By Rev. Bede Cisco, OSB (Director of Deacon Formation)

#1 – Deacon Formation

Since August 2004, 25 men, often accompanied by their wives, have spent one weekend a month, from 6:45 Friday evening until after 2:00 pm on Sunday afternoon, attending classes, praying together, and learning more about ministry in the Church.  The August weekend has been a retreat, to start the sequence of weekends attending to the mystery of God at the center of our faith.  The weekends from September through June have included 12 hours of class, a two-hour formation period, morning and evening prayer from the Liturgy of the Hours, the Eucharist and celebrations of the sacraments of reconciliation and anointing, and time for conversation.  The classes have covered the basic teachings of our faith expressed in the Creed, liturgy and sacraments, moral theology, Sacred Scripture, church history, and practical areas such as pastoral care, catechesis, homiletics and church law.  The candidates have learned the Church’s teachings and Tradition as well as its practice and life.

#2 – Dimensions of Deacon Formation, part 1

The Church understands preparation for ministry to be a process that takes place on several levels or dimensions, honoring the richness of the lives of those who would serve and the breadth of the Church’s life.  The four primary dimensions of formation for deacons, as well as for priests and lay ecclesial ministers, are human, spiritual, intellectual and pastoral.  The human dimension takes people where they are and asks them to identify and develop their gifts and talents for service in the Church.  They are also challenged to recognize their limitations and learn to work within them.  Formation in the spiritual dimension means deepening one’s prayer and relationship with God so that as a deacon he is open to God working in his life and recognizes God working in the lives of those he serves.  Practices such as spiritual direction, personal prayer, and regular participation in the sacraments help those who aspire to the diaconate or other public ministry to grow into “the full stature of Christ” (Eph 4:13). (to be continued)

#3 – Dimensions of Deacon Formation, part 2

The previous article described the dimensions of human and spiritual formation.  This article will present the intellectual and pastoral dimensions of formation.  The intellectual dimension is often referred to as theological study.  It involves understanding the Scriptures and learning the content of the Catechism of the Catholic Church in a deep and systematic way.  Deacon aspirants and candidates have homework, reading and writing assignments that complement the class sessions and help them make the truths of our faith more fully their own.  The pastoral dimension of formation gives the men practical experiences in serving others.  All of them came into the program as generous and involved persons.  In this dimension, they are challenged to move into new and unfamiliar areas of service, as they will do as deacons.  There are many unmet needs in the Church and local community, and part of a deacon’s ministry is to help develop a response to the needs of those who are underserved.  They learn from these experiences through discussion with their pastor or priest-supervisor, and with their peers in theological reflection sessions.

#4 – Service Is at the Heart of a Deacon’s Life and Ministry

Each of the men in deacon formation has a history of generous service in their parish and community.  We look for the commitment to serve others, especially the poor and marginalized, as we discern with inquirers whether they are called to be a deacon.  During formation, they are expected to be involved in several hours of service each week.  Their activities have included visiting jails and leading prayer services there, visiting the sick and bringing them communion in hospitals, homes, and health care centers, assisting in various components of Catholic Charities, developing a Substance Addiction Ministry (SAM) in the Archdiocese, and serving in various youth ministry and catechetical programs in their parishes and deaneries.  After ordination, they will be serving about 10 hours per week in the ministries of Word, liturgy and charity.  All they do during formation and as deacons is uncompensated; they are not paid for their service as deacons.  Each deacon supports himself and his family through his work at a job.  Several candidates work for the Church in positions for which they have qualifications distinct from being a deacon.

