What does a Catholic deacon do?

| April 23, 2015 | 0 Comments
Deacon Joseph Michalak carries the Book of the Gospels March 26 at the Chrism Mass at the Cathedral of St. Paul. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Deacon Joseph Michalak carries the Book of the Gospels March 26 at the Chrism Mass at the Cathedral of St. Paul. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Permanent deacons, as most Catholics see them, proclaim the Gospel at Sunday Mass and assist the priest presiding, often by accepting the offertory gifts, preparing the altar for the Liturgy of the Eucharist and, at the end of Mass, proclaiming, “Go in peace.”

Some Catholics — and non-Catholics, too — see permanent deacons in other activities, especially in prison ministry, pre-marriage instruction, preparing candidates for the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, visiting the elderly and those in the hospital, and volunteering with charities that care for the poor and needy.

All those activities that permanent deacons are involved in are the practical answer to the question Deacon Joseph Michalak is very familiar with: “What do deacons do?”

The director of permanent deacon formation in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis smiled and said, “I get that question all the time.”

He has a PowerPoint slideshow that answers the question when he does workshops around the country.

Forty-four years after the first permanent deacons were ordained in the United States, however, the ministry remains relatively unknown and poorly understood.

Aiming to change that are those from around the country involved in preparing permanent deacons to be ordained and to serve. They are meeting at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in downtown in Minneapolis April 21-24 at the annual convention of the National Association of Diaconate Directors. It is expected to draw 300 deacons, their wives and diaconate candidates in formation.

Available ambassadors

The theme of this year’s convention is “Deacon: Steward of Christ’s Mercy,” which resonated with Deacon Michalak.

He told The Catholic Spirit he wishes people understood two things about the permanent diaconate:

“First, that it’s an integral, essential vocation for the Church — and I think for the new evangelization,” he said, “and that people understand that we are there for them, for the Church. We are ambassadors of Christ and available to be that mediator in counsel, in prayer and in presence.”

There is, however, reason for a lack of understanding or appreciation for the deacon’s role, he said.

“There is nothing unique that the deacon does that isn’t somehow already covered,” Deacon Michalak acknowledged.

The sacramental abilities to baptize, officiate weddings, administer the sacrament of the sick and proclaim the Gospel all can be done by a priest. Lay people can visit the sick, catechize and perform acts of charity.

“What we are to do is to embody or be the icon of Jesus the servant,” Deacon Michalak said.

Jesus served by obeying the Father, he said, so the deacon’s main role is “to image obedient listening and be sent to do what he who sends us asks us to do.”

In the ordination rite, deacons receive the Book of the Gospels from the bishop, signifying that they are the “heralds of God, sent to proclaim the Gospel,” Deacon Michalak said.

“The deacon is the bishop’s man, the bishop’s helper,” he added. “The root meaning of deacon from the Greek is ‘one who is sent by the authority of another.’ Therefore, he is an ambassador, an envoy, a diplomat and mediator. It also has the meaning of ‘table waiter.’

“Practically, that means the deacon is to do whatever he is sent to do by the authority of the bishop,” Deacon Michalak said. When he’s given an assignment at a parish, “he’s assigned by the bishop to go help that priest dispense all the mysteries of grace to those in that place.”

Unseen servants

While Catholics typically see the deacon proclaiming the Gospel and preaching — his “Ministry of the Word” — and they see him assisting at Mass — his “Ministry of the Altar” — what “stamps the deacon,” the formation director said, is his “Ministry of Charity,” work that often isn’t at the parish to which they are assigned and often goes unseen by parishioners.

“A lot of our deacons are involved in charitable work, things such as ministering to the poor or to troubled youth,” Deacon Michalak said, “and in our archdiocese deacons have pretty much taken over prison ministry.”

Permanent deacons are also supposed to be “animators” of the laity, Deacon Michalak said, modeling for lay people what it means to listen obediently and engaging them in parish outreaches.

“Because many deacons are married, people identify with us,” he said.“They see you’ve got all the challenges of family life and a job that they do, yet you’re ordered to this obedient listening and being sent forth.

“They say, ‘I don’t have time to do that. How do you do that?’ That’s the main way I animate people” — by explaining how he responds to being sent to serve others, he said.

