This short paper discusses the function and role of the deacon in the Ukrainian Catholic Church. It does not set out make judgements about how the deacon functions in the various other Churches of the Eastern, far less does it comment on the deacon in the Roman Catholic Church. Furthermore, this will not be an attempt to construct a comprehensive theology of the diaconate nor is it a complete history of the development of the ministry of deacons. Nonetheless, reference will be made to aspects of this theology and history. There are some differences of style in the deaconate between the East and West, as will become clearer later in this paper.[1] It may be useful, initially, to clarify the essential nature of the diaconate before venturing into a description of his functions.

The ministry of the ordained deacon is exercised in relation to the ministry of bishop and priest. In what follows I draw heavily upon a theological article by Richard Gaillardetz.[2] He begins by making the point that it is Christian initiation that orders the church or configures the believer to Christ within the community of faith. He then turns to Greek Orthodox theologian and metropolitan, John Zizioulas, who famously said, “. . .there is no such thing as non-ordained persons in the church.”[3] He continues by pointing out that Baptism and Confirmation, as aspects of Christian Initiation, involve a laying on of hands. “The theological significance of this lies in the fact that it reveals the nature of Baptism and Confirmation as being essentially an ordination while it helps us understand better what ordination itself means.”[4]

            The view of the church as an ordered communion of relationships grounded in baptism provides the basis for understanding ministry. Ministry in the church is ordered in a variety of ways, but at least since the second century the church has called some to sacramental ordination as bishops, presbyters or deacons. Gaillardetz explains the ministry of the bishop as follows:

In the early church the privileged role of the bishop lay in his unique ministry of episcopē, the pastoral oversight of a Eucharistic community in which the bishop functioned as the chief judge and witness to the apostolic faith, the servant of the unity of that community and the agent for bringing that community into communion with other communities.

He then continues to describe the emergence of the presbyter succinctly thus: “By the third century the presbyter gradually was given a share in this ministry of apostolic oversight, though limited to oversight of a particular community under the leadership of the bishop.” He continues by describing what he understands to be the basic rationale for the ministry of bishop and presbyter:

Whether in the case of the bishop or later the presbyter, Eucharistic presidency followed from their de facto pastoral leadership over a community. Their ecclesial relationship to the local church was decisive. The empowerment for sacramental ministry was offered in view of their ecclesial relationship as leader of the community.

It is only then that Gaillardetz offers a rationale specific to the ministry of deacon:

The diaconate offered a somewhat different situation because the deacon’s sacramental relationship within the life of the church was not constituted by the ministry of apostolic oversight (episcopē), as with the bishop or local presbyter. However, and I take this to be decisive for understanding the diaconate, the deacon was ordained to serve the ministry of episcopē. In other words, the ministry of the deacon must be understood not in terms of powers conferred, nor by the functions or particular ministries he performs, nor as icon of Christ the Servant, nor by his induction into the clerical state, but by his public service to the apostolic ministry of episcopē exercised by the bishop or presbyter.[5]

In the light of this description I now move on to describe the ministry of the deacon in the Ukrainian Catholic Church. Statistics gathered from the Annuario Pontificio by Fr Ronald Roberson, CSP, are published by the Papal agency for humanitarian and pastoral support, the Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA) and are available on their webpage. Using this source we find that the data indicates that the number of Ukrainian Catholic deacons worldwide is 101. In comparison there are 50 bishops and 3,407 presbyters both secular and religious. Here in Australia the numbers are fewer but the proportions are different; there is 1 bishop, 23 priests and 7 deacons.

