Deacons and the RCIA

While researching a book on the liturgical ministry of deacons, I have been struck by the relative absence of deacons from the RCIA. While deacons are mentioned in some places, such as the specification that they can anoint catechumens, there are a number of places where both logic and tradition would indicate a role for the deacon, but the rite either gives that role to the celebrant or assigns it to an unspecified “assisting minister.” Instances of the former would be the various dismissals of catechumens and the elect in the different rites or the invitation to the elect to kneel during the scrutinies. Instances of the latter would be the litany of intercessions for the catechumens/elect that occur in the rites. Of course, in the latter case there is no problem with the deacon being the “assisting minister,” but in the former case some of the more rubrically scrupulous might not be comfortable giving the deacon parts explicitly assigned to the celebrant.

One of the notable changes in the Third Edition of the Roman Missal is the attention it gives, by comparison with earlier editions, to the role of the deacon. The obvious reason for this it that there are a lot more deacons around today than there were in 1975, when the Second Edition was issued. The same seems to have been the case in 1972, when the RCIA was promulgated. By the time the American adaptation of the RCIA appeared (1988, I believe), deacons were more prevalent in the Church in North America, but this seems not to have penetrated to the level of the liturgy. So perhaps a future edition of the RCIA might give similar attention to diaconal ministry in the rites. Of course, given the speed with which these things happen in the Church, it may well not be in my lifetime.


  1. I think your analysis is spot on, Fritz. It’s the time in which the Latin editio typica was written that framed the case. 1972. Very few deacons at that time.

    It’s a happy fault that 1988 text didn’t do more. With the Liturgiam Authenticam retranslation of the American text now underway, such references would now be taken out. Count your blessings that this isn’t what happened. At least no one can say that diaconal ministry is now suppressed… it was just not there to start with.

    The framers of the text DID seem to foresee a role for deacons in missionary stations where there is no priest readily available. Hence, a deacon may preside at the Rite of Acceptance into the Order of Catechumens. And — surprise! — a deacon may preside at the Scrutinies. In the US, where we normally hold them within Mass, the presiding celebrant of the Mass also presides at the Scrutiny, and I think that’s right and proper. But what if you didn’t have a Mass? Were you in a rural village somewhere in Central America or Africa, where the priest only gets out there once a month or less, a deacon to celebrate the Scrutinies on the proper Sundays — at a word service, obviously — would be very handy to have around.

    I might add that deacons who do prison ministry may be having Sunday celebrations in the absence of a priest, and they could do Scrutinies on the proper days.

  2. Three footwear edition of the Missal outlined the role of deacon and subdeacon pretty efficiently. I think the suppression of minor orders played into a reduction of the mention of all others in the rubrics besides the Priest. Pretty ironic, considering the permanent diaconate. had just been introduced.

    I also believe that the 1962 revisions to the reception of catechumens (that RCIA was based on) actually referenced the deacon pretty clearly in the rubrics.

  3. Good observations, but be careful what you ask for. If many get their way, the only revisions to the RCIA would be to cancel the whole enterprise and go back to private instruction on the catechism by the priest in his office and private baptism on a Sunday afternoon in an alcove of the church.

    1. @Scott Pluff:

      Scott Pluff: the only revisions to the RCIA would be to cancel the whole enterprise and go back to private instruction on the catechism by the priest in his office and private baptism on a Sunday afternoon in an alcove of the church.

      As well it should be! I remember that the university chapel I attended in Toronto had a special flag and “theme song” hymn for the RCIA participants. Before the credo the RCIA participants were marched up to the altar, blessed by the priest, and then marched out of the church accompanied by the theme song and cheesy flag. The surreal event was perhaps not unlike Dave Letterman’s band but in an liturgical context. Do note that the choir (with saxophone no less) visually dominated the area behind the altar, as if Mass were its “show”. Good grief!

      An unbaptized person who can articulate the orthodox faith to a pastor in an oral examination should be chrismated forthwith. Similarly, Anglicans and Lutherans inter alia seeking fully communion with the Church who likewise articulate the orthodox faith well should receive their confirmations as soon as possible. The pastor need only give his satis.

