ASK FATHER: Deacon told by priest to let a layman take his role

7Deacons4From a deacon

Could you please address the all too common occurrence where Deacons are asked (or told by the priest) to relinquish their liturgical role to a lay person?

Case in point: I was told to allow the music minister to chant the General Intercessions on Good Friday this year, not because I’m unable to, but because the music minister had done it through the years and is retiring. It was urged that I allow this to proceed. I am unsettled with this in that I believe I should have stood my ground in accord with the rubric. This is but one example…

I have witnessed and experienced personally (many times) the Deacon’s part being given to laity at the discretion of the priest and worse, the deacon relinquishing his part to laity. It shouldn’t be this way, am I being too rigid?

I was unaware that this is a common problem.

It is simply wrong to force a deacon out of his proper liturgical role in order to give it to a lay person.

First, that violates the deacon’s identity.

Second, that violates the lay person’ identity.

Moreover, the deacon is being asked to participate in a condescending clericalism.

Let deacons be deacons.  That’s why the Church ordains them.


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Bthompson says:

    This problem is quiet but epidemic. Indeed, it is so much so that I see deacons habitually ceding their roles when lay “ministers” show up unexpectedly (e.g. too many EMHCs, so Deacon gives all the chalices and ciboria away and does not distribute Holy Communion; More rarely, but still extant, letting the lector carry the Book of Gospels).

    I remember priests pushing this sort of nonsense at me from time to time back when I was a transitional deacon. I am thus very careful to let deacons do their whole job. The only exception, in my mind, would be be if the deacon were to share that he cannot or will not be able to fulfill a certain role, even in a modified form within the bounds of the rubrics. In that case, we divide the role between myself and servers as appropriate (as if the Deacon were not there), but I leave that call up to the Deacon.

  2. Ed the Roman says:

    Can laymen sing the Epiphany Proclamation? It’s tricky, and it threw the deacon who had it this year.

  3. rtjl says:

    I can’t say this is a common problem in my diocese but it does happen. I know of one parish where lay people routinely lead the intercessions even when a deacon is present. When it was suggested that the (newly ordained) deacon should the one to read the intercessions it was objected that they didn’t want the lay readers to feel put out of insulted. That’s unfortunate. Even if lay readers can lead the prayers of the faithful in the absence of a deacon, it is the deacon’s proper role.

    It’s silly to aim at a false “egalitarian” and try to distribute roles in order to make sure that everybody feels they have a role to play. Each persons appropriate role is clearly defined and each person should perform only those roles properly assigned to them or those roles permitted them when the person to whom it is properly assigned is not present. It is no small thing to pray the liturgy in one’s proper role as a member of the assembly, as a member of God’s holy people.

  4. This happens all the time outside the liturgy. Why, for instance, are the laity in charge of bringing Holy Communion to the house-bound? Deacons are ordinary ministers of Holy Communion. Why aren’t they doing that?

  5. Geoffrey says:

    And let us not forget instituted acolytes, who are extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion by right of institution, and should take precedence over commissioned / deputed extraordinary ministers. And while we’re at it, instituted lectors…

  6. Deacon Don says:

    Unfortunately, it is all too common … even to the point that in formation much of the Deacon’s roles within the liturgy are simply not even taught. It is normal to see a Deacon doing no more within the Mass then reading the Gospel and then remaining seated while every other aspect of the liturgy (prayer of the faithful, distribution of Holy Communion, sign of peace, even the final dismissal) is handled either by lay persons or Father. I have personally been told, as the Mass was starting, “Oh, by the way, I’ve decided to read the Gospel today” and even once, told on the way out the door that it would be read by a lay person “as part of a dramatic reading.” My Deacon friend learned at Vigil that Father had hired a professional (non-Catholic) singer to “do” the Exsultet — something it turns out, is not all that unusual.

    What makes this worse is that it becomes an epidemic. The dalmatic-wearing Deacon in the one parish is suddenly under pressure not to perform his ministerial duties simply because the “guy at the other church” doesn’t do it that way. As a visiting Deacon I have been told to read the second reading, “because that’s what our Deacon always does” and to sit with the congregation for the same reason.