Just as in the Latin Church prior to the Vatican Council the diaconate had become simply a transitional step into the presbyterate so too in the Eastern Catholic Churches the lifelong ministry of deacons was virtually non-existent. The few deacons that existed were to be found in some monasteries and at major cathedrals. While in the case of the Eastern Catholic Churches the diaconate had not disappeared altogether a restoration at least in numbers has occurred recently.[6]

In early Christianity the deacons were essentially ministers of charity, who attended to the needs of the poor, the sick, prisoners and strangers. After the Constantinian settlement the Church attained a legal status which resulted in access to wealth by which charitable works were extended especially in major cities. In the sixth century in the city of Alexandria the Church fed 7,500 daily.[7] By the fourth century the large influx of Church members put pressure on the role of the deacon. Under these circumstances the role of the deacon shifted from personal ministry to administration of a charitable institution, which included lands and buildings dedicated to philanthropy. When the state finally stepped in and took charge of charitable works the charitable work of the deacon went into a decline. Parallel to this was the development of a more ritualized liturgy in which the role of the deacon blossomed. He was now a kind of liturgical fac totum who lead the prayers of the people, proclaimed the reading of the Gospel, and was equivalent to the master of ceremonies who announced the movement of the liturgical rite through key moments through dialogue with the bishop and presbyters.

Today deacons no longer have a juridical role even though some of them may assist the eparch as secretaries and treasurers. Their principle role is liturgical. The Divine Liturgy is normally structured with the assumption that the deacon will fully participate by calling the assembly to order by phrases such as “Wisdom,” “Let us be attentive” or “Let us pray to the Lord.”  He typically chants the many Litanies; He proclaims the gospel and may also preach the homily; during the anaphora he asks the priest to bless the bread and wine and he invites the assembly to exchange the Kiss of Peace; finally he also summons them to come to communion.  The eparchial statutes legislate: “The deacon’s primary ministry is liturgical, but not limited to this ministry, and should include other forms of service.” (3.12.1).

It may then come as no surprise that in the Eastern Churches “the deacon cannot celebrate the Divine Liturgy, chrismation, matrimony or the anointing of the sick.  His role is exclusively one of liturgical diakonia or assistance. [Historically deacons helped with the robing of the newly baptised.] The deacon does not presume to take a presidential role even when the presbyter is absent.  Deacons may distribute communion to the faithful.

They participate fully in all meetings of the presbyterate. For the most part they don’t preach unless they have a suitable education and the necessary aptitude.

The education of deacons in Australia usually takes place in programs provided by the local theologates of the Latin Church. Although this may provide the candidate with an introduction to Western theology and scripture, it leaves them entirely lacking in patristics, eastern theology and liturgical theology. A basic spiritual formation is usually offered by the eparchy. The seminary is not considered a suitable place of formation for married deacons who will continue in secular employment. Recently some deacons have undertaken correspondence courses from those seminaries run by Eastern Catholic Churches. Programs coming out of the Byzantine Metropolitan Catholic Seminary of Saints Cyril and Methodius in Pittsburgh are especially helpful. Canon law is supervised by a priest of the Ukrainian Catholic Eparchy, Professor Paul Babie, Associate Dean of Law at the University of Adelaide. The ongoing education of some of our deacons is of a very high standard. Formation is provided by the local church. The candidate for ordination is expected to be present at the presbytery where he gradually learns many aspects of parish life and participates in the conversations and prayer life of the other priests. The majority of our deacons are married. They may not remarry after ordination. All of them either continue in secular employment or are retired with superannuation benefits and/or a pension. Contributed service to the Church is voluntary. They live in their own homes and support themselves. No distinction is made between transitional and permanent deacons, so that the bishop might encourage the ordination to priesthood by any deacon he deems fit for the ministry.

In the modern world the role of the deacon is constantly evolving. Recent developments include the participation of deacons in visitation of the sick, assistance with the management of eparchial and parish offices and catechetical work. The 1987 Synod of the Ukrainian Catholic Church held in Rome published a job description for deacons.[8] In remote places such as the Canadian far north and in Australia there are some so called priest-less parishes where for many years deacons have served as parish administrator. In such cases, when the good of the faithful demands it, the bishop may call upon the deacon to fulfil the following functions:

  • To serve the special communion service of the Byzantine Rite. This service does not contain the Eucharistic Prayer (Anaphora) and therefore requires that the deacon obtains consecrated bread from a priest either his of his own Church or a local priest of the Latin Church.
  • He can baptise people but he cannot confirm them.
  • He can distribute Holy Communion outside of the Divine Liturgy especially when he visits the sick at home or in hospital.
  • He can prepare people for death, but he cannot hear confessions or give anointing of the sick and dying. For that a Catholic priest must be called.
  • He can conduct other liturgical services such as the Hours of Vespers, Compline Matins etc.
  • He can bless people, water, houses, graves, flowers, fruit, icons, church banners, and flags and so on.



