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Deacons Focus of Oriental Orthodox-Roman Catholic Consultation

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  • Thomas Daniel
    Deacons Focus of Oriental Orthodox-Roman Catholic Consultation, June 9-10,in New Rochelle, New York WASHINGTON (June 26, 2003) -����� The annual meeting of the
    Message 1 of 1 , Jul 26, 2003
      Deacons Focus of Oriental Orthodox-Roman Catholic Consultation,
      June 9-10,in New Rochelle, New York

      WASHINGTON (June 26, 2003) -— The annual meeting of the Oriental
      Orthodox-Roman Catholic Consultation took place at St. Nersess
      Armenian Seminary in New Rochelle, NY, June 9 and 10, 2003. It was
      chaired jointly by Bishop Howard Hubbard of Albany, New York, and the
      Right Rev. Chor-Bishop John Meno of the Syriac Orthodox Church of
      The main topic for discussion was the diaconate in the theology and
      practice of our churches. On June 9 the Consultation heard a brief
      presentation from each church participating in the dialogue. During
      the first millennium all our churches experienced deacons as vital
      ministers with a special emphasis on social and administrative
      duties, working very closely with the local bishop. But in most cases
      by the beginning of the second millennium the diaconate had become a
      transitional state that was required before priesthood ordination.
      There is also a common understanding that deacons share in the
      sacrament of Holy Orders along with priests and bishops, but there
      have been unique developments in each tradition.

      Father Simeon Odabashian of the Eastern Diocese of the Armenian
      Church noted that while his church technically prohibits marriage
      after ordination to the sub-diaconate, this rule has generally fallen
      into disuse and deacons are allowed to marry up to the point of their
      priestly ordination. Deacons play a central role in the Armenian
      liturgy, which requires the presence of at least one deacon at the
      Eucharist, daily offices and sacramental services. The ancient social
      role of deacons is being revived in the Armenian Church in America,
      where they train children, train altar servers, visit the sick, and
      take on responsibilities in parish administration. There are now both
      permanent and transitional deacons in the Armenian church, and some
      cases of deacons in charge of parishes where no priest is available.
      More intensive training programs for permanent deacons are now being
      planned. The ordination of women to the diaconate through the laying-
      on-of-hands by the bishop is also known in the Armenian Church, but
      it has almost died out in recent years. There are plans in Armenia
      and elsewhere to revive this ministry. Historically this was a local
      phenomenon never dispersed throughout the church, and women deacons
      always had a range of duties more narrowly defined than that of men

      Father Shenouda Maher Ishak spoke on behalf of the Coptic Orthodox
      Church, which counts the diaconate as one of seven clerical orders.
      The deacon has such an indispensable role in the liturgy that a
      priest is not allowed to celebrate the Eucharist without one. Others
      of lower orders may assume this role if a deacon is not present.
      Coptic deacons are not allowed to baptize, but in the early centuries
      had a prominent role in devotional censing. They are not allowed to
      marry after ordination. At present there are very few full time
      permanent and professional deacons in the Coptic Church, since almost
      all of them are called to higher orders. The Coptic Church is now in
      the process of restoring the female diaconate in three orders: the
      female reader for women (now called "devoted one"), sub-deaconess
      (now called "assistant deaconess") and deaconess. The Coptic Holy
      Synod has made it clear that deaconesses may not in any way
      participate in service of the altar or sacerdotal service. The rite
      of initiation into the female diaconate is performed by a bishop
      without the laying-on-of-hands but with a signing of the cross three
      times over the candidate. In their ministry they are to work
      exclusively with women and children. They assist at the baptism of
      women, visit sick women in hospitals, supervise women's activities in
      parishes, and clean the church building except for the sanctuary area
      which they may not enter.

      Father Michael Tekle Mariam Greene offered a presentation on the
      diaconate in the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church. Deacons are very
      numerous in Ethiopia, and play a prominent role in the parishes where
      they serve. Their numbers in Ethiopia increased dramatically during
      the decades of Marxist rule in reaction to state-sponsored atheism.
      The function of deacons is primarily liturgical. At least two deacons
      are required for the celebration of the Eucharist. They prepare the
      components of Holy Communion and ensure that the correct prayers of
      the day are sung. But deacons also have a wider role in the
      community: they participate in the education of parishioners, teach
      in Sunday School, and are increasingly involved today in training new
      candidates for the diaconate. The order is made up predominantly of
      young men who serve as deacons until marriage, after which most are
      ordained priests. In the Ethiopian diaspora they often teach young
      people about Ethiopian traditions and language. Although there is
      mention of women deacons in ancient Ethiopian texts, there are none
      in the church today.

      Very Rev. Raban Eugene Aydin spoke about the evolution of the
      diaconate in the Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch. Today the Syriac
      Church has five orders within the diaconate: archdeacon, deacon,
      subdeacon, lector and chanter. Deacons are ordained by the bishop,
      serve primarily on the altar, and assist the priest in the
      celebration of the liturgy. Some teach and instruct the faithful or
      carry out charitable work. Each archdiocese may have one archdeacon
      who is called "the right hand of the bishop," working closely with
      him in administrative and liturgical duties. Deaconesses were well
      known in the ancient Syriac church, and the bishop laid hands on them
      in the rite of ordination. In the sixth century they poured the wine
      and water into the chalice, read the Gospel in gatherings of women,
      placed the incense, washed sacred vessels, lit the candles and
      cleaned the sanctuary. By the end of the seventh century their role
      was already being restricted and, some scholars would later assert
      that the ordination of deaconesses was of a different nature from
      that of male deacons. The ancient order for the ordination of
      deaconesses is still used today with some adaptation in the Syriac
      Church, but women are ordained only to the order of chantress, the
      lowest of the diaconal orders. Their role is to sing liturgical hymns
      in the church and to teach children in Sunday school. His Eminence
      Metropolitan Mor Cyril Aphrem Karim added that the ancient rite of
      ordination of deaconesses left out some sections that are present in
      the rite for the ordination of male deacons, including the invocation
      of the Holy Spirit over the candidate. Otherwise the wording is
      almost the same. The deaconesses had no authority in the sanctuary,
      but fulfilled some duties there in the absence of a priest. They
      could give communion to women and children, and assisted in the
      anointing of women at Baptism.

