“Relying on the help of the Lord God and our Savior Jesus Christ, we choose these, our brothers, for the Order of the Diaconate.” With those words, Bishop Edward K. Braxton begins the ordination rite.
In this diocese, Bishop William Cosgrove in 1980, Bishop James Keleher in 1985, Bishop Wilton Gregory in 1997 and Bishop Braxton in 2008 and 2013 have ordained men to the permanent diaconate in the Diocese of Belleville.
During the Second Vatican Council the Council Fathers decided to reestablish the Order of Deacons “as a permanent rank in the hierarchy of the Church,” according to a 2005 publication from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops called “National Directory for the Formation, Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons in the United States,” hereafter cited as Directory.
The permanent deacons — those men who may be married and did not seek to become priests — were described in St. Paul’s first letter to Timothy: 3:8, 13. “(D)eacons must be dignified, not deceitful … holding fast to the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. Thus those who serve well as deacons gain good standing and much confidence in their faith in Christ Jesus.”
Although a deacon is ordained and can administer some of the sacraments, he is not a priest.
Rather, the deacon, in service to the local bishop also serves the people of God. It was thought that because the deacon also has a closer tie to the world through work, he could bring God’s presence into the world in a unique way.
Pope John Paul II said: “To the extent he is more present and more involved than the priest in secular environments and structures, he should feel encouraged to foster closeness between the ordained ministry and lay activities, in common service to the kingdom of God.” (Directory, 30)
The deacon can and should serve the church as an evangelizer and teacher in his own sphere: at work, for instance where others see him in workplace relationships, and as teacher in his ministries within the parish communities he serves.
“By his own faithful practice of the spiritual and corporal works of mercy, the deacon ‘by word and example … should work so that all the faithful, in imitation of Christ, may place themselves at the constant service of their brothers and sisters.’” (Directory 32)
Presently, in the Diocese of Belleville 30 deacons are assigned to ministry, and six retired deacons minister according to their situations, Deacon Robert Lanter said.
In addition to ministry at St. Luke Parish, Deacon Lanter serves as diocesan Coordinator of Deacons.
“Bishop Braxton keeps in close contact with all of the deacons who serve our Diocese of Belleville,” Deacon Lanter said. “He conducts quarterly formation sessions with the deacons to help them grow in all dimensions of their lives: human, intellectual, spiritual and pastoral.
As coordinator, Deacon Lanter works closely with Bishop Braxton in this continuing formation process, he said, and as a resource person for the diaconate community.
In 2008, the Ministry Formation pre-requisite to apply to the diaconate was dropped, and the diocese began a collaboration with Meinrad School of Theology in the education process.
Pope John Paul II wrote: “This is at the very heart of the diaconate to which you have been called: to be a servant of the mysteries of Christ and, at one and the same time, to be a servant of your brothers and sisters. That these two dimensions are inseparably joined together in one reality shows the important nature of the ministry which is yours by ordination.” (Directory 36)
At present, men studying for the diaconate spend five years studying and preparing for a call from the bishop for ordination.
Eight men from this diocese spend one weekend each month at the Diocesan Pastoral Center in Belleville where instructors meet them for their classes.
As candidates, these men, along with their wives are being formed. One of the candidates said: “Formation is about the heart; there’s a difference between knowledge and being formed.”
As part of that formation, the candidates notice they are changing. “I’ve become more prayerful,” a candidate said. “I’m more aware of a purpose, and it’s wonderful to share with my wife.”
A candidate described formation as “an amazing process that I continue to look forward to” although “I have to put in a lot of work, it’s challenging and changing me to take time for God to mold me.”
The program challenges the candidates in many ways, and some said they didn’t think “we could wrestle with the ideas we are asked to deal with and not change.”
The candidates are being stretched academically but especially spiritually.
“It’s rewarding, and it feeds a part of our longing and yearning and our faith in God,” a candidate said.
— Liz Quirin