The Archdiocese of Milwaukee deacon class of 2022 after being instituted in the Ministry of Reader on Feb. 22. (Submitted photo)

When the Archdiocese of Milwaukee first established a program for the formation of permanent deacons in 1973, a flood of inquiries greeted the new director, Fr. Paul Esser. The first class of men totaled 58, and 31 were ordained in 1974 on the feast of St. Stephen.

In the following years, the numbers fluctuated, but trended high. The two largest classes, in 1981 and 1984, had 22 men. Following the turn of the century, however, ordination class sizes became noticeably smaller, never numbering more than 10 in the first decade of the millennium.

Lately, the Office for Diaconate Formation (ODF) has been experiencing something of a vocations increase. The formation program currently has 17 aspirants, men who have completed the application process, been accepted into the program and are in their first year of formation. These aspirants, should they discern their vocations to the permanent diaconate are genuine and should the Church discern the same, will be ordained in 2024. The program also has 17 candidates, men who are in their second year of formation, and who will be eligible for ordination in 2022.

One candidate, Manuel Maldonado-Villalobos, is scheduled to be ordained in 2021. As the associate director of the ODF, he came into the program having completed many prerequisite courses.

Classes this large are not necessarily anything new, said Maldonado-Villalobos. “Normally we start with pretty big groups, and by the time of ordination, either the men have discerned not to continue or the Church has discerned that the men are not ready for ordination,” he said. However, the difference now is a concerted effort to provide the aspirants and candidates with more support and an expanded resource network. “That is why we are maintaining bigger numbers,” he said.

The increase in supportive services is the result of continuing to implement additional options endorsed by the most recent model of diaconate formation. In 2005, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops promulgated the National Directory for the Formation, Ministry, and Life of Permanent Deacons in the United States offering additional guidelines and directives for formation.

“In 2018, an assessment of our program took place and the results were that it was very comprehensive,” said Dcn. Dale Nees, director of deacon formation. “The process of program development is always ongoing. Therefore, it is no wonder that the National Association of Diaconate Directors (NADD) has just communicated that a second edition of the National Directory will be published in mid-2021.”

Here in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, implementation of these guidelines meant the deacon formation program came under the auspices of the archdiocese as an Office for Diaconate Formation, instead of continuing to exist as a part of a certificate program at Saint Francis de Sales Seminary.

The new model allowed for the flexibility to create a network of resources, supporting students in human, intellectual, spiritual and pastoral growth that Dcn. Nees believes may have helped retain vocations.

“We had classes this size before. Part of what we’re focusing in on now is continuing to develop their support,” he said. The larger number of aspirants and candidates has also warranted the creation of a new position within the ODF. A new associate director for pastoral formation will start in early 2021.

The program for deacon formation is rigorous, requiring attendance at Tuesday evening classes and formation sessions every other Saturday. Most of the aspirants are married with families and are still in the workforce. As more years have elapsed since the implementation of the new model and more deacons are ordained under it, the aspirants have access to more mentors who will be able to understand their experience and help the men discern if this really is their call.

“If we can get them into early mentoring, some of the things that can cause them stress humanly or pastorally in formation, they can talk to somebody about. If someone is struggling in a certain area intellectually, we can get him a tutor. We are encouraging them to start spiritual direction early,” said Dcn. Nees.

Overall, the office has worked to make the program more accessible to any man who might feel he has a calling to discern the permanent diaconate — irrespective of some barriers of his current work schedule, location and lifestyle. When an applicant’s work took him out of the country for a week, he was able to participate via Skype. That experience put the program ahead of schedule when COVID-19 became a factor and students moved quickly to virtual learning without a pause in the program.

Previously, class may have been canceled if there was severe weather that made travel risky in such a geographical area as large as the archdiocese. Now, learning can simply go virtual if necessary.

“We have guys living at the perimeters of the archdiocese — and I firmly feel there are vocations there — but our in-person format for Tuesday nights was challenging,” Dcn. Nees said. “They’re already here from 5 to 9 p.m. and for somebody who lives two hours away, that’s another four hours of driving, or realistically a full day on top of a work day, every week. We now have enough experience to let those men continue to do the intellectual component remotely. That will help with people who may have felt the desire, but could not commit due to the drive and hours involved.”

So what does this rise in diaconate vocations mean for the future of the Catholic Church here in southeastern Wisconsin?

“More deacons means more service in the community, more help in evangelization for the Archbishop and the pastors,” said Maldonado-Villalobos. “More deacons that are prepared means a stronger Catholic church.”

“Our job in the formation process is to help them discern if the initial tug on their heart is an actual pull,” said Dcn. Nees. “God has a mission for all of the baptized. Sometimes it is diaconal ministry and sometimes they discover what they are called to while in formation, even if it doesn’t end in ordination. The goal is to help discern those who have a diaconal vocation and to help the others discern why they’re here, even if it turns out they don’t have a diaconal vocation. I think anyone who enters discernment with that openness and that willingness to be that available, they’ll find that out. If they’re open, they will go in the direction God wants them to — whatever that is.”