From a talk by Fr. Deacon Photios Touloumes
My Lord Bishops, Honoured Hieropriests, Archpriests, Presbyters, Fellow Deacons, and Beloved Brothers and Sisters in Christ, I greet you with the words of our Saviour:
If any one serves me, let him follow me; and where I am, there also shall my servant be; if any one serves me, the Father will honor him. (Jn. 12: 26)
I would like to begin my talk on The Diaconate in the Church by giving you some examples of deacons, so that you can better understand what a deacon is, what he does, and also something of the flavour and spirit of the diaconate in actual circumstances.
In the account of The Martyrdom of Saints Perpetua and Felicitas,* we learn that these women were among five catechumens who were the first victims of the persecution in 203 A.D. at Carthage by Septimus Severus. Saint Perpetua was a high-born, well-educated, young woman of pagan parents who was married with a suckling child. Felicitas was a slave who was eight months pregnant and they were both baptized between the time of their arrest and their imprisonment. Here are a few excerpts from Saint Perpetua who left a written record of the events of her imprisonment:
Tertius and Pomponius, those blessed deacons who were ministering to us, paid for us to be removed for a few hours to a better part of the prison and refresh ourselves. My baby was brought to me, and I suckled him,…
And later we learn:
…I sent at once the deacon Pomponius to my father to ask for my baby. But my father refused to give him.
Finally, just before they were to be taken into the arena to be killed, we read:
on the day before we were to fight, I saw in a vision Pomponius the deacon, come hither to the door of the prison and knock loudly. And I went out to him, and opened to him. Now he was clad in a white robe without a girdle, wearing shoes curiously wrought. And he said to me: ‘Perpetua, we are waiting for you; come.’ And he took hold of my hand, and we began to pass through rough and broken country. Painfully and panting did we arrive at last at an amphitheater, and he led me into the middle of the arena. And he said to me: `Fear not; I am here with you, and I suffer with you.’ And he departed. And I saw a huge crowd watching eagerly…
By attending carefully to this dramatic narrative, we learn a great deal about the diaconate in the Early Church, and what the deacons did. We learn from Saint Perpetua’s account that two deacons ministered to them regularly, interceding with the authorities and guards to improve the condition of the catechumens, arranging for their baptism, acting as intermediaries between the prisoners and their families, and encouraging them to remain strong in their witness to Christ. After their baptism the deacons also carried Holy Communion to them as was customary for deacons to do for those unable to attend the eucharistic gathering.
The next example is that of the blessed Archdeacon of Rome, Saint Laurence, whose function included caring for the sacred vessels of the church and distributing money to the needy. About the year 257A.D., a harsh persecution was raised up against the Christians by Valerian, and the Archdeacon was arrested and brought before the Prefect. When questioned concerning the treasures of the church, he asked for three days’ time to prepare them. He then proceeded to gather all the poor and the needy, and presented them to the Prefect and said, Behold the treasures of the Church. The Prefect became enraged at this and commanded that Laurence be racked, scourged, then stretched out on a red-hot iron grill. Finally, enduring all without groaning, his face like that of an angel, he prayed for his slayers in imitation of Christ, and gave up his spirit on August 10, 258 A.D.
Within fifty years we see how the deacons had already become known as the “money bags” of the Christians, and as such became primary targets during the persecutions. If we read the documents of this period carefully, we come to understand that the deacon’s activities in tending to the needs of the faithful—the widows, orphans, the sick, the imprisoned, those absent from the Liturgy, etc.—made them highly visible to the authorities and easily recongizable. From an organizational point of view, the Roman authorities felt that eliminating the leaders of the Christians (the bishops and presbyters) was the most effective means of stamping out the hated sect; but from a practical point of view it was highly lucrative to seize the treasuries of the Christian communities, held by the deacons. In fact, these financial resources were not insignificant. For example, in the life of Saint Porphyry, Bishop of Gaza, written around 410 A.D. by his attendant, Deacon Mark, we learn that the deacon went from Jerusalem to Thessalonica to sell the Church’s possessions as he was instructed by the Bishop, and received some 4,500 pieces of gold to be used for the charitable work among the faithful. This was a considerable amount of money in those days.
Anecdotally, we know that this same Deacon Mark was sent twice to Constantinople by his bishop to ask the Patriarch, Saint John Chrysostom, to intercede in behalf of the Christians who were being persecuted by the idolaters in Gaza. When after his first visit to Saint John he didn’t receive a prompt response, like any good deacon, he went every day persistently to visit the Patriarch, and reminding him of the importance of the mission until a decision was reached. On his second visit, the Deacon was also received by Empress Eudoxia and no doubt comported himself with perfect acumen.
We turn now to the third example of the diaconal ministry which deals more with the liturgical aspects of the diaconate. In the Primary Chronicle, compiled around 1037 A.D., we have a description of how Prince Vladimir sent his emissaries West to . . . learn about their faith. After returning from their visits to the Latins, Jews, and the Moslems, they were sent to Byzantium with the same mission.
The Chronicle records the following about that visit:
…hearing this, the partriarch ordered that the clergy be assembled; and according to custom they held a festival service, and they lit the censers and appointed the choirs to sing hymns. And the Emperor went with them into the church and placed them in an open place; and he showed them the beauty of the church, and the singing, and the serving of the arch-priest, and the serving of the deacons, and he told them about the service of his God, and they were in amazement and wondered greatly and praised the service.
Overwhelmed by what they had experienced in the Cathedral of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, they reported the following to Prince Vladimir:
We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. For on earth there is no such splendor or such beauty, and we are at a loss to describe it.
We can deduce that what impressed the Russian delegation so forcefully was what they saw and perceived when the saw the procession of deacons entering on the North side of the nave with the prosphoral offerings that were prepared for the Anaphora. Records indicate that at any one time there were from 80 to 120 deacons attached to the Cathedral of Hagia Sophia, and it is indeed mind-boggling to try to recreate what this procession must have looked like: an army of deacons, with censers, accompanied by subdeacons, candle bearers and others entered the church to present the “prosphora,” the offering of the whole Church to the celebrants as the choir raised its hymn to praise the Risen Lord.
With these three historical examples of the deacon’s ministry, we can turn now to a further explanation of the diaconate as a function within the Church.