As more deacons come forward the church benefits from the many and varied skills deacons bring with them to the ministry. Currently they come from the following fields: education, computer programming, photography, librarianship and academic resource management. Sometimes former seminarians who married, raised a family and worked in a secular career approach the bishop seeking ordination to the office of deacon. There is a constant flow of enquiries from men in many walks of life.

These developments hold great promise for the life of the Ukrainian Catholic Church. John Chryssavgis cites a few paragraphs from Hans Kung’s early work, The Church (English translation 1967) in a section of Chryssavgis’s book dealing with the deacon as the servant of Christ. But given the gifts which deacons bring to the life of our church the following reflection seems appropriate:

Jesus’ fundamental concern is with living for others (cf. Mark 9:35; 10:43-45; Matt.20:26-28); and the origins of the word diakonia, in contrast to other similar verbs, indicate that a completely personal service is implied. This is an essential element in being a disciple: a man is a disciple of Jesus through service of his fellow men. Jesus chose and emphasised this new conception of service. . . . This is a point where something distinctively Christian can be discerned, as the choice of a completely new word shows. The consequences are enormous. Is it possible to be among the followers of Jesus any kind of office which is based on law and power, and which corresponds to the office of secular potentates?. . . .

Or can there be among the followers of Jesus any kind of office, which is based in knowledge and dignity, and corresponds to the office of the scribes?. . . .

It is not law or power, knowledge or dignity but service, which is the basis of discipleship. [9]

The purpose of this paper has been to offer an insight into the role of the deacon and the many functions he is able to serve. As we have seen he is certainly a major liturgical minister in the Ukrainian Catholic Church. Without him the Divine Liturgy demands much more of the priest celebrant. It is also clear that the deacon has functioned as an essential agent of pastoral ministry when a priest is not available to serve in remote places. In the case of the Ukrainian Church the deacon comes with his unique background and a formation specifically designed for the needs of the local church.


[1] One of the very best publications on the topic comes from the research of a Greek Orthodox Deacon, John Chryssavagis, born in Australia, Archdeacon of the Ecumenical Throne and now serving in the Greek Orthodox Diocese of America. See John Chryssavgis, Remembering and Reclaiming Diakonia: The Diaconate Yesterday and Today (Brookline, Mass., Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 2009).

[2] Dr. Richard R. Gaillardetz is the Joseph Professor of Catholic Systematic Theology at Boston College and the director of graduate studies.

[3] John D. Zizioulas, Being as Communion, (New York: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press 1985) 215-16.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Richard R. Gaillardetz, Towards a Contemporary Theology of the Diaconate. Worship 79 (September, 2005) 419-38.

[6] For a popular treatment of the diaconate in Eastern Catholic Churches see the following 2 articles by Protodeacon David Kennedy from the parish Church of St. Elias, Brampton in the Eparchy of Toronto, Canada. A Sketch of the Diaconate in the Eastern Catholic Churches and The Diaconate in the Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church An outline of a Paradigm Accessed 2nd April, 2015.

[7] A comprehensive study of the relation between wealth and poverty in the Western Church may be found in Peter Brown, Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD (Princeton University Press, 2012).

[8] Peter Stasiuk, C.Ss.R., “Reverend Father Deacon” in In Touch with Reality (Melbourne, published for the Ukrainian Catholic Eparchy of Sts Peter &Paul of Melbourne by Monash University Slavic Section, 1997) p. 122.

[9] Chryssavgis p. 23-4.

Very Rev. Brian Kelty, Ph.D.
Episcopal Vicar for Evangelization
Ukrainian Catholic Eparchy of Sts Peter & Paul, Australia & N.Z.

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