Permanent deacon candidates continue formation, despite obstacles caused by pandemic

Acolytes instituted Sept. 22; applications now being accepted

By Deacon John Stierman

Special to The Witness

DUBUQUE — In the early church as the apostles, filled with the Holy Spirit, were busy with prayer, it was brought to their attention that there were people being neglected. The apostle’s essential function is the “service of the word” including the teachings of Jesus. It was then that they decided to appoint seven men to fill the gaps in the ministry charged to them until Christ comes again.

This simplified explanation helps establish the presbyterate and diaconate, how the two are linked, and how the deacons complete the ministerial role of clergy in the Church.

The permanent deacons trace their roots to the Acts of the Apostles, chapter 6. From this point, and for hundreds of years, deacons helped in many different church functions. Early on the deacons kept the accounting records and were charged with distribution of materials and food to the needy. Many saints, such as Lawrence and Francis of Assisi, focused the majority of their ministry toward the poor, often being credited with comments like “Preach the gospel always, use words when necessary.” Actions are more powerful than words.

As the number of priests grew, the work done by deacons diminished, but the need never ceased. For several centuries, the permanent diaconate was not an active clergy role. There were those who supported the ministry, some who opposed. During the Council of Trent the idea to revive, reactivate the permanent deacon, was brought up, but stayed in the discussion phase for 500 years.

The Second Vatican Council restored the permanent diaconate on Sept. 29, 1964 (56 years ago). On June 18, 1967, Pope Paul VI approved the permanent diaconate for the Church in the West. This was not done because of a priest shortage on the horizon, but because the function of the deacon compliments that of the bishop and priest, bringing ministry to full completeness by being the servant and helping those in need.

Archbishop James Byrne approved of establishing the permanent diaconate in the archdiocese in March 1975, and on Nov. 5, 1978, the first 15 permanent deacons were ordained for the Archdiocese of Dubuque. With the ordination of 11 men on July 20, 2019, 164 men have been ordained for the Archdiocese of Dubuque.

Since those early days of the church, much has changed in diaconal formation. The archbishop doesn’t get to just pick out worthy candidates, prayer over them, lay his hands on them and send them out — though he probably could if he wanted. Those responding to this vocational call spend at least five years in formation from the day they fill out their application. They go through interviews and testing, an aspirancy period, and four years of classes supplemented with three hands-on units that help prepare them to minister the Corporal Works of Mercy, before they may be called to ordination.

This vocation, this call, is sometimes realized only when others seem to know it before the person who is being called. The same goes for priesthood. Ask, or tell, someone if they ever considered this ministry. The Holy Spirit works in wondrous ways.

2020 was supposed to have been a year in which the next diaconal class for the archdiocese was to have been chosen with classes starting in January. The pandemic has postponed this process for a year but it’s not stopping formation. Deacon Classes XIX and XX are in formation classes. Classes are being done virtually and getting live streamed. The 13 men of Class XIX were instituted as Acolytes at St. Wenceslaus, Duncan on Sept. 22. Class XX, 10 men strong, will be called to Candi­dacy on Oct. 8 at St. Joseph Parish in Marion. Applications are again available through March 2021 for the next class from the Office of the Permanent Diaconate by your pastor.

Changes have happened and will continue to happen to the church and to us. Items outside of our control will always be there, but we can make a difference through our actions. Can each of us be the hands and face of Jesus for others? Will you serve Jesus by serving others?

Deacon John Stierman is the Director of the Office of the Permanent Diaconate for the Archdiocese of Dubuque. He can be contacted at dbqcpd@dbqarch.org or by calling the Archdiocesan Pastoral Center at 563-556-2580.

Cover image: Eleven permanent deacons (shown above) were ordained on July 20, 2019 at the Cathedral of St. Raphael. They were the eighteenth class to complete the formation program since it was established in the Archdiocese of Dubuque in 1975. (Witness photo by Dan Russo)