Throughout my childhood, I never attended a Mass that was assisted by a deacon. I grew up assuming that it was the role of the priest to read the Gospel.
A closer parish eventually opened which was blessed to have a deacon. I noticed that it was he who read the Gospel week after week. My thought was “Man, that priest is LAZY! He has his helper doing all the work!” Little did I know that it is the deacon who is supposed to read the Gospel—this is what the Church envisions.
The Deacon and the Gospel
In the proclamation of the Gospel, Jesus is speaking to us—Christ himself is addressing his bride, the Church. For that reason, only a deacon, priest or bishop may read the Gospel at Mass—but the Church is quite clear that the preference is for the Gospel to be proclaimed by the deacon:
“The function of proclaiming the readings is by tradition not presidential but ministerial. Therefore the readings are to be read by a reader, but the Gospel by the Deacon or, in his absence, by another Priest. If, however, a Deacon or another Priest is not present, the Priest Celebrant himself should read the Gospel, and moreover, if no other suitable reader is present, the Priest Celebrant should also proclaim the other readings as well.” —The General Instruction of the Roman Missal #59
At least by the 600s, it was the function of the deacon to read the Gospel in the liturgy:
“To the deacons it belongs to assist the priests and to serve in all that is done in the Sacraments of Christ, in baptism, to wit, in the holy chrism, in the paten and chalice, to bring the oblation to the altar and to arrange them…to carry the cross, to declaim the Gospel and Epistle, for as the charge is given to lectors to declaim the Old Testament, so it is given to deacons to declaim the New. To him also pertains the office of prayers and the recital of the names. It is he who gives warning to open our ears to the Lord, it is he who exhorts with his cry, it is he also who announces peace.” —Letter of St. Isidore of Seville to Leudefredus
The ordination of a deacon underscores his ministerial function to proclaim the Gospel. During the ceremony, a newly ordained deacon kneels before the bishop, who places in his hands the Book of the Gospels and says:
“Receive the Gospel of Christ, whose herald you now are. Believe what you read, teach what you believe, and practice what you teach.” —Ordination of a Deacon
However, one must also keep in mind that all priests are deacons—a man cannot receive the Order of Priest without having first received the Order of Deacon. In addition, his priestly ordination does not invalidate or supplant his diaconate.
When celebrating the Eucharist, the priest is performing the function of his ministry. That is why it is preferred, in the absence of a deacon, that a concelebrating priest read the Gospel. But, if the celebrating priest does proclaim the Gospel, he does so by virtue of his deaconate, not as a function of his priesthood.
Instruct the Faithful
The deacon has also been set apart by the Church to instruct the faithful throughout the Mass—it is he who will direct the actions of the people:
- Let us kneel.
- Let us stand.
- Let us offer each other the sign of peace.
- Bow your heads and pray for God’s blessing.
- Go in peace, glorifying the Lord by your life.
The voice that guides the assembly is also the one that proclaims the Gospel—a subtle reminder that the Gospel message is indeed a call to action.
What about you? Who proclaims that Gospel at your Mass? Did your childhood parish have a deacon? Share and let’s learn together!