By Rev. Thomas Ferguson, Episcopal Vicar for Faith Formation
On January 15, 2011, Bishop Loverde will celebrate the first ordination in over 20 years of Permanent Deacons for service in the Diocese of Arlington. I will be writing again in the coming months about the reinstitution of the program, but first let’s first take a look at the vocation of deacon.
Since the earliest days of the Church’s history, deacons have been ordained in the Sacrament of Holy Orders to be icons or images of Christ the Servant, especially in serving in the ministry of the Word, at the altar, and in ministry of charity.
Deacons are members of the clergy, along with priests (presbyters) and bishops. Some deacons are called “transitional” because they subsequently will be ordained to serve as priests in the Church. Like priests, these “transitional” deacons make a promise of celibacy and remain unmarried for the rest of their lives.
Most “permanent” deacons, on the other hand, are married men at the time of their ordination.
These married deacons are called “permanent” because they exercise their ministry on a stable basis in the life of the Church. For nearly 1,000 years, the diaconate had become for many simply a “stepping stone” for clerics on the way to the priesthood. The Second Vatican Council restored the diaconate to its ancient form as a ministry as stable and permanent in the life of the Church as that of priests and bishops – and the Council also opened the possibility of ordination to this clerical ministry to married men.
Candidates for the diaconate must be at least 30 years old and no older than 60 when they begin a five-year period of human, spiritual, intellectual and pastoral formation. Married candidates must also be in a valid marriage and have established a reasonable stability in their family life when they begin the program of diaconate formation. The candidates’ wives are encouraged, but not required, to attend classes and participate in all aspects of the formation program. Wives must also give their consent before a man may petition the Bishop to be ordained a deacon.
Candidates for the diaconate attend classes on weekends, often accompanied by their wives, participate in the pastoral work of their parishes and meet regularly with mentors, spiritual directors and their pastors as they discern God’s call to ordained ministry.
Once ordained, deacons are frequently seen on the altar proclaiming the Gospel and preparing the altar for the Sacrifice of the Mass. Deacons also assist at marriages, baptize infants, lead funeral rites outside of Mass and participate in a variety of catechetical functions, especially various forms of sacramental preparation.
Most importantly, the deacon is called to be the icon of Christ the Servant at all times in all places – 24/7, in his family’s home, at the workplace where he is often engaged in a secular profession (though some deacons work full-time in parish or diocesan offices), and especially among those who are poor, sick, in prison or in the hospital – all to whom the deacon offers the charity of Jesus whom they imitate by being disciples of the Lord who came “not to be served, but to be the least and the servant of all.”
St. Ignatius of Antioch wrote in the second century that we should “reverence the deacon” as an icon of Christ. Let us reverence, and also pray for those to be ordained, and those already ordained, as deacons in the Diocese of Arlington.
Blog Note: Here is a copy Bishop Loverde’s letter from October 2005 announcing the reopening of the Permanent Diaconate Program.