Permanent deacons offer a vital ministry

On Saturday, June 23, at St. Louis Cathedral, you are ordaining 22 men as permanent deacons for the Archdiocese of New Orleans. Can you talk about the gift the permanent diaconate has been to the church?

I feel very positive about the permanent diaconate. It is a great blessing of the Second Vatican Council, and it was officially promulgated for the universal church in 1968. The Archdiocese of New Orleans was one of the very first dioceses in the U.S. to begin training men for the permanent diaconate, largely because Archbishop Hannan was among the first bishops to truly embrace the diaconate. In many ways, Archbishop Hannan was a pioneer. Our first permanent diaconate class was ordained in 1974, which was the year before I was ordained to the priesthood. In fact, I recall that I was ordained as a transitional deacon in May 1974, and I served as a deacon at the Mass of Ordination for the first class of permanent deacons.

Many might recall that in its beginning years, the permanent diaconate may have been met with skepticism by some priests. Is that the case?

I think in the early 1970s, there was a great deal of skepticism by many priests because they did not really know how the deacons would fit into the life of the church. They didn’t know how the collaboration with the deacons would work out. Now, you can fast forward 50 years, and we have a much more pastoral understanding of the ministry of deacons than we did then. I have more requests from priests for deacons to be assigned to their parish than we have deacons! There has been a great deal of effective collaboration among priests, deacons, religious and lay ministers. I have to say that the Archdiocese of New Orleans has always been recognized as having one of the best formation programs for deacons, and that has a lot to do with the people who were in charge of the formation. It was started by then-Msgr. John Favalora, and it continued to be carried on by the late Deacon Jim Swiler and now Deacon Ray Duplechain.

What are some of the important ministries of permanent deacons?

Their first ministry is a ministry of charity. They are to show Christ’s love to all, especially to those who are in need, hurting or estranged from the church. Secondly, they have a ministry of proclaiming the Word of God and preaching and teaching that Word. Thirdly, they have the ministry of leading prayer, especially assisting the priest at the altar during Mass, witnessing marriages, presiding at funerals, celebrating baptisms and bringing Communion to the sick and the dying.

How has the formation program for permanent deacons changed over the years?

The program certainly has been strengthened over the years. In the beginning, we had the basic foundation of formation for deacon candidates. In later years, we borrowed from priestly formation with the idea that formation has four major components: spiritual, academic, pastoral and human. We now have a five-year program of formation for deacons, and it is superb.

Many people see their deacons at Mass each Sunday but don’t realize they have other roles as well.

Yes. Parishioners are used to seeing their deacons proclaim the Gospel, preach on a regular basis and distribute Communion, but that is only one dimension of their ministry. Many deacons also engage in other apostolates such as prison ministry, hospital chaplaincy and working with the homeless, those with substance abuse or those with addictions. If you go back to the original deacons of the church, the Acts of the Apostles makes it very clear that the apostles were concerned because they had so much ministry to attend to in serving the people that they were having a difficult time leading people in prayer and preaching. That is why they called forth men of strong faith and reputation to perform the ministry of charity, making sure the basic needs of people were satisfied. The Acts of the Apostles says these men would “serve at table,” but that was a symbolic way of saying they would care for all those in need of the care of the church. A deacon is ordained and configured to Christ the Servant, whereas the priest is ordained and configured to Christ the Priest. Obviously, the deacons work very closely with both priests and bishops.

You must be excited that the 50th National Congress of Catholic Deacons will be held in New Orleans July 22-26.

Very much so. I believe nearly 3,000 people – deacons and their wives from all across the country – will be attending the conference, which is special because it is the golden anniversary of the official promulgation of the restoration of the diaconate. I think everyone loves to come to New Orleans. It’s going to be very hot, but I think coming here recognizes the contributions New Orleans has made to the national diaconate programs, and we should be very proud of that. I have a great deal of respect for all of our deacons. Those who are married have to be very careful that they devote quality time to their wives and families, to their professional lives and to their ministry with the church. That is an incredibly challenging balancing act, and I respect them for their commitment. Their wives are such a huge part of their ministry. Whenever I gather with them, I always include their wives because they are such an important part of their ministry. Many wives are directly involved with their husbands in ministry. Others, by loving support of their husbands, share in his ministry. The deacons and their wives are living symbols to us of unity in marriage and in ministry.

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