity connection and how it is manifested in the Prayers of the Faithful. But I would say that our formation program at least is doing a good job teaching it.

    In our parish, the practice has been that, if a deacon is not serving at a particular mass, the cantor leads the Prayers of the Faithful (spoken, not sung). I’ve observed that our cantors don’t relish having to read the Prayers of the Faithful, primarily because it requires them to pronounce the names of many ailing and dead parishioners or parishioner loved ones. We have a rather multi-ethnic parishioner mix, and reading some of the names is not for the faint of heart! The wonderful office worker who types up the prayers for the liturgy even provides pronunciation aids for the names but they still find it a bit daunting.

    As another variation: during high seasons such as Advent, we may have a musical framework for the prayer such that the intentions are spoken by the deacon with an instrumental underscore provided by the musicians; the “Let us pray to the Lord” (what would one call that? An invitation?) is sung by a cantor; and the people’s response also is sung.

    I’m sensitive to not wishing to disrupt traditions of laypersons reading the Universal Prayer, but I think it’s best that each of do our appointed liturgical role – only, and all of, that role. The pastoral art consists in finding a way to do what should be done without hurting feelings or causing people to storm away in a huff.

  5. I thought the word “deaconry” was interesting in this post. In the US, we tend to refer to “the diaconate”. I know Liborius is in Austria, so I chalk it up to regional variation. 🙂

    1. I cannot remember, but I think I looked for it in a dictionary, and then I checked via Google if there were other websites using it. But if “deaconry” is no useful word, I hope the editors will give me permission to change it 🙂

      1. I think that it is a wonderful new (to me) word. It strikes me as one that addresses the craft of being a deacon much in the way that musicianship addresses the craft of being a musician.

  6. In Anglican usage, “archdeaconry” is used for the residence of an archdeacon (or sometimes the office where s/he works), rather than the order of archdeacons or the craft of being an archdeacon; so by analogy “deaconry” would mean the place where a deacon lives….

    I have noticed that a number of RCs on both sides of the Pond inaccurately refer to the order as the “deaconate” (spelled that way, and pronounced by them as “dee-kon-ate”) rather than the diaconate. Incidentally, more than a few people don’t know how to pronounce “diaconate” and say “Dye-ackon-eight” rather than “dee-ackon-ert”.

  7. Is it good or bad news for me that this discussion turned from liturgy into linguistics? 🙂

    I could add that in German most Catholics say “DEE-ah-cohn” while Protestants tend to stress the final syllable “dee-ah-COHN”. I don’t know why. The institution itself is of course called “Diakonat” (“dee-ah-cohn-AHT”). If there was a “deaconry” meaning the place where the deacon lives or works, it would have to be “Diakonei” (“dee-ah-cohn-AYE”), but that word does not exist.

  8. American deacons in various dioceses in which I’ve served are well aware of this role, and most insist on filling it. My main problem as a parish liturgist is when deacons don’t keep or follow a schedule in a parish with multiple Masses and some dozens of lectors. Suddenly, a cleric may appear, and I’m most often the bringer of news to a lector who was assigned to this role. If lay people can commit to a schedule weeks in advance, I would expect no less of a deacon. I’d also expect the deacon to be a competent public speaker.

    Aware of the ecclesiastical tradition of the deacon at Mass and in service, I do have a concern: is it healthy to expect clerics to have so many competencies in various areas of church activity? If not, perhaps it is time to reexamine the tradition in some aspects. After all, we are only two-thousand years into an enterprise which may well last for millions of centuries.

    1. On the other hand, there’s nothing binding that says it’s necessary to assign a *separate* lector to offer the PoTF. If the issue becomes more than very occasional, one could choose to assign the PoTF to lector(s) proclaiming the lessons, who may then not offer the PoTF if a deacon does participate ministerially in a given Mass. The practice of having multiple lectors for the lessons seems to have grown at least in part out of a desire for redundancy if an assigned lector didn’t show up. The “model” that many (but not all) places follow is a practice. Like many things.

      1. GIRM 109: “if there are several readings, it is well to distribute them among a number of readers, and the same applies for other matters.” Not binding, but encouraged.