#5 – The Differences between Priests and Deacons

There are three orders in the sacrament of Holy Orders: the order of bishops, the order of presbyters and the order of deacons.  In Roman antiquity, an order was an established body or group, to which one was admitted by ordination (see CCC 1537).  ‘Presbyter’ is the name of the order to which most priests, such as your pastor, belongs.  But bishops are also priests, as both preside at the Eucharist, hear confessions, and anoint the sick.  Deacons are not priests; they belong to a different order.  Vatican II quoted an ancient Church writing when it stated that deacons “receive the imposition of hands ‘not for the priesthood, but for the ministry.’” (LG 29)  Deacons are sacramentally configured to Christ the servant, while presbyters and bishops are configured to Christ the head.  Deacons share the ministry of the Word with priests, but differ in their other ministries.  Deacons have the ministry of liturgy, assisting priests in their ministry of sacrament.  The third ministry is where the orders differ the most: deacons have the ministry of charity and advocacy for justice and priests have the ministry of pastoral governance, bishops serving as pastors for dioceses and appointing presbyters as pastors of parishes.

#6 – The Deacon’s Ministry of Charity

The ministry of charity is the deacon’s distinctive ministry.  It is also his least visible ministry, as he attends to those on the margins of the Church and community.  Pope Benedict, in his encyclical Deus caritas est (“God is love”), reminds us that the “love of neighbor, grounded in the love of God is first and foremost a responsibility for each individual member of the faithful, but it is also a responsibility for the entire ecclesial community at every level” (#20).  The deacon embodies the love of neighbor and because he is doing what everyone is called to do, he supports and encourages his brothers and sisters in their care for others, sometimes organizing and recruiting people to meet a need that has been unattended.  The order of deacons shows that “the ministry of charity exercised in a communitarian, orderly way” has become “part of the fundamental structure of the Church.” (#21)  The ordination of the first class of permanent deacons in June will precede their involvement in a major social ministry awareness initiative in the Archdiocese beginning in the fall.

#7 – The Deacon’s Ministries of Word and Liturgy

The deacon’s ministry of the Word has many expressions.  The most visible will be to hear him proclaim the Gospel at Sunday Mass.  On occasion, he will also preach.  While each deacon will have a unique set of commitments, some will be involved in faith formation, RCIA, and sacramental preparation.  Since deacons can witness marriages and preside at weddings outside Mass, those who do so will be involved in preparing couples.  Deacons are also regular ministers of baptism, so they may prepare parents for their children’s baptism.  In addition to marriages and baptisms, a deacon’s ministry of liturgy includes conducting funerals outside Mass, leading prayer services, and presiding at Benediction.  A deacon also assists the priest at Mass.  Holy Week and the Triduum are important times for candidates, catechumens and the whole community.  The liturgies of these special days include many places where a deacon serves, including the singing of the Easter Proclamation, the Exultet.

#8 – The Deacon’s Service at the Altar

The best place to see the interrelationship of the deacon’s three ministries is at the celebration of the Eucharist.  The deacon exercises the ministry of the Word by proclaiming the Gospel and may preach, though the priest celebrant “ordinarily” gives the homily.  After the homily and Creed, the deacon leads the general intercessions, drawing on his ministry of charity to express particular needs in the local community.  Then he helps prepare the altar and assists the priest in receiving the gifts, expressing the ministry of liturgy as well as the ministry of charity when he distributes some of the resources in aiding the poor.  Throughout the liturgy, the deacon’s ministry of charity that is usually not seen by the community is evident in his service at the altar.  By his presence at the altar, the deacon links those whom he serves who cannot join the assembly with the assembly.  Recognizing the symbolic aspect of his service at the altar is a valuable way to understand that the deacon’s activities are quite different from a regular server’s.  A deacon’s service at the Eucharist has meaning far beyond what he does.

#9 – Deacons’ Wives and Family Lives

All of our deacon candidates are or have been married (one is widowed).  For them, becoming a deacon builds on an existing sacramental bond and consecration.  The total married time for the 25 candidates is 850 years, which makes the average length of time married to be 34 years.  The range is 14 years to 47 years.  The wives are engaged in a wide range of activities: all are mothers (one to five children) and many are grandmothers, several are homemakers, several are retired.  A number of them work in education-related areas, in offices and in health-care fields.  While many volunteer in parishes and church-related areas, only two are employed by a church organization.  One works in government, one is a real estate agent, and another owns her own business.  There is no specific expectation for a deacon’s wife – some will be involved in ministry and may serve with their husbands; others may not be very involved in church activities.  There are 74 children in these families, nine of whom are 18 or younger.  Most of the children are married and many live within a few hours driving time. 