      Regeneration and the grace conferred by the Holy Spirit cannot wait!

      1. @Jordan Zarembo:
        Jordan, I can only point out that there is nothing in the RCIA that mandates cheesy flags or Lettermanesque theme songs. It’s like objecting to the Usus antiquior because of ugly fiddlebacks or Rossini propers.

        As to the rites themselves, are you really opposed to exorcisms? Agreed, however, on Anglican’s and Lutherans who articulate the orthodox faith.

      2. @Fritz Bauerschmidt:

        Yes, agreed Deacon Fritz. Any excesses are ultimately a matter of taste. To be honest, I did not often worship in this church. Perhaps many parishioners liked or at least did not object to this presentation. My hyperbole was unwarranted.

        I also agree with you that catechumens should receive exorcisms. However, a catechumen who can articulate the faith well should not have to participate in parts of the RCIA instructional program which he or she already understands. I agree with you that catechumens, regardless of knowledge, must participate in the ritual components of the catechumenal process.

        I suspect that RCIA is often a single-speed instructional process. In that case, persons of different levels of understanding are required to go through the same instructional steps. Perhaps it would be better for some catechumens to move more quickly through instruction than others. In some cases, perhaps private study might be better. I understand that there is a social component to RCIA, but this tangent may not appeal to all who are preparing for chrismation.

      3. @Jordan Zarembo:

        The heart of the RCIA is what you describe, a process adapted to each person’s needs. Most with a strong relationship with Christ do not need the same things that an uncatechized unbaptized person needs.

        I think it is in a section about adaptations for the U.S. , but it might be elsewhere, candidates are divided up into well catechized baptized persons, uncatechized baptized, and uncatechized unbaptized. I remember wondering what should be done about well catechized unbaptized persons. They are pretty rare, but they do show up from time to time.

        The show you describe is for the uncatechized usually. The line between baptized an unbaptized should probably be as strong as the line between ordained and unordained, if not stronger. If you see only the unbaptized, or uncatechized, going off, you shouldn’t assume that is how the baptized will be treated.

      4. @Jim McKay:

        Thank you Jim for your explanation. I now see that RCIA is a complex endeavor. I have thought of volunteering for RCIA at my parish, but my inductive reasoning (ie. “shoot from the hip”) is not conducive to good instruction.

        Sorry to take the thread off course. Back to Deacon Fritz.

  4. Thanks, Fritz, for the insight. People might be surprised that the RCIA makes no mention at all of an “RCIA team” specifically. But it does list the ministers involved, starting with the faithful, in paragraph 9. The role of the deacon is laid out in paragraph 15.

    And two other points of clarification, slightly off-topic:

    First, the posture for the elect during the intercessions in the scrutinies is standing. See the rubric that ends paragraph 152 (U.S.A.) for the First Scrutiny, for example.

    And second, @Jim McKay: Thanks for noting the important distinctions. Usually because RCIA is often the only adult formation process happening in a parish, many parishes will tend to lump anyone and everyone into the RCIA. But paragraph 400 (U.S.A.) makes it very clear that when dealing with those who are baptized, the Rite is specifically for those who had received no further instruction after their baptism, that is, they are uncatechized.

    Those who have participated in some kind of Sunday school, or have received Communion and/or Confirmation, have had some kind of instruction and formation, even if limited or incomplete. Therefore, they are considered, for ritual purposes, catechized. It does not mean they do not need any further instruction before celebrating the sacraments; they absolutely do (as do all of us need ongoing formation). But these baptized catechized persons are not meant to be placed into the RCIA, which is focused on moving a person from unbelief to belief.

    The General Directory for Catechesis, chapter 2, is very helpful in delineating the three levels of catechesis. The RCIA is concerned with those who are typically in the first (initial proclamation) and second (initiatory catechesis) levels of catechesis. The first is the proclamation of the Christian message, implicit and explicit (see Pope Paul VI, On Evangelization) and the inquirer’s initial response to it. The second is the formal instruction outlined in the RCIA para. 75, which apprentices a person in the basics of Christian life.

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