In his discussion of the Scythians’ gruesome royal burial customs, Herodotus spoke of the tragic fate of the king’s diakonos, his servant, his waiting-man, his attendant. When the Jews of Alexandria translated the Book of Esther into Greek, they used the same word to describe “the king’s servants who attended him.” It was natural, then, that when the Apostles ordained “seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom” (Acts 6:3) to serve at the tables of the quarreling Hebrew and Hellenist widows, these men should be called diakonoi, or deacons.
Service at tables led to service at the altar, so much so that bishops from the western Roman Empire, gathered at a synod in Arles in 314, noted with displeasure that deacons “in many places” were usurping the honor due to priests and even attempting to offer Mass. In the Early Middle Ages, an important Spanish Church document stated that “to the deacons it belongs to assist the priest and to serve in all that is done in the sacraments of Christ, in baptism, in the chrism, in the paten and chalice, to bring the oblations to the altar and to arrange them, to lay the table of the Lord and to drape it, to carry the cross, to declaim the Gospel and the Epistle.… To him also pertains the office of prayers and the recital of the names.”
Over the course of the first millennium, the diaconate ceased to be a permanent order in the Church’s hierarchy in the West while remaining a transitional one preceding priestly ordination—though as late as the 13th century, St. Francis was ordained a deacon without ever being ordained a priest. In explaining the varying missions of the episcopate, the priesthood, and the diaconate, the fathers of the Second Vatican Council expressed the hope that “the diaconate can in the future be restored as a proper and permanent rank of the hierarchy” in the Latin rites, especially in mission territories.