#10 – Deacons in the Workplace

Many deacons work in the private and public sectors of our economy.  All deacons are responsible for supporting themselves and their families; they are not compensated for their ministry as deacons.  Being in the workplace gives deacons opportunities to minister to people where they spend much of their lives.  Because they are ordained ministers, deacons bring the Church and the presence of Christ to people where they are.  Sometimes deacons do so much for the spiritual lives of their coworkers that they become unofficial “chaplains” in the workplace.  They meet those alienated from the Church and show them that living a life of faith is possible and worthwhile.  One theologian notes that the way the deacon moves between the church and the world allows him to be a sign of seamlessness, a witness to God’s presence across the somewhat artificial boundaries this world sets up.  Deacons live out the social dimension of the Gospel and advocate for justice through all dimensions of their lives.

#11 – Continuing Formation of Deacons

A deacon’s formation does not end with ordination.  Even though he has had four years of formation, there remains much to learn and many ways in which to grow.  The process of being transformed by Christ, which begins for each person at baptism, is only completed in the life to come.  Post-ordination formation for deacons begins with a special three-year process.  During this time, the newly ordained deacons will meet four times a year for a Friday evening through early Saturday afternoon program, revisiting in a new way some topics addressed during initial formation as well as exploring new topics.  We will also begin two activities that will be part of all deacons schedules – an annual St. Lawrence day celebration, on a Sunday evening near the saint’s feast on August 10, and an annual deacon community retreat in late June.  In other months, the newly ordained deacons will meet for fellowship and support in the small groups originally started for study and theological reflection.

#12 – The Unique Identity and Ministry of Deacons

A unique identity and ministry is important for deacons because identity is important for all of us.  Deacons need a distinctive identity and ministry in relation to the others with whom they serve: bishops, presbyters, and lay people.  After an absence of over a thousand years, the order of deacons has been represented by a permanent, stable group of men for only 40 years, since after the Second Vatican Council. For many, a clear understanding of deacons has not yet developed. Some say that deacons are ‘mini-priests’ or ‘glorified altar servers’ or the solution to the ‘priesthood shortage.’  All three of these statements distort the identity of deacons, attempting to define them in terms of more familiar realities.  If we begin by understanding the Church as communio, “communion,” just as the Holy Trinity is a communion of three persons, the unique ministry of deacons involves supporting and nurturing relationships.  Deacons facilitate communication among members of the Church so that all can enjoy greater communion with one another and with God.  They are “mediators” between and among individuals and groups in the faith community and “animators” who draw others into the ministry of charity.

#13 – The Ordination of Deacons

The ordination of deacons takes places during Mass.  The rite begins immediately after the Gospel with a deacon calling the names of those to be ordained, a testimony to their readiness, and the ordaining bishop choosing them for the Order of the diaconate.  Then the bishop gives a homily on the readings and about the office of deacon.  After the homily, the bishop questions those to be ordained, the unmarried make their commitment to celibacy, and all promise respect and obedience to their bishop.  Those to be ordained then prostrate themselves to pray while the congregation sings the Litany of Saints, expressing the communion of saints praying in unity.  The bishop then imposes his hands on the head of each man in silence, an ancient gesture calling down the power of the Holy Spirit.  The bishop prays the Prayer of Ordination to complete the ordination.  The ordination rite concludes with the vesting of the newly ordained in stole and dalmatic, the presentation of the Book of Gospels, and the exchange of the sign of peace with the bishop and the other deacons who are present.  The Mass continues with the Preparation of Gifts.

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