    So we are also our own worst-enemy.

    It’s not that difficult to “Do the Red” … but then, you have to have read the book in the first place.

    It all goes back to formation … both on the part of the Deacon, on the part of the Priest and also on the part of the faithful.

  7. Stephen Matthew says:

    Deacons need to be fully trained to competantly carry out all of their liturgical roles (such as chanting the Gospel and intercessions), and priests should be instructed to facilitate the deacons performing those functions well. However, while it is lamentably the case that “parish traditions” often cause the deacons to be deprived of their liturgical roles, it is also too often the case that the deacon is unable or unwilling to do all that is intended of him. Sometimes this is a problem of formation (never being taught to chant, for example). Other times it is problem of the person (being utterly tone deaf). Sometimes it is one of attitude (being rather too meek, humble, and submissive to the point of never fighting for what is right and true in any forum whatsoever, something that is true of rather a few priests, bishops, and most of the laity).

  8. Elizabeth D says:

    I did not even know that the deacon was supposed to read the general intercessions. This never happens at Sunday Mass at my parish. They are ALWAYS read by a cantor regardless if there is a deacon or not. Maybe I should point this out to the pastor, though it would surely only make him like me even less. There are some deacon candidates at my parish, maybe i will just mention it to them.

  9. hwriggles4 says:

    I could see the dilemma proposed by the permanent deacon who proposed the Ask Father question. It’s similar to the recently ordained priest versus “Fr. Yeah Whatever” who was ordained in 1976. When I talk to permanent deacons who have been ordained within the last ten years, more than one have said that their faith formation was more thorough than the first permanent deacons who were ordained in the 70s and 80s. That said, I find the more recent permanent deacons to have more of an idea of their role, and they can teach “Fr. Yeah Whatever ” a thing or two about the proper role of the permanent deacon in the liturgy.

    I bring this up because I was an Altar boy for several years, starting in 1977 through the 1980s. Our parish had one permanent deacon at that time (he was popular at the parish and well liked) who seemed to do quite a bit in the liturgy, even say “let us proclaim the mystery of faith” during the consecration. Yes, the 70s and 80s were confusing times in the Church.

  10. Peter in Canberra says:

    in response to Anita Moore re deacons and holy communion to the sick.
    In Australia at least, permanent deacons are generally married with a family, and they are not paid to be deacons so they work a full time job to support their family while also carrying out their clerical duties. The permanent deacon is a beast that the hierarchy don’t really know what to do with, and in a bankrupt and declining church the prospect of paying the workman (deacon) his due is a less than enticing prospect.

  11. If a man doesn’t have time to do deacon stuff, then why become a deacon?

  12. Peter in Canberra says:

    in answer to Anita Moore
    I guess neither of us can answer this entirely. The Church confers ordination on those she believes have a calling from God to that state in life.
    ‘deacon stuff’ does involve assisting at Mass(es), proclaiming the Gospel, preaching, baptising, burying, catechising (in the evenings), assisting the bishop at ceremonies.
    I don’t think it would be reasonable to ask deacons to perform their duties free of charge or funded from their own personal wealth (which the ones I know certainly don’t have anyway).

  13. Red_Shirt_Hero says:


    As Peter says, married, working men become deacons as they are called by God, and the Church recognises that calling.

    If permanent deacons (who support themselves financially) were only chosen from those who could work full time for the Church, this would be limited to very well off (with no significant family commitments) or retired men only.

    A deacon may not work full-time in parish ministry, but he is a full-time deacon, including through his witness in the workplace.

  14. If a man can’t fulfill the duties of a deacon, doesn’t that factor into the process of discerning whether or not he is called to be a deacon?

    Men in Holy Orders have got their rightful turf, and the incursions onto that turf have got to stop. That means, not only that the laity respect the boundaries, but that the men in Orders stop giving ground. If they are too willing to give ground where they shouldn’t, then I repeat the question: why did they become deacons?

