Protestants often assume that the counterpart of their minister is the Catholic priest. Not so. Priests sacrifice, deacons minister to their flocks. The Protestant minister’s counterpart is the Catholic deacon.
Many Catholics who always call their priests Father do not accord the same courtesy to their deacons. They would never call their bishop Fred or their priest Joe, but they often call their deacon by his first name. It is a sacrilege! The deacon is ordained in the Sacrament of Holy Orders, which entitles him to be called Deacon John or Deacon Smith, as that particular deacon prefers. We call him simply Deacon in the same circumstances that we would call our priest simply Father, usually if he’s the only deacon or priest present.
(Personal note: I’ve gone through much of my Catholic life correcting permanent deacons on this. When I call them Deacon John they say, “It’s okay, you can just call me John.” I usually answer, “Oh, I’m sorry, you’re wearing a Roman collar, I was under the impression you’re in Holy Orders.” Whereupon the deacon would say, “I am ordained in Holy Orders.” And I’d smile and say, “I’m glad to hear that, Deacon, you’re a sacred person, and I will call you by your sacred title.”)
This startling lack of courtesy occurs because most of us laity daily encounter permanent deacons who spend most of their lives at an outside occupation. When outside the church the deacon may be a school teacher or a police officer or a computer repair technician or anything. In these jobs his identity as a Catholic deacon is usually invisible. He is accustomed to being called John and to introducing himself in gatherings as John. But once he sets foot on church property, or is among people who know him as a deacon, he is properly called Deacon John, whether or not he is wearing his clerics (white Roman collar, black shirt and pants).
There are also transitional deacons, who hope to become priests in the coming year. They spend most of their time in their parish church or in the seminary and do expect to be called Deacon.
One particularly important thing deacons do is teach RCIA or Adult Ed classes. These can be taught by well-catechized laymen, but when students see a teacher wearing a Roman collar they understand that the parish cares enough about them to send one of its ordained clergy to teach them. It makes a difference!
“Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists murmured against the Hebrews because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution. And the Twelve summoned the body of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brethren, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” And what they said pleased the whole multitude, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands upon them. And the word of God increased; and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith.” Acts 6:1–7.
§ 1569 At a lower level of the hierarchy are to be found deacons, who receive the imposition of hands not unto the priesthood, but unto the ministry. At an ordination to the diaconate only the bishop lays hands on the candidate, thus signifying the deacon’s special attachment to the bishop in the tasks of his diakonia.
§ 1570 Deacons share in Christ’s mission and grace in a special way. The sacrament of Holy Orders marks them with an imprint (“character”) which cannot be removed and which configures them to Christ, who made himself the “deacon” or servant of all. Among other tasks, it is the task of deacons to assist the bishop and priests in the celebration of the divine mysteries, above all the Eucharist, in the distribution of Holy Communion, in assisting at and blessing marriages, in the proclamation of the Gospel and preaching, in presiding over funerals, and in dedicating themselves to the various ministries of charity.
§ 1571 Since the Second Vatican Council the Latin Church has restored the diaconate “as a proper and permanent rank of the hierarchy,” while the Churches of the East had always maintained it. This permanent diaconate, which can be conferred on married men, constitutes an important enrichment for the Church’s mission. Indeed it is appropriate and useful that men who carry out a truly diaconal ministry in the Church, whether in its liturgical and pastoral life or whether in its social and charitable works, should be strengthened by the imposition of hands which has come down from the apostles. They would be more closely bound to the altar and their ministry would be made more fruitful through the sacramental grace of the diaconate.