The permanent diaconate at 50: Memories and modern challenges

| Susan Klemond | December 4, 2017 | 0 Comments
Diaconate anniversary

Deacons Eric Gunderson, left, and Martin Meyer carry oil into the sanctuary during the Chrism Mass at the Cathedral of St. Paul April 6. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

When Deacon Thomas Langlois was ordained one of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis’ first permanent deacons in 1976, he couldn’t ask advice from a veteran deacon — there had been almost no permanent deacons in the Church for a thousand years.

“Each step was a new experience for us,” said Deacon Langlois, 87, who lives with his wife, Elizabeth, at the Little Sisters of the Poor Jeanne Jugan Apartments in St. Paul, and who has ministered as a deacon at a public housing project and in parishes and lay organizations.

Nine years before Deacon Langlois and 11 other men of diverse backgrounds and ages began forging their way as permanent deacons, the Second Vatican Council called for restoration of the permanent diaconate, which had been dormant since the Middle Ages.

Now, 50 years after Pope Paul VI re-established the permanent diaconate in 1967, the vocation has flourished, especially in the United States. Church leaders, however, continue to consider the permanent deacon’s role in relation to the laity and to seek ways to attract younger men to the vocation. They also aim to better meet the needs of deacons’ families and fine-tune formation.

Diaconate anniversary

Deacon John Shearer, left, is vested by Deacon Tim Zinda during the last permanent deacon ordination Mass, which took place Dec. 5, 2015. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Service at heart

The word deacon is taken from the Greek “diakonia,” which means “service” — a central characteristic of the diaconate. Permanent deacons are servants of the Word, the Eucharist and the charity of Christ, which means they proclaim the Gospel and preach, assist at the altar during Mass and other liturgies, and minister in the Church and broader community. They can administer two of the seven sacraments — marriage and baptism — and also typically take on roles serving the poor, visiting the sick and imprisoned, and ministering to the dying.

The U.S. Church has embraced the diaconate more than other countries, said Deacon James Keating, director of Theological Formation at the Institute for Priestly Formation in Omaha, Nebraska. But, he said, “We are still in a learning curve about who the deacon is and how he is best formed to serve the new facets of our Church, such as dwindling church attendance, fewer and fewer sacramental marriages for young people, even a lessening interest on young people’s part for spirituality and prayer.”

Deacon Robert Cross, 92, remembers that the archdiocese was still working out its diaconate curriculum when it decided to ordain the first class — of which he was a member — while they still had a year of formation to complete.

“We sensed in a way that it was experimental,” he said.

Diaconate anniversary

Deacon Sean Curtan proclaims the Gospel during Mass at St. Columba in St. Paul. Dave Hrbacek/Courtesy Franciscan Brothers of Peace

Deacon Cross, who served as a minister in Baptist and Presbyterian churches before converting to Catholicism, said he appreciated the thoroughness of the formation. He now attends St. Michael in Stillwater.

Diaconate formation has developed considerably from the rudimentary programs offered 50 years ago, Deacon Keating said, adding that there is room for improvement in human formation and in formation on self-awareness, marriages, contemplative prayer and preaching.

Deacon James Thornton, 88, was also a member of the archdiocese’s inaugural class. He recalled that initially, some archdiocesan priests were uncertain about the new diaconate role, but the confusion cleared up after the first year.

The first deacons interviewed for this story had different reasons for applying for the diaconate, but all experienced a call. At one time a Dominican novice, Deacon Thornton said the diaconate enabled him to respond to a call to the clergy. The highlight of his ministry has been serving on the altar, with homebound and with Loaves and Fishes programs, he said.

“It’s been a blast,” he added. “I’d do it again.”

His classmate Deacon Cross had felt called to preach and teach the Bible as a Protestant minister, and when he became Catholic, he continued to preach and teach in the diaconate at the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis and several other parishes.

“I became Catholic, and God is very good because as deacon I could preach, teach and serve in the Church,” he said.

Diaconate anniversary

Deacon Russ Kocemba, left, baptizes Nathan DiPasquale at Nativity of Our Lord in St. Paul Oct. 18, 2015. Holding Nathan are his parents, David and Jessica DiPasquale. Dave Hrbacek/Courtesy Mark Lauer

Wife collaborators

In the archdiocese, men from age 35 to 60 can apply for the diaconate; they must be ordained by age 65. Unlike Roman Catholic priests, deacons can be married.

