The deacon difference

First slide

When James J. Benisek first inquired into the permanent diaconate, he was turned down. The program was closed, he was told; no applications had been accepted since 1985, when Arlington Bishop John R. Keating had declared a moratorium on the program.

In 2005, however, when Arlington Bishop Paul S. Loverde reinstated the permanent diaconate, Benisek applied again. In 2012, he was ordained a permanent deacon - part of the second class ordained to the ministry of "Christ the servant" since the moratorium had been lifted.

The history of the permanent diaconate in the Arlington Diocese parallels that of the church as a whole. According to From the Diakonia of Christ to the Diakonia of the Apostles, published in 2002 by the International Theological Commission of the Holy See, the roles of deacons in the church waned by around the fifth century. After much consideration, the permanent diaconate was restored by the bishops of the Second Vatican Council Sept. 29, 1964.

While 20 years isn't exactly 15 centuries, the Arlington Diocese, under the direction of Bishop Loverde, used the time off to compile a committee of priests and deacons to study the program and the needs of the diocese.

Part of that discernment, said Father Thomas P. Ferguson, diocesan director of diaconate formation, is figuring out the role of a permanent deacon in the 21st-century church.

"A deacon is not a 'super layperson' and the deacon is not a 'mini-priest' either," Father Ferguson said. "The deacon is a person who has a unique calling and unique ministry."

As time was taken to reflect on how well the men were being prepared, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops released the National Directory for the Formation, Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons in the United States in 2004. In it, the bishops outline four pillars of diaconate formation: human, spiritual, intellectual and pastoral.

"Those four pillars became the foundation," Father Ferguson said. And the challenge is to keep those four values in balance.

Deacon Thomas R. Dubois, executive director of the National Association of Diaconate Directors, based in Columbus, Ohio, said the publication of the directory prompted many dioceses to take a look at their diaconate formation programs as Arlington did.

"I think some of the bishops took a look at their own formation processes and were asking themselves, 'Are we doing what we need to be doing?'" Deacon Dubois said. 

Fresh blood

Since Bishop Loverde reopened the permanent diaconate program in 2005, 23 men have been ordained permanent deacons in the last two years. Their ordinations bring the total number of active permanent deacons in the diocese to 61, with four more on duty outside the diocese and 12 more retired. Another 20-plus men are at various stages of diaconate formation, including seven candidates admitted into the program in January, and 12 soon-to-be acolytes. According to Georgetown University's Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) study, "A Portrait of the Permanent Diaconate: A Study for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops," in the United States there are an estimated 17,241 permanent deacons - active and non-active.

Father Ferguson said Arlington's newly ordained men have brought greater awareness to the role of permanent deacons in parishes and a new energy for the church and ministry. In addition, the deacons make it possible for the priests to minister the sacraments to more people.

"Without the deacons in our parish, sometimes the pastor has to choose between being in one place or another," said Father Ferguson, who also is pastor of Good Shepherd Church in Alexandria. "We can't be two places at one time. We're better able to serve the pastoral needs of the people with the presence of ordained ministers because we have the deacons with us."

Deacons can't celebrate Mass, hear confessions or anoint the sick, but they can help prepare couples for marriage, celebrate baptisms and officiate at weddings, thereby freeing up the priests for their own particular sacramental tasks.

Father David A. Whitestone, pastor of St. Leo the Great Church in Fairfax, said the three deacons assigned to the parish - Noel Vivaldi, Jose J. Lopez and David M. Maurer - greatly help him and Father Ramon A. Baez, parochial vicar, minister to more than 8,000 parishioners.

"It just multiplies the effect and the availability of the clergy all the way around," Father Whitestone said. "We're just not able to really do as much as we want to do. The fact that we have the deacons there, it helps us tremendously."

The role of deacons

Though modern deacons, like the deacons in the early centuries of the church, sometimes work for the church full time (see: Deacon Marques Silva, director of the Office of Child Protection and Safety), most of their ministry now is parish-based, Father Ferguson said.

"It's assisting in whatever the needs of (the particular) parish might be," he said. "While most parishioners probably see the deacon most frequently on the altar, that's probably not what his primary ministry is. Sometimes it's in catechetical work or formation; sometimes it's in ministry in hospitals, or in jails and prisons. Sometimes it's working among poor people.

"In our diocese we have an ever-growing need to have deacons who are able to work with Hispanics or immigrants," he added.

While deacons are ordained ministers, they are not priests and are able - and are encouraged - to marry. According to the CARA study, 91 percent of active permanent deacons are married and 4 percent are widowers. If the wife of a permanent deacon dies, the deacon may not remarry.

