My dissertation director, Fr. Joseph A. Komonchak, used to remark that "Vatican II didn't renew the diaconate because of a shortage of priests but because of a shortage of deacons."
This remains a wonderful insight! One of the great misunderstandings of the diaconate is that somehow, we exist because of the priest shortage, when in fact, that makes no sense at all. Deacons are not priests, nor are we intended to be "mini-priests" or "super-laity". I once had a wonderful person tell me that, while she loved the ministry the deacons in her diocese were contributing to the church, she couldn't wait for the priest shortage to be over. Then, she said, we wouldn't need "deacons and lay people doing all these things in church." The shortage of priests was not the primary reason the bishops at Vatican II renewed the diaconate.
Many people still think that the whole thing was an idea from the so-called "Third World" and mission territories, again because they lacked sufficient priests. Again, while some bishops thought like this, it is not the primary reason for the renewal. If the church needs more priests, DEACONS are not the answer! It also means that being a deacon is somehow a lesser grade of the priesthood. Theologian Dr. Richard Gaillardetz once described this approach as "priest, junior grade." The truth is, the majority of recommendations for a renewed diaconate came from the bishops of Europe, especially in the aftermath of World War II. We should talk about that in more detail in later posts, if people would like!
But what does it mean to say, with Komonchak, that there was (and is?) a shortage of deacons? Surely, all kinds of people were doing diaconal (servant) things. Monks, nuns, brothers, sisters, priests and countless lay persons over the centuries were caring for the poor, the sick, the disenfranchised. . . so why the need for a renewed order of deacons, if all of this service was already being done?
The answer is: GRACE. Several of the bishops at Vatican II, including the great Cardinal Suenens of Belgium, remarked that the Church was entitled to all of the graces given by the Holy Spirit, and that the diaconate itself is one of those gifts. Furthermore, he said that those people who were already doing diaconal things should be strengthened by the grace of the sacrament as well. That's why Vatican II's "Dogmatic Constitution on the Church" (Lumen gentium, #29) teaches that the deacon is "strengthened by sacramental grace."
We still have a shortage of deacons!