Deacons of the Early Church
When the Apostles were challenged with handling all the needs of the early Church, especially those of the Hellenist widows, they instructed their followers to “pick from among you seven men of good repute, full of Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this duty… these they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands upon them” (Acts 6:3,6).
While the seven were initially chosen to serve the needs of the Hellenists, the Holy Spirit soon led them to minister in other ways. St. Stephen is the first to be seen giving witness to the Paschal Mystery before the Sanhedrin and was subsequently stoned, becoming the first martyr of the Church (Acts 7). Later, Deacon Philip, led by an angel, encounters the Ethiopian Eunuch who is trying to understand a passage from Isaiah. Philip teaches him and Baptizes him and is then spirited away to another location (Acts 8).
While deacons appear in the early and middle history of the Church – some even being elected to the papacy – they disappeared in the latter centuries as a “permanent” state and became a “transitional” state for those men being formed toward the priesthood.
Restoration of the Diaconate
During World War II, priests in the Nazi concentration camps petitioned the pope to assign deacons to them in order to serve the multitude of needs in the camps. In 1957, Pope Pius XXII spoke favorably of a restored permanent diaconate but determined “the time was not yet ripe.”
The issue would be raised again during Vatican II and on November 21, 1964, Pope Paul VI would promulgate Lumen Gentium, The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church. This keystone document of the Second Vatican Council proclaimed that “the diaconate can in the future be restored as a proper and permanent rank of the hierarchy,” leaving it up “to the competent territorial bodies of bishops… to decide whether and where it is opportune for such deacons to be established for the care of souls.”
On June 18, 1967, Pope Paul VI released his apostolic letter issued moto proprio entitled Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem (Restoring the Permanent Diaconate). As of that date, the permanent diaconate was restored in the Latin Church.
United States and Denver Dioceses
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops proposed, requested and received approval from the Holy See to establish the permanent diaconate in the United States, as desired by the local ordinaries. Denver was one of the earliest dioceses to implement a program for the formation of men and ordained its first permanent deacons on April 6, 1974.