The Byzantine Deacon
By B. D. Kennedy, B.A., M.Div., Th.M., B.Ed.
Protodeacon, Eparchy of Toronto, UGCC

In order for us to gain an understanding of the ministry of the deacon as we find it today in the Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church, it is of fundamental importance to have before us a rudimentary outline of the history of this ministry.
The following historical sketch should be treated as no more than a first step. To date, there has been no in-depth published study of the history of the diaconate in either the Eastern or the Western Churches beyond the early Middle Ages. There are at least fourteen hundred years where our knowledge of the history of the diaconate is quite incomplete.
The Diaconate in the Early Church (1st-4th Centuries)
The diaconate in the Byzantine East has its origins in the pre-Nicene and apostolic periods. It was during these periods that the essential paradigm of the diaconal ministry of the present-day Constantinopolitan tradition was worked out. In this pre-conciliar period, the theology, spirituality, and functions of the diaconate were formulated.
In the early second century, Ignatius of Antioch explicitly presented a typology of the hierarchical ministries of his own day: the bishop is the image of God the Father, the presbyters are the image of the council of the apostles, and the deacon is the image of Jesus Christ. This paradigm of Ignatius is still influential in the Eastern Churches today.
Of the many church orders and patristic writings which concern themselves with the diaconate, the Didascalia Apostolorum is of paramount importance. This church order continues on with the Ignatian typology and gives us a clear picture of the deacon’s relationship to his bishop.
“Let the bishops and the deacons, then be of one mind; and do you shepherd the people diligently with one accord. For you ought both to be one body, father and son: for you are in the likeness of the Lordship. And let the deacon make known all things to the bishop, even as Christ to His Father. But what things he can let the deacon order, and all the rest let the bishop judge. Yet let the deacon be the hearing of the bishop, and his mouth and his heart and his soul; for when you are both of one mind, through your agreement, there will be peace also in the Church.”
The deacons during this period are assistants and helpers to the bishop. They minister to the poor, the sick, the widows, the orphans, and the needy, not because of their own office, but as assistants to the bishop, who by his office has a special responsibility for the Church’s mission of diakonia. Deacons function as the ambassadors of their bishop – delivering correspondence and at times representing their bishop at synods. At the liturgical services the deacons assist the bishop but do not as the presbyters, share in his presidential role.
The Apostolic Constitutions of the fourth century explicitly forbid the deacon to celebrate or to baptize. This church order presents a liturgical role for the deacon, which has undergone only a minimal change in the Constantinopolitan tradition to the present day. The diaconal synaptes or litanies of the Apostolic Constitutions are almost identical to the diaconal litanies of today.
The diaconate at this time was not conceived as a stepping stone to the priesthood. In the words of Henry Chadwick, “The diaconate was not originally a probationary order for the presbyterate, but normally lifelong, unless a deacon were made a bishop.”
This practice still occurs among the Orthodox, e.g. the present Archbishop of the Old Believers of Moscow and All Russia, ALIMPIJ was elected archbishop when in the order of deacon. In the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, it is not uncommon for those in the order of deacon to be elected to the episcopate. The previous Great Archdeacon, TARASSIOS was consecrated Metropolitan of Buenos Aires in June of 2001.
The Diaconate in Byzantium (4th-9th Centuries)
After the peace of Constantine, the office of the deacon underwent a number of changes. Church structure evolved in order to accommodate the large influx of converts. Presbyters began to preside as the bishop’s representatives at liturgical services on a regular basis. The deacon’s role in the ministry to the needy takes on a different emphasis. He becomes an economos and administrator due to the numbers who now receive daily assistance from the Church. In the sixth century, the Church of Alexandria fed as many as 7,500 persons per day. This had the unhappy result of removing the deacon from a personal ministry of charity and emphasizing his administrative function as a dispenser of alms.
In the Byzantine Empire, the deacons usually held the highest ecclesiastical offices in the patriarchal administration. They exercised their ministry in the following posts as synkellos (personal confidant to the patriarch/bishop and frequently the successor to the patriarchal throne), economos (manager of the property of the Church), sakellarios (supervisor of the monasteries), skeuophylax, (the sacristan and supervisor of church services, keeper of the liturgical vessels, vestments and books), chartophylax, (the librarian and archivist, but eventually supervisor of the clergy, notary of marriages, and head of the patriarchal chancery), and sakellion (supervisor of the parishes).
During these times (the 4th-9th centuries), the liturgical rites underwent a number of changes which developed the ceremonial of the basic liturgical structure. This development enhanced the prominence of the deacon’s role in the liturgical rites although his essential function as a liturgical assistant did not change.
We encounter from the fourth century onwards the office of the archdeacon. He was the bishop’s chief administrative officer and liturgical assistant. The holder of this office “surpassed all other members of the clergy in prestige and authority.”
It should be noted that the archdeacon in the Byzantium was never in priest’s orders except among some Eastern Catholics under imitation of the Latin rite. The rank of archdeacon is bestowed by a bishop through the laying on of hands. It can be compared to the Blessing of an Abbot and from a Latin perspective would be considered a sacramental having a permanent effect.