  15. Red_Shirt_Hero says:

    Anita, I presume by O.P. (Lay) you mean you belong to a Dominican Third order (since religious, other than the ordained, are technically part of the laity as they are not clerics). People could ask you why you haven’t committed to joining the Domicians sisters properly. You could be accused of treading on their ‘turf’ and not ‘fulfilling’ the duties of a Dominican.

    I repeat, men become deacons as the are called by God and (after a period of discernment and formation) conformed to Christ the Servant through ordination by the the Church, and fulfil the duties asked of them by the Church.

    A logical extension of your argument would be that priests not wholly engaged in parish or pastoral ministry (those doing study, monastics, bishops’ secretaries etc,) are not fulfilling the duties of the priesthood. Clearly absurd.

  16. Suburbanbanshee says:

    The question is why parishes do not pay/support deacons to do deacon stuff full time, as well as supporting their families. Deacons’ wives should also be expected to do this work and to be supported accordingly.

    But yes, the oldest duties of deacons are to care for the poor and widows. Liturgical duties came later. Deacons are “the feet of the Church,” just as priests are the “hands” and bishops are the “eyes.”

  17. Suburbanbanshee says:

    The answer is that US parishes are cheap…

    But the liturgical roles of deacons are important. Patristic literature compares them to the Levites. In De Ecclesiasticis Officiis, St. Isidore of Seville compares them to the seven angels with the trumpets in the Book of Revelation, as well as the seven gold lampstands, and the voices of the thunders. “For with a clear voice in the manner of heralds, deacons admonish all… deacons also evangelize all.” He also explains that a priest really needs deacons around to have full use of his office, and that a priest is presumptuous if he is doing deacon stuff at Mass when there is a deacon right there. He sees deacons dispensing Communion as integral to their clerical state. Deacons are also to be “splendid in the excellence of chastity,” as their albs on the altar symbolize.

  18. Red_Shirt_Hero says:

    Absolutely right that the diaconate is not simply about liturgical service (nor though, as some think, is it an add-on: a deacon is not a glorified altar server.)

    I don’t know much about the US, but UK parishes are ‘cheap’ with priests and most simply wouldn’t be able to support a deacon in full-time ministry financially.

    I’d always thought albs symbolised baptism?

  19. robtbrown says:

    1. Men become deacons because they are called by the visible Church, evidence being the testimony of the man who says they are worthy before their ordination. One hopes they are called by God, but ordination is not evidence that they are.

    The priesthood is only different because the formation of a priest in a good religious order (Clear Creek) or good seminary (FSSP) is so comprehensive, encompassing one’s entire life, that the perseverance necessary is considered an indication not only of their worth but also that moral certitude can be had.

    2. A priest who says daily mass fulfills the primary duty of presbyteral ministry. All the other Sacraments and duties of ministry are ordered toward the Eucharist. A priest-monk is not, therefore, ministry-deficient because he has no pastoral or teaching duties. He is rather concentrating more on the center of the priesthood, i.e., celebrating the Sacrifice of the Mass.

    On the other hand, a diaconate ordination is ordered toward pastoral ministry.

  20. Hans says:

    That deacons are asked/told to let others perform their liturgical roles is not that uncommon. In my brief experience, it depends chiefly on the parish priest, but also on the deacons in a parish. I have known parish priests who are reliable about ‘doing the red’ themselves, but have given up the fight with the deacons (because they want to share? they don’t want to seem self-important? they’re not sure of their role? I’m not sure always) who don’t seem inclined to perform their complete liturgical role; my home parish has been one of these, though I’m not aware of how things have changed with the young new administrator. But sometimes deacons who want to fulfill their role come up against an unwilling parish priest, though thankfully I only know about that anecdotally.

    The trend that I have seen here and in other dioceses is that formation is improving with time and experience, especially since the norms for formation were first (so far as I’m aware) published in 1998*.

    Suburbanbanshee, a deacon’s wife is not a deacon, nor is she part of an amalgam known as a “deacon couple”. Why should she be expected (beyond the expectation of any Christian) to perform a deacon’s role? Should a plumber’s wife be a plumber? Or a physician’s be a physician?

  21. Hans says:


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