However, what is often not discussed are the actual conversations, speeches and writings related to the question that took place before and during the Council itself. I thought it might be interesting to review some of that background. It gives us a valuable insight as to why the bishops felt this was such an important decision to make.
I will present three Cardinals to you. At the time of the debate on the diaconate, Cardinal Leo-Josef Suenens of Belgium was 59, and a highly-respected leader during and following the Council. He was a close friend to both Pope John XXIII and Pope Paul VI, and his intellectual brilliance and pastoral heart were deeply felt on a wide variety of issues at the Council: the renewal of religious life, the diaconate, the processes involved in the governance of dioceses, and even his support of the charismatic renewal movement. Cardinal Juan Landazuri Ricketts, only 50 years of age at the time of the debate, was a Franciscan friar serving as Archbishop of Peru, Cardinal Julius Doepfner of Munich-Freising was another young (50 at the time of the debate), well-respected and pastorally-experienced leader at the Council. These three young cardinals articulated extremely valuable points which apparently echoed the desires of the vast majority of the Council fathers with regard to the diaconate.
The principal conciliar debate on the subject of renewing the diaconate as a "proper and permanent" order in the Latin Church occurred during the 41st to the 49th general assemblies (4 - 16 October 1963). In reviewing the interventions, the climax of the debate occurred on 8 October, with the intervention of Cardinal Suenens.
Cardinal Landazuri Ricketts, speaking for himself and 95 other Latin American Fathers, spoke to the benefits of a renewed diaconate. While many functions (which he does not articulate) of the diaconate were already done by laypersons, there were still others that the deacon would carry out as an ordained member of the hierarchy. The restoration of the diaconate was not to lessen the role of the laity, but to increase it, and that the lay apostolate, while most important, is not an end in itself. The Latin American Fathers he represented urged the adoption of the proposal.
Suenens then turned to the situation in the contemporary world. He urged the Fathers not to make a universal decision for or against the diaconate. Rather, they should decide if there was any area or situation that might benefit from it, and then phrase its decision in such a way as to enable it to take effect in those regions in which the bishops decided it was appropriate. In other words, the Council should not close off universally any means by which the grace of God may flow into the Church. Therefore (quoting from the draft), “where episcopal conferences judge the restoration of a permanent diaconate opportune, they should be free to introduce it.”
Even in this brief snapshot, we can see how the Council worked: What tools were needed to assist people in the contemporary world. Expressed more theologically, what gifts had been given by the Spirit to the Church to render such assistance? The diaconate was presented as one of those many gifts of the Spirit.