      Father Anthony J. DeLuca commented briefly on the practice of the
      Malankara Syrian Orthodox Church in India, which is linked to the
      Syriac Orthodox Patriarchate. In the Malankara tradition the apostles
      were regarded as deacons and sometimes Christ as well. There is some
      evidence that the women called deaconesses in ancient times were
      actually the wives of deacons. Until fifty or sixty years ago
      deaconesses in the Malankara Church were the wives of priests, and
      assisted with the anointing of women at their baptism.

      In a presentation of the diaconate in the Maronite Catholic Church,
      the Rev. Chorbishop John D. Faris summarized the statutes concerning
      deacons and subdeacons in the pastoral handbook of the Eparchy of St.
      Maron (Eastern United States). Almost all the permanent deacons in
      the Maronite Church today are in North America; this may be due to
      the fact that most married deacons in the Middle East can proceed to
      ordination as priests. The statutes outline the duties of subdeacons
      and deacons, and the eparchy's very successful formation and
      ministerial programs. Subdeacons can enter marriage but deacons

      Paulist Father Ronald G. Roberson then gave a presentation on the
      diaconate in the Latin Church. In the West the diaconate declined as
      a permanent office in the second half of the first millennium and by
      the seventh century had become a transitional step for candidates for
      the priesthood. The Council of Trent (1563) mandated a restoration of
      the office but this was not carried out. Pope Pius XII expressed
      openness to the idea but it was only at the Second Vatican Council
      that the diaconate was restored as a permanent order in the church.
      The official restoration was carried out by Pope Paul VI in the 1967
      document, Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem. It specifies that deacons may
      assist at liturgical celebrations, administer baptism, distribute the
      Eucharist, bless marriages in the absence of a priest, preside at
      funerals, read the Gospel and preach, and assume charitable and
      administrative tasks. Married men over the age of 35 can be ordained
      to this permanent office; they may not marry afterwards. This new
      ministry has spread rapidly in the church. Today there are about
      28,000 world wide and 13,764 in the United States. The possibility of
      ordaining women to the diaconate is still an unsettled question in
      the Catholic Church. Latin rituals for ordaining deaconesses exist
      from as late as the 10th century, but the precise sacramental nature
      of these ordinations has not yet been determined authoritatively.
      There are recent indications that the Holy See intends to continue
      the exclusion of women from this office.

      On the morning of June 10, Deacon Anthony Cassanetto, the director of
      the Permanent Diaconate Formation Program in the Archdiocese of New
      York, joined the meeting. He offered an overview of the program
      currently in place in the Archdiocese. The program emphasizes
      understanding the diaconate primarily as an order of service. It aims
      to be spiritually enriching, pastoral in orientation, theologically
      sound and well-integrated, and adapted to local needs and resources.
      The program focuses on developing a diaconal ministry devoted to the
      Word of God, the liturgy, and charity/justice. The great majority of
      the candidates are married men, and their wives must sign a statement
      permitting their husband to enter the process before they will be
      admitted to the formation program. It is a rich and intensive program
      with a total of 1,263 hours of formation over a four-year period.

      The members of the Consultation also had an opportunity to exchange
      information about major events in the lives of their churches. These
      included the appointment of Bishop Brian Farrell as Secretary of the
      Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and of Archbishop
      Angelo Amato as Secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the
      Faith, developments in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, a new patriarch
      of the Eritrean Orthodox Church, the document Reflections on Covenant
      and Mission issued by a Catholic-Jewish dialogue group, the 1700th
      anniversary of the dedication of the Cathedral in Holy Etchmiadzin
      and the upcoming visit of a delegation of US Catholic Bishops to
      Armenia, the Preparation of the Catholic Church-Oriental Orthodox
      Churches International Joint Commission for Dialogue, the progress of
      the Anglican-Oriental Orthodox international dialogue, the situation
      of the Coptic Orthodox Church, the visit of Pope Shenouda III to
      Armenia, and the continuing division among Oriental Orthodox in

      During the meeting the members of the Consultation participated with
      pleasure in Armenian morning and evening prayer in the chapel of St.
      Nersess Seminary. The next meeting of the Consultation was scheduled
      for June 7-8, 2004, at the Cardinal Spellman Retreat House in Bronx,
      New York. It will focus on the evangelization ministries of our

      The United States Oriental Orthodox-Roman Catholic Consultation was
      established in 1978, and is sponsored jointly by the Bishops'
      Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the USCCB and
      the Standing Conference of Oriental Orthodox Churches in America. In
      1995 it published Oriental Orthodox-Roman Catholic Interchurch
      Marriages and Other Pastoral Relationships, which includes pastoral
      guidelines for marriages involving the faithful of the two communions
      as well as ample documentation about the development of our
      ecumenical relationship in recent decades.

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