In 1957 Pope Pius XII spoke favorably of a restored permanent diaconate, although concluding that "the time is not yet ripe." The idea was not further developed by the time of the Second Vatican Council.
During the Council reasons began to be advanced for restoring the diaconate. A primary reason was to help alleviate the shortage of priests in various parts of the world. Permanent Deacons, it was reasoned, would be able to perform many of the functions of priests and would help create and sustain a sense of Christian community among people who rarely saw a priest.
This consideration is still valid and even compelling in particular situations. But it is not a satisfactory rationale if it is taken to imply that the diaconate is merely an expedient, a temporary solution to a problem for which there would be no particular need or reason if there were enough priests to handle the demands of parish life. On the contrary, the central fact about the diaconate is that it is an integral part of the three-fold hierarchy of Orders, with its own intrinsic reason and right to exist, quite apart from the circumstances of a particular era and place which may give it special timeliness.
The Council's principal statement on the restoration of the permanent diaconate appears in the "Constitution on the Church," Lumen Gentium.
"Deacons receive the imposition of hands not unto the priesthood, but unto a ministry of service." For, strengthened by sacramental grace they are dedicated to the People of God, in conjunction with the bishop and his body of priests, in the service of the liturgy, of the Gospel and of works of charity. It pertains to the Office of Deacon, in so far as it may be assigned to him by the competent authority, to administer Baptism solemnly, to be a custodian and distributor of the Eucharist, in the name of the church to assist and to bless marriages, to bring Viaticum to the dying, to read the sacred Scripture to the faithful, to instruct and exhort the people, to preside over the worship and the prayer of the faithful, to administer sacramentals, and to officiate at funeral and burial services. Dedicated to works of charity and functions of administration, deacons should recall the admonition of St. Polycarp: "let them be merciful, and zealous, and let them walk according to the truth of the Lord, who became the servant of all".
Pope Paul VI gave specific directives for implementing the restoration of the diaconate in an apostolic letter (Diaconatus Ordinem) published in 1967 and followed this up with further "norms" in 1972. These are still the basis of the Church's current practice and policy regarding the Permanent Diaconate. The Congregation for Catholic Education and the congregation for the Clergy developed "Basic Norms for the Formation of Permanent Deacons" and "Directory for the Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons" in February 1998.
The Deacon exercises the ministry of the Church in a three-fold way: the ministry of Charity/Justice in which he is called both to assist those with immediate needs, and also to develop ways to empower people to address the larger social issues; the ministry of the Word in which he proclaims the Good News both in word and deed, in preaching homilies, as well as teaching, counseling, witness in the marketplace, witness in marriage and family, etc.; and the ministry of Sacrament in which he assists at the Altar as public witness of his service to the People of God. Ministry in the Eucharistic Assembly serves as the means of bringing the needs of the community to be raised up in prayer.
Liturgy is also the means for the deacon's drawing strength and inspiration for living in the community as a witness to diaconal ministry.
The Diaconate program in the Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee was initiated by Bishop Rene H. Gracida, the first Bishop of Pensacola-Tallahassee in September 1977. He ordained the first class of Permanent Deacons on May 10, 1980 which consisted of 19 men. In 1999, Bishop John H. Ricard, SSJ, the fourth Bishop of Pensacola-Tallahassee, directed that the diocese would form a single class for a five-year formation period. Under this revised Formation Program direction, Bishop Ricard has ordained deacons in 2005 and 2009.
The Formation Program is constantly being evaluated and enhanced, with the goal of full conformity to the latest revised version of the "National Directory for the Formation, Ministry and Life of the Permanent Deacons in the United States," which was approved by the Holy See, October 30, 2004 and promulgated by the USCCB, December 26, 2004.