It’s a simple word, yet, it bears a profound meaning and responsibility for those who are called to become a deacon. For just as Jesus was a servant to the Father, so the deacon is the servant of the Church.
“The deacon’s role in the parish is to be the eyes and ears of the archbishop and to carry out his diaconal ministry, because the archbishop’s ministry is of true service,” said Deacon John Ebel, director of Diaconate Formation for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. “The priest and the deacon help him carry out his ministry to serve the people of God wherever that need may be.”
So what exactly does a deacon do? What’s involved in the process and what is expected?
Every two years, the Diaconate program seeks to identify as many qualified candidates as it can get, typically 10-12 men for each class. The archdiocese is currently offering its Inquiry for Discernment program for summer and fall. Those who are considering the diaconate are asked to reflect on their qualities and qualifications to decide whether they are suited to serve.
“In the early days, after the restoration of the permanent diaconate, the classes were fairly large and were up in the 20s,” Dcn. Ebel explained. “Times have changed and men are deferring their marriages, families are deferring having children, so we’re finding that our men are getting older and that number has come down. But it’s been consistent and we always have 10-12 men coming into the program every two years.”
On this particular evening, a class of about a dozen men along with their spouses have come to hear Dcn. Ebel explain the process, which will take four years for successful candidates to complete.
“These men and their wives are inquirers,” Dcn. Ebel said. “They’re inquiring into the process of becoming a deacon. The first step in that process is the aspirancy because they are inspired to becoming deacon candidates. Aspirancy is a one-year period.”
Aspirancy offers an introduction to the study of theology and to the spirituality and pastoral ministries of the deacon. It allows each prospective candidate to become more attentive to his call and time to form a community with fellow students through meeting and prayer. It also focuses on each wife and her own aspirant process, because becoming a deacon impacts the entire family.
“Formation does affect the whole family and it requires that the spouse be very supportive,” Dcn. Ebel said. “That means that she is keeping the home fires burning, the kids going to their activities, making time for dad so he has quiet time to study. The kids have to recognize that dad’s not going to be involved in everything, but that he still loves them and is still interested in their lives. Most of the deacon candidates I know work very hard at trying to be available when they can, but they need a lot of time for study and it affects the whole family. If a man is called to be a deacon, it’s a blessing to the marriage and to the family and to the kids in the end.”
Following the aspirancy period, years 2-4 make up the formal candidacy. This period of intense formation guides each candidate through three steps to confirm that they are indeed ready to move on. The steps include:
• Ministry of Lector which focuses on the Word and proclaiming the readings during Liturgy.
• Ministry of Acolyte providing service at the altar and liturgical celebrations.
• Declaration of Candidacy, final preparations for ordination.
The process can be a bit of a grind, especially as the candidate juggles regular life responsibilities including family and the workplace.
“A lot of prayer, a whole lot of study, pastoral learning in how to identify peoples’ needs and how, through the inspiration and guidance of the Holy Spirit, you can best meet those needs to bring the presence of Christ to those who are in need, whether they be immigrants, people in jail, people who are dying or are just lost in their life,” said Dcn. Ebel.
“We spend a lot of time with men in formation to help them get to know themselves so they can get out of their own way, so that the Holy Spirit can fill them up and guide them to what the Lord is asking them to do. You need to know where your strengths and weaknesses are because you need to minister from your strengths to be effective.”
And the ideal candidate? That’s another tall order because Jesus Christ was, in fact, the perfect example of what it means to be a servant.
“Beyond that, the ideal candidate is a man who has a deep sense of spirituality, a deep faith and trust in his God and who wishes to return the blessings he’s received back to the Lord in service to other people,” Dcn. Ebel explained. “Somebody who has those kind of characteristics and obviously they also need to have a deep intellectual capacity, a good sense of themselves. They need to be able to work by themselves, because deacons don’t have anybody standing by to hold their hand.”
The deacon must have a strong sense of himself as a minister, something the Diaconate program strives to nurture at every step along the way. The candidate must ask himself, “Who am I before God as a deacon?” In turn, this motivates their lives to be like Christ, a true servant of the church.
The archdiocese has no shortage of needs that are appropriate for the deacon to fill, especially in places like the jail system. There is hurt. There is pain. There is a sense of being lost, of hopelessness. Deacons are also needed in the areas of race issues, immigration issues and in the ecumenical area of the different faiths and churches. One novel way some deacons are taking to address these needs, especially in poorer areas of the city, is through a mission they call “Collars on the Corner.”
“They actually minister with some of the other faiths at the same time,” said Dcn. Ebel. “I think that’s the future of diaconate ministry in terms of trying to influence the culture and to bring Christ into the faith and everyday lives of people here in our city. They hand out bottled water, pray with people. You can actually stop by and drop off your prayer requests. So it’s a real person-to-person relationship building experience for people who have no relationship with a faith or with a church and it’s become quite effective.”
For those men interested in learning more about becoming deacons, the Inquiry for Discernment Program has introductory sessions scheduled June 13, 20 and 27 from 6-8 p.m. at the Archbishop Cousins Catholic Center.