In current use, two titles are used for this office: the archdeacon who properly speaking is a monastic and the protodeacon who is a non-monastic. However, at present there is no clearly defined administrative role for this rank, yet the archdeacon/protodeacon still functions as the bishop’s chief liturgical assistant. He has liturgical precedence among the deacons and he presents candidates for ordination.
Originally in Constantinople there was only one archdeacon who held the office of the archdiaconate. In the 4th and 5th centuries the archdeacon was the minister to the patriarch. He supervised the discipline of the clergy and the laity. He presented candidates for ordination and heard the disputes that arose among the clergy and rendered his judgement on them. He held great authority in the Church and his co-operative support was needed by the bishop in his own initiatives.
Following the Council of Chalcedon, the economos, another deacon took over the administration of church properties from the office of the archdeacon. With the rise of the office of the chartophylax (archivist and notary), usually held by a deacon, the jurisdiction of the archdeacon became diminished until it finally was assumed by the chartophylax.
From the middle of the 5th century, the office of the archdeacon was restricted to acting as the “master of ceremonies” for the liturgical services of the Great Church of Christ the Holy Wisdom, the Hagia Sophia. The archdeacon retained liturgical precedence over all the other deacons when the bishop celebrated but he no longer had jurisdiction over them.
There was also a second archdeacon in Constantinople besides the Great Archdeacon of the Patriarch. This was the archdeacon of the imperial court. He preceded all the dignitaries of the clergy of the Church and followed immediately after the metropolitans of the Great Synod. This archdeacon was chosen from the exokatakoiloi, the six principal officers of the patriarch: the Great Economos, the Great Sakellarios, the Great Skeuophylax, the Great Chartophylax, the Sakellion and the Protekdikos (a priest who acted as the patriarchial penitentary). Frequently, these officials were deacons except the protekdikos. After the fall of the empire, the office of the imperial archdeacon seems to be transfer to the archdeacon of the patriarch. The Great Archdeacon of the Patriarch from this time had authority over the other deacons and those in minor orders. Today, the office of the Great Archdeacon still exists in Constantinople. However, the office holder no longer has jurisdiction. He serves as a member of the patrirarchial curia along with the Second Deacon, the Third Deacon, and the Patriarchial Deacon.
This office became part of the curia in the newly established eparchies of Kievan Rus’. “In Byzantium every hierarch had at his side a group of eparchial officials: the number varied depending on the size and importance of the see… About the only lone of these officials to appear in Rus’ was the archdeacon. Though reference to him and his various functions (from a kind of vicar general to master of ceremonies) are not found in pre-Mongolian Rus’, but come from later centuries, it is clear from his invariable presence at the bishop’s side that this office dates from the beginnings of church organization in Kievan Rus’.”
In order to arrive at a clearer idea of the number of deacons in the Byzantine period, we can turn to a decree of the Emperor Justinian issued in AD 535. He limited the clergy of the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople to 60 priests, 100 deacons, 40 deaconesses, 90 subdeacons, 110 readers, 25 cantors, and 100 doorkeepers. In the next century, the Emperor Heraclius set the limit at 80 priests, 150 deacons, 40 deaconesses, 70 subdeacons, 160 readers, 25 cantors, and 100 doorkeepers. From these statistics we can see that the diaconate certainly made an increase in numbers during the seventh century.
The Diaconate in the Kyivan Tradition (10th Century to Present)
From the tenth century onwards the deacon’s position as an administrator waned as the state welfare system relieved the Church of its charitable duties. From this time, it was more common to find that metropolitans held most of the offices in the patriarchal curia.
By the time of the Baptism of Kievan-Rus’ (modern day Ukraine) in AD 988, the diaconate in the Byzantine Church focused primarily on liturgical and administrative duties. This was the paradigm of diaconate which was introduced into the Kievan state in the tenth century. Although, the historical sources for this period do not give us a detailed picture of the diaconate, we have enough knowledge to presuppose that the diaconate followed the same pattern in the Kievan Church as in the mother Church of Constantinople.
The churches in Kievan-Rus’ tried to model themselves to the best of their ability on those in Byzantium. After the Mongolian conquest in the 13th century there was a great upheaval in Church life but there is no reason to presume that the diaconate was reduced at this stage to a transitional order.
This change in the diaconate to a solely probationary order on the way to the presbyterate seems to have occurred only among those who entered into union with Rome in AD 1596.
In the wake of Western scholastic theology, the diaconate was seen to be no more than a preliminary step to the priesthood. Following union with the Church of Rome, we notice that the diaconate as a permanent order of the hierarchy and as an essential part of the Church’s life and ministry almost disappeared in the Ukrainian Catholic Church.
The model of diaconate adopted by the Ukrainian Catholic Church in this period was the one current in the West. However, there were to be found in some of the monasteries and cathedrals deacons who did not aspire to the priesthood but this was rare. Yet, it should be brought to mind that the liturgical texts always presupposed the liturgical assistance of the deacon as the norm whether there was a deacon present to fulfill the function or not.