Deacon Langlois’ wife, Elizabeth, has been his partner in ministry as well as life. Just before ordination, she told him she’d be on the altar with him spiritually. While raising their seven children, the couple led pastoral groups and ministered at the
St. Paul housing project where they lived for seven years. With her background in psychiatric nursing, Elizabeth lent support to her husband’s parish ministry.

“It was pastoral ministry, so we worked together … [and] we made a good team,” Deacon Langlois said.

The first deacons struggled to balance demands of family, work and the diaconate. As he and his wife raised five children, Deacon Thornton taught high school chemistry and ministered at what is now the combined parish of Sts. Joachim and Anne in Shakopee, where he still serves occasionally.

“Most of the time it was out of balance,” Deacon Thornton admitted.

However, as members of the clergy whose lives often mirror the laity, permanent deacons serve as a bridge for the laity and priests in their relationship with God, said Deacon Larry Lawinger, 59, who ministers at St. Vincent de Paul in Brooklyn Park.

“A deacon helps the lay community work towards their true calling of being a priestly people,” he said.

Deacons also animate the lay vocation, Deacon Keating said.

“Among the laity at work in the secular world, embedded within that fabric, is a man who carries the grace of Christ the servant,” he said.

Deacon Langlois’ interest was in the people.

“You don’t realize at the time you are touching people. It’s sacramental how it affects you,” he said.

Being a deacon isn’t about “good works,” but rather being in relationship with Christ, who sends him from within that relationship to those longing to hear the Gospel, Deacon Keating said.

“Remaining with and in Christ is the real gift of the diaconate, whether we are feeding the hungry or evangelizing through the internet,” he added.

Deacon Carl Valdez serves as a chaplain for the Minneapolis Police Department in the Fifth Precinct. The precinct headquarters are near Incarnation, the parish where he serves. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Growing need

Across the country, permanent deacons being ordained are not replacing those leaving ministry. According to the CARA study, 94 percent of active deacons are at least 50 years old.

The Church needs both mature men and younger men as deacons, Deacon Keating said.

“We don’t want to give the impression that religion is just for older men,” he added. “Those few young men that are left in our pews need to see their own faces in the pulpit … encouraging them to enter a deeper spiritual life.”

Deacons also need to represent the family as much as the secular world in the call to holiness, said Deacon Lawinger, who also serves as the archdiocesan diaconate director.

“With that recognition comes more acceptance of younger men for the diaconate and [potential candidates] not saying, ‘We’ve got a younger family, [so] we can’t do that,’” he said.

In seeking to draw younger men to the diaconate, the Church needs to do more to bring their families into the vocation — as it has with deacons’ wives — but without disrupting the family, Deacon Lawinger said.

Younger deacons are needed to serve in youth ministries, high schools and universities, said Deacon Joseph Michalak, archdiocesan director of diaconate formation. Younger deacons could also serve in business and men’s ministry.

“These are the areas the diaconate is now being called into, and because of this much greater diversity of ministry, there’s greater need for formation,” he said.

Diaconate in historyThe number of permanent deacons in the United States has grown steadily from 898 in 1975 to about 14,500 in active ministry, according to a 2014-15 study by Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. There are 124 active permanent deacons in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

Deacons have served in the Church from the time of the apostles. Early deacons preached, ministered in the liturgical assembly and distributed food to the poor. St. Stephen, the first martyr, and St. Lawrence of Rome, who died in 258, were among the early deacons.

After the fifth century, the number of deacons declined, and the diaconate became more of a transitional step toward priesthood, rather than a distinct vocation. Exceptions include St. Francis of Assisi, who in the 13th century was ordained a permanent deacon rather than a priest.

The Council of Trent called for restoration of the permanent diaconate in the 16th century, but the directive wasn’t enacted. Following calls during World War II and the 1950s to restore the permanent diaconate, the bishops participating in the Second Vatican Council strongly endorsed the restoration, which is reflected in the document “Lumen Gentium” (“Dogmatic Constitution on the Church”), promulgated in 1964. However, the council fathers didn’t clearly articulate the diaconate’s role in the Church, said Deacon Joseph Michalak, archdiocesan director of diaconate formation.

In 1967, Pope Paul VI implemented the Council’s renewal of the permanent diaconate, stating that it should have its own “indelible character” and special grace.

After dioceses experimented with the permanent diaconate in the decades that followed, the Vatican issued basic norms in 1998.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops later developed particular norms for four-stage formation focusing on spiritual, human, intellectual and pastoral dimensions, Deacon Michalak said.

— Susan Klemond

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