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For the past four years, I have been working with a dedicated group of men and their wives—the 25 men who will be ordained deacons at the end of June. They come from a variety of backgrounds, experience and careers.
While they have often remarked how different they are, the common factor is their commitment to serve others.
Service orientation is an essential quality we look for in those interested in becoming a deacon. We can develop a man’s ability to serve during the formation program, but we cannot instill it. The commitment to service has been evident in these men from the beginning and has grown in many wonderful ways.
They have shown their dedication as well as their generosity during formation. The formation program has met for one weekend a month, from Friday evening through early Sunday afternoon, 11 months a year, for four years.
They have also served in their parishes and in ministries of charity for three to five hours each week, in addition to doing the assignments required by the college-level formation program courses.
Their wives, who have accompanied them in various ways, have noticed how they have grown and changed through the formation process.
After they are ordained, they will continue to serve with dedication and generosity. Each deacon will give an average of 10 hours per week in ministry, for which they receive no compensation.
Deacons support themselves and their families through their regular employment. Their regular jobs also give them an opportunity for workplace ministry, a way to bring the Gospel to people where they live out about a quarter of their lives.
Each deacon will be assigned to a parish, usually the parish in which he has served during formation. There he will regularly assist at Mass, occasionally preach, baptize infants and children, witness marriages, help prepare people for sacraments and teach the faith. The specifics of what each deacon does will depend on the needs of the parish.
Most deacons will also be assigned to a specific ministry of charity. These include ministry at a county jail, a hospital, a health care facility or in Catholic Charities.
Deacons not assigned to a specific ministry of charity will serve in the charitable programs of their parishes or areas of special needs. The ministry of charity is the distinct ministry of deacons, and they will be giving about three of their 10 weekly hours to this area.
A deacon’s ministry of charity, and much of his other ministry, will be behind the scenes. Deacons represent Christ the servant and do not seek attention for themselves. Their ministry at the altar is directly linked to their ministry of charity and behind-the-scenes activities.
When a deacon serves at the altar, he brings the poor and the marginalized he cares for to the assembly, serving the assembly as he cares for those who are not present. There is a very important symbolic aspect to the deacon’s ministry at Mass; he is not just another server.
Our new deacons, most of whom are married, are often referred to as “permanent deacons,” in contrast to “transitional deacons,” who will be ordained priests.
Both are really permanently deacons, but those who are ordained priests are more identified with that ministry.
The ordination of men to be deacons only and permanently gives the archdiocese the permanent presence of all three orders in the sacrament of holy orders. We will also have more ways to see the image of Christ the servant active among us.
Deacons will soon be serving in about one-sixth of the archdiocese’s parishes. They will have an impact on those parishes and on the whole archdiocese.
At Sunday Mass, people will see men dressed in albs with stoles hanging across their chests from their left shoulders. They will introduce themselves as “Deacon Mike” or “Deacon Jones,” while others call them “Dad” or “Grandpa.”
Many of us, though, don’t start dealing with change until it touches our lives. That time has come.
I think it will take us at least 10 years before we have a good basic understanding of deacons and their ministries, and deacons are well-integrated into the life of the archdiocese.
In the coming months and years, we will all need to be patient with the questions and the unknowns. The adjustments will take time. The deacons will answer questions, but since many things will be new to them, too, they may not always have answers. The ordination of the first group of permanent deacons begins a learning process for all of us.
The learning process for the newly ordained deacons will continue in a program of ongoing formation. For the next three years, they will meet for four overnight programs each year as well as an annual retreat.
After that, there will be an expectation that they attend continuing education and formation programs each year as well as an annual retreat. They will always be rooted in their relationship with Christ.
(Benedictine Father Bede Cisco is director of the archdiocesan Office of Deacon Formation.) †