One very serious abuse not only of the diaconal function but also of the hierarchical nature of the ministry, and of the Church herself was the practice of priests vesting as deacons and presuming to fulfill the diaconal liturgical role. This abuse was given approbation in the Ordo Celebrationis: “In seminaries, houses of studies, and other places where there are numerous priests, the priest who functions in the capacity of a deacon, discharging his diaconal ministry completely, therefore in the Liturgy in which he serves as deacon, he receives Holy Communion from the celebrant and consumes whatever remains after Communion. The same Roman Congregation has now prohibited this practice:
“The minor Orders and the diaconate are not mere formalities in preparation for presbyterial ordination. They provide a specific service in the Church, and as such are to be effectively exercised in a definitive way by those who do not intend to enter the presbyterate, and in a sufficiently ample way by those who are to be ordained presbyters. This is especially valid for the diaconate. In this sense, misgivings should not be had toward conferring minor Orders and even the diaconate on those who comport themselves well, are suitable and appropriately prepared for the responsibility they assume, and declare themselves available for the service of the Church, even if they must continue to live with their families and practice their own trades. Thus, the ministers necessary for a dignified and fitting celebration of the liturgy are obtained, avoiding the practice, different also in this case from the Latin Church in which it is no longer in use, of having ministers of a higher rank (the most frequent case is that of presbyters functioning as deacons), or of permanently appointing to the laity liturgical tasks expected of a minister: practices to be eliminated.”
While it seems that the liturgical law is explicitly clear on this matter, in practice abuses still continue.
Orientalium Ecclesiarum §17 states that “the holy council wishes the institution of the permanent diaconate to be restored where it has fallen into disuse, in order that the ancient discipline of the Sacrament of Orders may flourish once more in the Eastern Churches.”
It is clear from this decree of Vatican II that the diaconate in the Ukrainian Catholic Church must be firmly grounded in the patristic period. It is not a new order but an ancient one rooted in the early Church before the division of East and West. The diaconate in the Eastern Catholic Churches must bear identification with the diaconate in the Orthodox Churches. To fail to do this will be to fail in their special task within the Catholic Church of seeking full union with the separated Eastern Churches.
In light of Vatican II, the diaconate in the Ukrainian Catholic Church has entered a new period. This revival has been fostered by the local hierarchs. The Eparchy of Toronto has been at the forefront of this movement. The deacon’s role in the liturgical and charitable missions has been restored. Most of these men are married and are employed in secular occupations by which they support themselves and their families. Thus, their service to the Church is part-time and gratis.
The training they have taken to prepare themselves for this ministry varies from attendance at either Roman rite or Byzantine rite diaconal training programs to university faculties of theology. Generally, they are involved in ministry in their local parish and besides their liturgical duties, which might include preaching, they visit the sick and the needy, and perform administrative duties. Some of them function as catechists both with children and adults. In summation, they assist the pastor of a parish much like a pastoral vicar, except that their liturgical service is non-presidential.
It is in the liturgical role that the diaconal function can be easily seen. It is not possible to conceive of Eastern Christianity outside of its liturgical life. At the Divine Liturgy it is the deacon who incenses, and sings the synaptes or litanies, and reads the Gospel from the nave, while the priest usually remains behind the iconostasis at the Holy Table.
Of the hierarchical ministers, the deacon has the most visible and predominant role, and one that is integral and harmonious with the entire service. The deacon sets the tone of piety for the celebration even more so than the bishop or priest.
The liturgical texts require the presence of a deacon, and thus, this role is not something tacked on for times when there happens to be a deacon present or there is a desire to make the liturgy “solemn”. This contrasts with the Churches of the West where the diaconal role in the liturgy is not normative.
It should also be emphasized that the deacon in the Byzantine tradition unlike the Roman never has a presidential role. Since Vatican II, the Roman rite deacon might function as the ordinary minister of baptism, be the Church’s witness at marriages and bestow the nuptial blessing, preside at funerals, as well as at the Divine Office, and a few other services. (This presidential function of the deacon presupposes the absence of a bishop or priest in most cases.)
However, the deacon in the Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church does not take the presidential role even when the bishop or priest is absent. There is neither liturgical nor canonical precedence for such an action on the part of the deacon. Only in a case of grave necessity would a deacon baptize (but never chrismate) and then according to the same rite as a layperson would use.
The deacon in the East cannot bless in the name of the Church during its liturgical services. “The tradition of the Eastern Churches contrasts sharply with the concessions made in the Latin rite to deacons: blessings are reserved exclusively to the bishop and the priest; the deacon assists the priest at the Eucharist and – except in an emergency – is not the minister of baptism, since its administration is conjoined with that of confirmation.”
The restoration of the diaconate in the Ukrainian Catholic Church is coming about slowly since 1970. In 1985 there were about 60 deacons in the Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church. Today there are about 94 deacons. This is a relatively small number but it is the beginning of a revival.
It is to be hoped that these men will always be seen as icons of Christ the Servant.
For this reason they are ordained: to be the sacramental presence of Christ, “who came to serve and not to be served.” (Mt 20:28)