Relatable experience

It helps that deacons are or have been in the work-a-day world. They’ve been in the trades, are businessmen or educators.

“People relate to them on that level,” Deacon Michalak said. “People generally like to hear deacons preach because they bring a different perspective. Father is not going to give an example in his homily of yelling at his teenage daughter, as we might.”

He added: “We are to ‘enthrone the Word of God in the world’ — that’s a phrase I like.”

After being ordained a deacon in 2010, he initially wouldn’t wear a Roman collar when traveling, preferring to be anonymous, but Deacon Michalak said he has since changed his mind.

“If I wear a Roman collar and sit in an airplane, people’s stories emerge,” he said. “I’m embodying the Church for them. I can be an intercessor in prayer for them, a bridge to God.”

He’s found it essential to wear the collar doing hospital visits. “I found when you walk into a hospital room with the collar on, people think, the Church,” he said. “People will seek the presence of the Church in their need.”


What gives you the greatest sense of accomplishment as a deacon?

The Catholic Spirit asked, and deacons answered

Deacon Jim Marschall
Coordinator of pastoral care / justice and service
All Saints, Lakeville

“Two words: connections and relationships. A significant part of my service as a deacon is assisting persons with making connections to resources that meet their needs. Sometimes those needs are spiritual; sometimes temporal, physical or emotional. Often the need involves some kind of healing. Hand in hand with this is building and encouraging relationships, most significantly, people’s relationships with Jesus Christ. It is my place to be an instrument for God to draw people closer to himself. Another way to say it might be, that I am to meet people where they are at and help them take the next step in their journey of faith, while keeping myself out of the way. Most of the time, I don’t get to see results. However, these experiences invariably enrich my own relationship with Christ.”

Deacon Steve Maier
Police chaplain
St. Francis de Sales, St. Paul

“I’m a police chaplain for St. Paul, so the most satisfying thing I do is help people in need, whether that’s a police officer or a victim. It’s showing the light of Christ to them in a gentle way.”

Deacon Russ Kocemba
Parish deacon
Nativity of Our Lord, St. Paul

“It isn’t so much that we ‘do’ as it is that we ‘become the presence’ of that which is to be done through charity of heart. Our challenge is not to ‘be’ or to ‘do’ everything; rather, our challenge is to be present in a sacramental way . . . to become that which the Father, through his Son, Christ Jesus, by the love of the Holy Spirit is calling us to be present to in our ministry of deacon. . . . It is the entering of the mystery of Christ Jesus Servant wherein our presence to that or to whom we are called becomes the joy of that which we eventually do. It is in that fruit of the Holy Spirit — joy — that I feel the most sense of accomplishment in all the things that I do as deacon and where I say: ‘This is why I became a deacon! This is why it is so satisfying!’ ”

Deacon Bob Bisciglia
Pastoral minister
St. Peter, North St. Paul

“Being involved with individuals and families at very important times of their lives, preparing for and celebrating marriage and baptism, visiting the sick and the home bound. Meeting with families in their grief and planning funerals. Talking, sharing about faith and the presence of God in our lives! I have learned so much from the parishioners and staff at the Church of St. Peter in North St. Paul where I have been assigned for close to 10 years. I am especially blessed to be able serve with my wife, Anne, in marriage and baptism preparation, not to mention her invaluable critiques of my homilies!”

Deacon Darrel Branch
Pastoral minister
St. Gabriel the Archangel, Hopkins

“What gives my wife and me a sense of accomplishment is our ministry to couples who struggle with infertility issues. When we started our infertility journey we had no place to turn for help or information. We have been blessed with the opportunity to help couples come to terms with their infertility and walk with them on their journey.

“What gives me the sense of accomplishment is when I serve at Mass. Especially when I prepare the altar for the sacrifice of the Mass. It is a powerful and humbling experience.”

Deacon Phillip Stewart
Administrator, Leo C. Byrne Residence
Cathedral of St. Paul

“To respond to your question for me is like trying to explain to someone what part of your favorite dessert of all time tastes best: ‘All of it!’ Because satisfaction comes when I am serving  God’s Church through all my diaconal ministries, regardless of the challenge and/or sacrifice, especially those ministries that leave me wanting to do more.”

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