Do deacons in the Eastern Christian Churches administer sacramentals?
By: Protodeacon David Kennedy
In order to address this question, I will turn to a collection of texts titled: Documents on the liturgy 1963-1979, Conciliar, Papal, and Curial Texts published by The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN, in 1982. 803-804. The following is a footnote (these are not only important to read but can at times be fascinating) to a reply from the Pontifical Commission for the Interpretation of the Decrees of Vatican Council II published in Acta Apostolic Sedis 66 (1974) 667 and Notitiae 11 (1975) 36. The Commission was asked the following: “According to the norms of CIC can. 1147, § 1, the Dogmatic Constitution Lumen gentium no. 29, and the Motu Proprio Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem no 22, is the deacon authorized to impart constitutive blessings or blessings of invocation and to administer the sacramentals, and to what extent?” The Commission replied: “The deacon is authorized to impart only those blessings and administer only those sacramentals that are granted to him explicitly by the law.” To this was appended the following footnote.
The conciliar Constitution Lumen gentium no. 29 states with regard to the deacon: “The deacon’s duties, following assignment by competent authority [ section 29 of Lumen gentium is quoted].
These functions are more specifically determined by Paul VI’s Motu Proprio Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem and later by certain of the reformed liturgical books. Our present interest is in the points referring to the deacon’s faculty regarding the sacraments to “bless and administer.” Thus the deacon is allowed to give the blessing in administering communion and viaticum (Holy Communion and Worship of the Eucharist outside Mass. no. 17, at exposition of the blessed sacrament, at the celebration of baptism (Rite of Baptism for Children, General Introduction to Christian Initiation no. 11, of marriage (Rite of Marriage nos. 53, 47, 50), and of funerals (Rite of Funerals nos. 19, 33, 53).
Consequently, some have asked whether the deacon’s competency may be extended to the giving of other blessings, for example, the blessing of religious articles (medals, rosaries), of throats on St. Blase Day, etc., or to other sacramentals not mentioned in the documents already cited. On the other hand CIC can. 1147, par. 4 states: “Deacons and readers have the power to give validly and lawfully only those blessings expressly permitted them by the law.” The query therefore was proposed to the PCIDV, which gave the reply here reported. The PCIDV has indicated to the SCDW the reasons on which it based its reply. With the consent of the PCIDV we report these reasons so that the import of the reply may be clearly understood.
“The statement of the conciliar principle, contained in the Dogmatic Constitution Lumen gentium no. 29, must be applied in the liturgical books, as has also been the case with other competencies assigned in a general way to the deacon in the same conciliar text. For example ‘to carry viaticum to the dying, officiate at funerals and burial rites, assist at and bless marriages’.
“The function of the legislative authority applying the principles is called for by no. 29 of the Constitution itself, which reads: ‘Diaconi est, prout ei a competente auctoritate assignatum fuerit.’ The prout means precisely ‘insofar as,’ ‘to the extent that’ the authority agrees. Thus among the liturgical functions belonging to the deacon by virtue of ordination and in addition to those blessings assigned to him by the law, he may give the blessings within the rites of those sacraments or sacramentals for which he is the minister. As for other blessings or sacramentals we are to look to the liturgical books already published or to be published later.
“Therefore to set the limits of the exercise of the deacon’s office does not belong to the PCIDV but to the responsible curial congregations. They are empowered to establish norms for the reservation of the sacramentals and of blessings, establishing the conditions and limits of the deacon’s powers.
“It is likewise inopportune to make a list of blessings to be assigned to the deacon; the same can be said of sacramentals, since, in addition, new ones may be established by the Holy See and the conferences of bishops.
“Furthermore, it is not correct to posit a distinction differentiating sacramentals and blessings: every blessing is, at base, a sacramental. Admittedly with the reform of the liturgy profound changes have come about relative to earlier discipline: deacons have placed on a par ritually with priests in regard to the administration of some of the sacraments and sacramentals. Even for baptism the deacon has become an ordinary minister, whereas before he was the extraordinary minister. On the other hand, there are some sacramentals that it seems a deacon cannot administer; for example, the blessings of an abbot, consecration to a life of virginity, institution to ministries. This is because of the status of the persons who through these blessing are consecrated to divine worship and to the Church’s worship. 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 eucharist and —except in emergency— is not the minister of baptism, since its administration is conjoined with that of confirmation. . . .”
While this note is primarily concerned with the liturgical functions of the deacon in the Roman rite, it makes a number of very significant and pertinent points that must be taken into consideration and reflected upon.
- The liturgical books determine the liturgical role of the deacon. If one wants to know ‘what the deacon does or does not do’ then, it is necessary to follow the liturgical books. Can these books change? Certainly, but such changes are not arbitrary and since the Church is a communion, individual bishops are not at liberty to ‘tinker’ with the tradition handed on to then in the liturgical books but rather to preserve that tradition and to live it as fully as possible.
- The deacon in the Eastern Churches ‘assists’ the bishop or priest. The diaconal role is distinctively different from the role of the celebrant. It is fully integrated into the whole of the celebration and it integral to it. It is not appended to it nor is its purpose to make the celebration more solemn. The notion that liturgical services are ‘more or less’ solemn is foreign to Eastern Christianity. Even though a deacon is not always available for liturgical service and thus the priest must serve at times without a deacon, the diaconal functions are not optional.
- Clearly, deacons in the Eastern Christian Churches do not administer sacramentals. It should be noted that the Latin distinction between sacraments and sacramentals is not found for example in the Byzantine Euchologion or Book of Blessings.
- In the Euchologion, we find that the deacon serves at all of the sacraments, except confession or penance. We also find that the deacon serves at most the ‘sacramentals’ but does not replace the priest or take the role of the celebrant. Rather to the deacon are assigned the various synaptes or litanies, along with censings and at times readings from the Scriptures.
- Many of the current liturgical functions of the deacon in the Roman rite are ‘concessions’. Until Vatican Council II, the deacon was primarily as he was in the Eastern Christian Churches, an assistant to the celebrant, primarily at the ‘Solemn High Mass’ and to the bishop at various pontifical functions. As noted above, the deacon was an ‘extraordinary’ minister of baptism and did not solemnize marriages, or officiate at funerals.
- For a detailed account of the liturgical functions of the deacon in the Roman rite prior to Vatican Council II consult: Richard E. Zenk, The Office of the Deacon in Ecclesiastical Law, (Rome: Gregorian University. 1969.) and Joseph William Pokusa, A Canonical-Historical Study of the Diaconate in the Western Church, (Catholic University of America. Doctoral dissertation. 1979. Available through UMI Dissertation Services).
(A deacon chanting a synapte on the ambo in a Serbian Church.)