      2. Aaron

        True, but that flows from the factual condition of multiple qualified ministers being present, rather than recommending that such multiplicity be present:

        109. If there are several present who are able to exercise the same ministry, nothing forbids their distributing among themselves and performing different parts of the same ministry or duty. For example, one Deacon may be assigned to execute the sung parts, another to serve at the altar; if there are several readings, it is well to distribute them among a number of readers, and the same applies for other matters. However, it is not at all appropriate that several persons divide a single element of the celebration among themselves, e.g., that the same reading be proclaimed by two readers, one after the other, with the exception of the Passion of the Lord.

      3. Karl,

        See General Introduction to the Lectionary for Mass, para 52:

        Whenever there is more than one reading, it is better
        to assign the readings to different readers, if available.

        No context of a multiplicity of ministers there.

      4. Paul, the “if available” is the same thing. It does not say they ought to be available.

        I am not coming at this from a position that it’s bad to have multiple readers. I am coming at this from a position that questions the mentality that it’s bad if they aren’t present and available (I’ve seen the workings of this mentality in action, and it creates utterly unnecessary stress, a tail wagging dog thing).

    2. Todd – yes, I couldn’t agree more that deacons should be given a schedule and should be expected to adhere to it.

      If I am not mistaken, there is something somewhere in church law that states a deacon has a right and duty to exercise his ministry. In my opinion, that still wouldn’t excuse an unscheduled deacon from just popping up out of nowhere to demand his right to serve. If I waltzed into a Chicago church and told the pastor I was a deacon and intended to vest for the next mass, he’d tell me to go take a long walk off a short pier, and rightly so.

      Besides the sensitivity to lectors that Todd calls out, clergy should bear in mind that whenever they are added to a mass on an unscheduled basis, they may well be displacing an extraordinary minister of the Eucharist who was really looking forward to serving at mass. I understand the ordinary/extraordinary distinction, but that doesn’t mean that schedules should be flouted to maintain the distinction. This is the sort of thing that fans resentment toward the clergy.

      The only times I’ve been asked to step in and serve as a deacon on an unscheduled basis have been when there has been a change in the priest’s schedule, with the substituting priest’s health condition being such that it’s thought best that he shouldn’t be at the altar without having a deacon with him. Unfortunately, that does result in one extra eucharistic minister. On those occasions, I’ve offered to just sit out from distributing communion, so as not to displace another minister’s opportunity to serve.

      1. Confirmations (or other liturgies with bishops) can be tricky moments involving priests. In one diocese, I refused to schedule lay people as communion ministers if there was the likelihood one or more would be displaced if a priest decided to show up. Far easier for me to ask someone to serve in that role on short notice than ask a parent or sponsor to cancel.

        And sure, I was in a position to amend my practice in my previous parish where three readers were scheduled. I had rare problems with absenteeism, but I did have to contend with numbers of good lectors such that the choice was to serve four times a year versus twelve. My current diocese “requires” the scheduling of two persons. Not sure of their reasoning, but I concur with the practice.

  9. “I’d also expect the deacon to be a competent public speaker.”

    Todd, I agree. The expectations in this regard should be no different than for priests. Of course, some priests are better than others at public speaking, and we shouldn’t expect that it would be any different for deacons.

    I would note that, at least in the Chicago Archdiocese, the understanding of the deacon’s role has not always been the same throughout the history of the renewed diaconate. The understanding today is that the deacon exercises a tri-fold ministry, of word, sacrament and charity, and deacon formation should prepare a deacon to serve in all three areas. But in earlier days, the ministry of charity was thought – and is still thought today by at least some deacons – to be a deacon’s primary area of focus, with the ministry of word and sacrament as secondary. In the first years of the renewed diaconate in Chicago, it was possible to be ordained without receiving any homiletics training (and in fact, those first deacons weren’t permitted to preach, which is sort of a problematic view of the ministry in its own right).

    So some deacon candidates were invited to discern their calling to the diaconate without much regard for the deacon’s gifts as a public speaker. I’m not insisting that’s wrong in every case; but I do think that the church’s understanding and appreciation of the deacon’s liturgical role has increased over the years, and I’d think that the public speaking aspect of ministry gets more attention now than it did in the past.

  10. I’ve had a similar experience to Fritz in terms of needing to be flexible on this one. When, I was a (“transitional”) deacon, I would usual read the PofF when I was assisting at Mass (but would also attend daily Mass in modo laico about half the time). The exception was our weekly school Mass, though. The different classes would take it in turns to coordinate each Mass, which would include reading, serving (if old enough), working with the director of music to pick hymns, and writing and reading the intercessions. This seemed like such a formative experience that it would seem a shame to take it away from them.

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