Dcn. Lance Tappa (left), shown celebrating his Mass of Thanksgiving in September at St. Mary in Menomonee Falls, was one of 16 men ordained to the permanent diaconate for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee in 2022. (Photo courtesy of the Office of Diaconate Formation)
“It was the biggest group we have had since 1998,” said Dcn. Michael Chmielewski, director of deacon services for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.
In September, 16 men were ordained as deacons in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.
It also is a younger group than there has been in the past. Currently, 24 men are in the archdiocese’s diaconate formation program. The group of men that started in the diaconate formation program is on average six years younger than the group that was just ordained when they started their formation, according to Dcn. Dale Nees, director of the diaconate formation program.
In fact, the formation program has opened a mother’s nursing room to accommodate wives when they come to programming for their husbands, something that was not offered in the past.
“There has been a real intentional attempt on the part of diaconate formation to call younger guys into the diaconate,” Chmielewski said.
That demographic shift will cause changes in the coming years, in addition to presenting challenges and creating needs. The biggest needs going forward, according to Dcn. Nees, will be space, technological capacity and, if they are asking for the moon, furniture that will make it easier to sit through long training sessions.
When Dcn. Nees started working at the archdiocese in 2018, there was an immediate need for an internet connection in the main room where they held training. Over the past four years, that particular room has been updated to be pretty modern. But there isn’t enough capacity to include the wives of the candidates, who participate in part of the formation program with their husbands.
“We need to commit to more space and technology,” Dcn. Nees said.
For one-on-one, personal conversation that takes place during the formation process, that means many more rooms. He could see the program expanding to as many as 45-55 candidates over three different classes.
Deacons can be ordained at age 35 if it is appropriate and makes sense with their family, according to Nees.
“I think a big change has been the program’s willingness to look at and encourage vocations, and to help families discern whether the time is right for them,” Dcn. Nees said. “It has been a matter of changing the mindset in the American culture that somebody has to have their family raised with an empty nest and almost ending their secular career in order to become a deacon.”
The deacons are taught from the time they begin the formation program how to integrate work, family and their role as a deacon. Their first priority is family, their second priority is employment and third is the diaconate, according to Dcn. Chmielewski.
“When they put together their covenant for service to the parish, they have to keep in mind that their primary responsibility remains family and their employment because their employment supports the family,” Dcn. Chmielewski said.
There are three areas in which deacons serve. The first is the liturgy. Deacons assist at Masses, baptisms and weddings.
The second piece is service to the Word. Deacons teach Catholic Formation, confirmation, RCIA, marriage preparation and baptism preparation classes.
The third area is charitable service to the outlying community.
“We are called to serve and bring Jesus to places where the people can’t get to necessarily, so you’re talking about service to nursing homes, hospices, hospitals and prisons,” Chmielewski said.
Pastors across the archdiocese are grateful for the increase in the number of deacons. Great partnerships are being created as a result.
“I don’t know what I would do without them,” said Fr. Jordan Berghouse, administrator of St. James in Mukwonago and St. Theresa in Eagle.
The parishes benefit from having deacons.
“It’s great to have them preach. We hear ourselves every day as priests, so it’s nice to be able to listen to somebody else once in a while,” Fr. Berghouse said. “And then, of course, deacons have their own life experiences. Sometimes, parishioners might like to talk to a deacon who maybe understands in a more in-depth way the intricacies of married life.”
The trend toward having more deacons is evident in Fr. Berghouse’s two parishes, where there are currently three more men preparing for the diaconate.
Through both the diaconate formation program and the deacon services program, the Milwaukee Archdiocese supports deacons from the very beginning of formation through their entire life as a deacon. But more than that, the programs support the deacons’ families as well.
“Recognizing the importance of the family in a ministry where 92-95 percent of the people are married is incredibly important in a formation program,” Dcn. Nees said.
And now, the focus includes younger families. Currently, 15 percent of those preparing to become deacons are ages 30 to 40. Prior to 2020, there were none in that age category, according to Dcn. Nees.
“I think it screams a lot of hope for the Church,” Nees said.