Archdiocese’s permanent deacon program turns 50

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Archdiocese’s permanent deacon program turns 50

Members of the diaconate community gathered for a day of spiritual renewal and to celebrate the 50th anniversary of restoration of the permanent diaconate at St. Cletus Parish in LaGrange on Feb. 24, 2018.
Deacon Bob Boharic from St. Mary Parish in Riverside and his wife, Kate, share the sign of peace during Mass Feb. 24, 2018, at St. Cletus Church in LaGrange. Members of the diaconate community gathered for a day of spiritual renewal and to celebrate the 50th anniversary of restoration of the permanent diaconate. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Members of the Diaconate in Chicago met for a day of reflection and celebration of the 50th anniverary of the reinstatement of the permanent diaconate Feb. 24, 2018. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Deacon Giulio Camerini receives the Blood of Christ from Deacon Richard Hudzik, vicar for deacons, during Mass at St. Cletus in LaGrange on Feb. 24, 2018. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

The order of deacons started in the earliest days of the church, when the original apostles called on men from the community to help them serve the community of believers. But the order of permanent deacons — those not in formation to become priests — fell into disuse by the fifth century. Fifty years ago, it returned, and the Archdiocese of Chicago has been one of the leaders in diaconate formation ever since.

Since 1972, the Archdiocese of Chicago has ordained more than 1,400 men as permanent deacons, and has the largest diaconate community in the world, according to David Brencic, associate director of the archdiocese’s Office of the Diaconate. Five hundred and thirty active deacons minister in 260 parishes, and another 77 deacons who are incardinated in the archdiocese serve in other dioceses around the country.
The 50th anniversary is significant because it acknowledges how “new on the scene” permanent deacons are.

“Fifty years is just a short breath in the 2,000 year history of the church,” said Deacon Richard Hudzik, vicar for deacons. “But really the diaconate goes back to the Acts of the Apostles and Stephen and the other six good and true men who were there to take care of the Greek-speaking widows.”

The idea of the permanent diaconate was revived as part of the Second Vatican Council, with the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (“Lumen Gentium”) saying, “The diaconate can in the future be restored as a proper and permanent rank of the hierarchy. It pertains to the competent territorial bodies of bishops, of one kind or another, to decide, with the approval of the Supreme Pontiff, whether and where it is opportune for such deacons to be appointed for the care of souls.” (No. 29). 

In 1967, two years after the council ended, Pope Paul VI issued Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem (“Sacred Order of the Diaconate”), which authorized the re-establishment of the permanent diaconate. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops approved its establishment in the United States the following year, and priests and auxiliary bishops immediately petitioned Cardinal John Cody to start a program in Chicago.

Brencic said Cardinal Cody initially asked that pastors nominate 12 candidates. They responded with a list of nearly 150 men, who started their formation in 1970. Two years later, 97 were ordained.

Much has changed in the formation process since that first class, said Deacon Bob Puhala, who has been director of the Institute of Diaconal Studies at the University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary since 2005 and a deacon since 1998.

The formation program now takes four years. It was expanded from two to 2½ years in 1974, and to three years in 1979, Puhala said. Then, in 1998, the Vatican published the Basic Norms for the Formation of Permanent Deacons, and the Directory for the Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons, establishing new formation standards. 

Those standards included the aspirancy year, which became part of the formation process in the archdiocese in 2000. 

Men who enter aspirancy have already prayed about their vocations, consulted with their pastors and with their wives if they are married, and prayed and thought some more, Puhala said. The application form runs about nine pages; that doesn’t count the four to five pages their wives fill out to give their consent — something they will do four more times before their husbands are ordained.

After that, the men spend the aspirancy year doing more discernment, Puhala said, making sure they truly do have a vocation to be an ordained deacon. 

During that time, Puhala said, the men and their pastors are asked to not announce that they are in diaconate formation to their parishes to avoid raising expectations.

“We don’t expect guys to know whether God is really calling them to the diaconate until after that year,” Puhala said.

A board meets with the men after they finish their aspirancy and discerns with them whether they should move on to the three-year deacon candidate program.

That program includes the four dimensions of diaconate ministry.

To form them in the spiritual dimension, each man meets with a spiritual director who is a priest, and attends retreats and reflection days. Two classes a semester — often the same classes as the seminarians take — form the intellectual dimension. As part of the pastoral dimension, the men learn how to be good listeners, how to give a homily and how to do liturgy. The human dimension includes service to the marginalized, as well understanding their own gifts and talents.

“The question is what a person can bring to the diaconate, and thus to the people of God,” Puhala said. “It’s much more important to understand who the deacon is, rather than understand what he does.”

The formation prepares men for deacons’ three-fold ministry: ministry of the Word, ministry in liturgy and ministry of charity.

“The deacon is literally is the eyes and the ears of the bishop,” Puhala said. “He is the bishop’s agent. He is the sacramental icon of Christ in service to the world.”

About 99 percent of deacons work outside the church, Puhala said, although, just like priests, deacons are deacons 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Wives participate in certain key experiences, Puhala said, such as days of reflection and retreats, because they have to know and support the ministry their husbands are entering. Many choose to also participate in the academic classes.

“The sacramental marriage needs to be protected at all costs,” Puhala said. “Satan would love to use one sacrament — Holy Orders — to undermine another sacrament.”

Katarzyna A. Kasiarz, associate director of the Institute for Diaconal Studies, said the wives have the chance not only to learn about their husbands’ ministry but also to get to know one another.

“We want the women to have their own support group,” Kasiarz said. “Where they can talk about the joys but also the frustrations that come with it. They end up being a support system for one another.”

Once a deacon is ordained, she said, the only firm expectation of deacons’ wives is that they will pray for their husbands and their ministries. Some wives do their own ministry as lay women, she said, and others choose to assist their husbands, but that is not required.

Despite the rigor and time commitment required, the attrition rate for diaconate formation is only about 4 to 7 percent, Puhala said. Often, men leave because of changing life circumstances, such as a job transfer or an illness in the family. 

“We think that’s because there is so much pre-application scrutiny,” Puhala said.

He has heard some candidates joke that they can’t wait to be ordained so their workload won’t be so heavy, and he is quick to correct them.

“Instead of knowing day-by-day, week-by-week what they are going to be doing, it’s ministry to the people,” Puhala said. “You don’t know when someone us going to call at 9:30 at night and need to talk about something, or when someone is going to die suddenly and you have to go be with the family. You are at the service of God’s people.”


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