Because 95 percent of permanent deacons have experience with home and family life, they have a wide variety of topics to draw from when ministering and preaching.

"They bring their own personalities of being men who have families and who are more attuned to the particular struggles and challenges and blessings of marriage life," Father Whitestone said. "It flavors their advice."

"(The deacons') perspective as parents and married people brings a beautiful dimension to their preaching and their lives," added Father James S. Barkett, pastor of St. Mary of Sorrows Church in Fairfax, where Deacons Silva and Jeffrey M. Meyers serve.

Vocations promoter

St. Veronica Church in Chantilly, where Father Edward C. Hathaway is pastor, received its first permanent deacon - Paul Ochenkowski - in 2011 after the first "new class" was ordained. As coordinator of religious education, Ochenkowski is an example of Christian service to the parish, Father Hathaway said.

"Here's a man who is consecrated to Christ the servant," Father Hathaway said. "We all are, from our baptism. But the fact that he's received the sacrament of holy orders, it speaks to the church as a witness of that."

This diaconate witness makes permanent deacons "the best promoters of vocations to the diaconate that we have," Father Ferguson said. "My phone starts ringing off the hook or the emails start coming in from men who are inquiring about the diaconate for themselves as a vocation."

In Deacon Benisek's case, it was one of the older generations of deacons who inspired him to his new ministry. One of the primary reasons Benisek first considered the diaconate was the example of Deacon Richard P. Smith, a man Deacon Benisek called an example of stability and leadership at St. William of York Church in Stafford.

Remembering the compassionate example of Deacon Smith, who is now retired, Deacon Benisek said he always tries to make time for people - and especially is mindful of being an example for other men interested in the permanent diaconate.

"I don't think I would have applied had (Deacon Smith) not been there, had there not been someone there to encourage me," he said. "I never would have seen what a permanent deacon does. I never would have come to the realization that such a vocation could be possible."

Similarly Deacon Robert W. Warner, ordained in 2011 and now serving at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in Lake Ridge, called Deacon Emil P. Myskowski, who served at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton for nearly 30 years, an example of diaconate service for him.

"He was always kind of a model for me," Deacon Warner said. From Myskowski, Warner learned to "be present to people, to be prepared, to pray always, to let the Spirit take over (and to) meet people where they are."

At St. Leo, too, Father Whitestone said three men recently have expressed an interest in the permanent diaconate.

"That's a direct result of the witness of the deacons," he said. "It opens up people to the possibility of another way of serving the church."

As inquiries for the permanent diaconate come in at St. Mary, Father Barkett encourages the men to be altar servers, lectors and extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist while in formation.

"The parish kind of grows with them and sees them growing … and gets excited when they are ordained," he said. "It's a beautiful witness."

Old versus new

As new vocations to the permanent diaconate continue to grow in the Arlington Diocese, new deacons naturally are juxtaposed with the "older generation" predecessors.

According to the CARA study, more than 25 percent of deacons in the United States are 70 or older.

Deacon Dubois said there's a difference in formation from deacons ordained 20 years ago to those ordained now.

The formation program has made "tremendous advancements" from what was available to the older generation, he said. "The men are coming through and they really reap the benefits of the theology of the diaconate that has been evolving."

Father Ferguson said that while the older generation of deacons had good academic formation, the spiritual formation was not as extensive as what the men currently receive.

As part of the 2012 class, Deacon Benisek agreed.

"The formation program is a lot more detailed and comprehensive now," he said. In the past, the deacons in formation "had to do a lot more learning on their own."

And so, as permanent deacons continue to prove their value through ministry and witness, Father Ferguson said the Arlington program will continue to accept new groups of candidates every other year.

"We have every expectation that the good reception that the newly ordained deacons are receiving in the parishes is a sign that we should continue to nourish and foster this vocation in our diocese."

This is Crowe's last piece for the Catholic Herald. To respond to the article, email feedback@catholicherald.com.

Deacons in formation
Deacon candidates admitted into the Diaconate Formation Program in the Rite of Candidacy Mass Jan. 26:
Gerard-Marie Anthony
Orlando J. Barros
Thomas L. Grodek
Mark R. Maines
Michael J. O'Neil
Eduardo P. Rodriguez-Abad
Timothy H. Slayter

Deacon candidates who will be admitted into the ministry of acolyte at the Installation of Acolyte Mass Feb. 16:
Robert E. Benyo
Daniel A. D'Agostino
Robert R. Gillespie
Rafael A. Goldsmith
Helio A. Gomez
Thomas H. McQuillan
Michael J. Mochel
Patrick A. Ouellette
Antonio J. Remedios
Atanacio Sandoval
James R. Van de Voorde
Michael A. Waters

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2013