This year marks the 40th anniversary of the first permanent deacons ordained in the Archdiocese of Denver.
The decades have brought dramatic changes as formation has grown and improved. There have been many challenges, the deacons say, but more grace.
To mark the anniversary, Archbishop Samuel Aquila celebrated a Mass of Thanksgiving for the deacons and their families at Queen of Peace Parish Aug. 12—two days after the feast of deacon-martyr St. Lawrence—followed by a dinner at which deacons were recognized for years of ordained ministry. At the Mass, the deacons renewed their vows.
“The diaconate is a gift from God,” declared Deacon Ron Ansay, 82, who is the only living member left of the first class of permanent deacons ordained in the archdiocese.
“I am so grateful to see the wonderful gift of deacons to our Church,” he said, adding that in the beginning, some in the Church were against the ministry while others were confused by it.
“That is all but gone now, but I assure you I did suffer a lot in those early years,” Deacon Ansay said, adding that today his heart is filled with joy for the countless graces of the ministry.
The diaconate is one of three ranks of holy orders—deacons, priests and bishops—in the Catholic Church and dates back to the time of the Apostles. The Book of Acts relates that the order was established when the Apostles told the Christian community to select “seven reputable men, filled with the Spirit and wisdom” to serve the community and free the Apostles to focus on “prayer and ministry of the word” (6:3, 4). The men were chosen and the Apostles “prayed and laid hands on them” (6:6).
Over time, the diaconate became a transitional step for men studying to be priests. It was restored as a permanent ministry by Pope Paul VI on June 18, 1967, as a result of the Second Vatican Council.
The first permanent deacons in the United States were ordained in 1971. The first in the archdiocese—10 men—were ordained by Archbishop James Casey on April 6, 1974.
“The diaconate never went away,” emphasized Deacon Joe Donohoe, director of deacon personnel for the archdiocese. “It was simply reinstated as a permanent order.”
The word “diaconate” comes from the Greek diakonia, which means “service.” Deacons may officiate at baptisms, weddings, wakes and funerals, and may preach and distribute Communion. They cannot consecrate the Eucharist, hear confessions or anoint the sick.
Deacons are the sign of Jesus the Servant in the world, Deacon Donohoe said.
“The deacon’s ministries are focused on charity—which is service—liturgy and word,” he said.
A deacon must be between the ages of 35 to 60 at ordination. A married man may be ordained, but if his wife dies may not remarry. A single man may be ordained but must remain celibate.
Because the diaconate is not a paid ministry, with the exception of deacons who hold a job for a parish or diocese—in which case they are paid for the job they fulfill, not for their diaconal role—many deacons in active ministry have secular occupations.
“Men enter the diaconate because they are called by God to the ministry,” Deacon Donohoe said, adding that diaconal service ranges from pro-life and jail apostolates to serving in hospitals and at parishes.
“They do some tremendous work,” he said. “And they don’t do it for money or status or prestige. They do it because they love God.”
Today, there are 180 permanent deacons in the archdiocese; 135 of them are in active ministry. Six more, all Hispanic and comprising just the third all-Spanish language diaconal formation class, will be ordained Aug. 23. An English-language class of 10 men was ordained in January.
Much has changed since the permanent diaconate was reinstated here four decades ago, administrators said. The ministry is better understood and appreciated, and formation is longer and stronger. The first class of permanent deacons ordained had just two years of formation.
“(Now) from start to finish, it’s at least seven years,” said Deacon Mark Salvato, director of deacon formation.
Currently, formation begins with a 14- to 18-months long discernment process followed by three years of further studies. To further improve the program, all academic classes are presently taught by seminary professors and this year saw the addition of three years of post-ordination formation.
“Our goal is to produce prayerful, articulate men who perform well in the liturgy, so we have an emphasis throughout formation on preaching and teaching,” Deacon Salvato said. “Whether they have two minutes or 20 with someone, we want them to be able to express the love of Jesus Christ.”
If at first the Church didn’t quite know what to do with deacons, these days she would be hard pressed to serve the faithful without them, Deacon Salvato said.
“I don’t know that the archdiocese would run as well without deacons,” he said, “as far as what they offer for sacrament preparation, catechesis in the parishes that is free because they don’t usually get paid for it, and their witness to the laity through their lives and marriages.”
The deacons will tell you, however, that they receive back far more than they give.
“Time after time a deacon will say, ‘I received much more grace from this encounter than I gave,” Deacon Donohoe said. “I think that’s true.”
“There’s almost too many blessings,” affirmed Deacon Salvato.
BY THE NUMBERS
Permanent Diaconate in the Denver Archdiocese
119 in parishes
67 average age
57 have secular jobs
36 work in the Church