Gift of service: Diaconate celebrates 40 years

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.Deacons_Ordination_DP20219

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

180 deaconsDeacons_Ordination_DP32307

135 active

48 retired

119 in parishes

67 average age

57 have secular jobs

36 work in the Church

11 widowers

5 celibate

COMING UP: Father and son, deacon and priest: Deacon dads and priest sons share special bond as both serve God’s people

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The bond between a father and son is one of God’s greatest designs; however, when father and son are both called to serve the Church as deacon and priest, that bond takes on a whole new meaning. Just ask these two dads and their sons, all of whom answered the call to serve the people of God at the altar.

Deacon Michael Magee serves at Our Lady of Loreto Parish in Foxfield, while his son Father Matthew Magee has worked as the priest secretary to Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila for the past several years and will soon be moved to a new assignment as parochial vicar at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Boulder. Deacon Darrell Nepil serves at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Denver, and his son, Father John Nepil, served at several parishes within the archdiocese before his current assignment as a professor at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary.

However different their journeys may have been, all four have something in common; mainly, that far from seeing their vocations as a reward from God, they have received them as an uncommon gift of grace that has blessed their families and individual relationships with each other abundantly, knowing that God acts in different ways to help us all get to Heaven.

Interwoven journeys

Deacon Michael Magee was ordained in May 2009, at the end of Father Matt’s first year of seminary. Little did they know that God would use both of their callings to encourage each other along the journey.

Deacon Michael’s journey began when a man from his parish was ordained a deacon.

“I simply felt like God was calling me to do something more than I was doing at the present time,” he said. “I had been volunteering for a number of different things and was involved in some ministry activities and in the Knights of Columbus. And I thought the idea of being a deacon would be simply another activity for which I could volunteer.”

He didn’t know what it entailed at the time. In fact, he believed it was something a man could simply sign up for. To his surprise, the diaconate was more serious – and it required five years of formation and discernment. Yet he was so drawn to it, that he decided to do it anyway. But as he learned more about the nature of the diaconate during his formation, he became more nervous and unsure about whether God was really calling him to that vocation. 

While his doubts remained all the way up to his ordination, Deacon Michael was faithful to his studies, trusting that God would lead him in the right path. 

And God did — through the calling of his own son to the priesthood.

Deacon Michael didn’t realize that his son Matthew had paid close attention to his father’s faith journey and had found in it a light that gave him courage to discern the priesthood.

Father Matthew Magee (left) and his dad, Deacon Michael Magee (right), were both encouraging to one another as they each pursued their respective vocations. (Photo by Daniel Petty/Denver Catholic)

“Seeing my dad, as a father, growing in his relationship with the Lord was really influential for me on my own desire to follow Christ,” said Father Matt. “Looking at his courage to discern his own vocation and follow God’s plan in his life gave me the strength and courage to be open to the same thing in my life… He played a very important role, whether he knew it or not at the time, and whether I knew it or not at the time.”

On the other hand, Father Matt didn’t know that his dad was in turn encouraged by his own response to God’s calling. 

“As I went through all those doubts, I watched Matthew’s journey in seminary and listened to how he was dealing with that in his life. And, as he just articulated very well, I also saw those same qualities in him,” Deacon Michael said. “Seeing a young man in his 20s willing to consider following God for the rest of his life also gave me the courage to continue on in my own journey, to see it through.”

God’s way of uplifting them in their vocations through each other’s journey is something they are very grateful for. 

This unusual grace impacted Father Matt during his first Mass, when his dad, as deacon, approached him before the Gospel reading and asked for the traditional blessing by calling him “father.”

“It was a really special moment for me. He’s certainly my biological father and raised me. But then there’s something different when we’re at the altar in a clerical capacity — there’s a strange reversal of roles when we’re giving spiritual nourishment to the people — a father asks the new father for the blessing,” he said.

In both of their vocations, Deacon Michael and Father Matt see God’s Providence and the unique plan he has for all of us.

“We all have a vocation, even if it’s something we may not expect,” Deacon Michael concluded. “You may feel anxiety or worry about what it’s going to look like, but trust in God. He will take care of things as he always does.”

A bribe for Heaven

For Deacon Darell and Father John Nepil, the journey was different, but not any less providential.

While he grew up Catholic, Father John wasn’t interested in setting foot on any Church activity during his teenage years. His saving grace was perhaps what many parents have to do to get their teenagers to Church: bribe them.

“His mom and I basically bribed him to go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference,” Deacon Darell said with a laugh. “He didn’t want to go, but we’d heard so many good things about it, that we said, ‘We’re going to make this happen, whatever it takes.’”

So the Nepils came up with a creative idea.

“He owed me some money for a uniform that he had needed for a job in the summer. So, I said, ‘Listen, if you go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference, I’ll forgive your debt. And he did, he and his brother went. And John especially came back a different boy. He literally was converted with a lightning bolt at that retreat.”

To this day, Father John marks his conversion to Christ from the summer before his senior year in high school when he attended that conference. 

As it happens with stories worth telling, the details of how much money he owed his father have varied over the years, and it’s a matter of debate among them, but Father John remembers it was close to $500.

“That’s subject to each one,” Father John said laughingly. “But what matters is that they offered to forgive my debt if I went to this retreat – it was money well spent.”

Besides this important event, Father John said that his dad influenced him in many ways by the simple fact of who he was as a father.

“My dad’s faith and moral character were a rock for me during some difficult teenage years,” he said. “He’s a great example of a man who was always faithful and lived a really outstanding moral life, but then as he deepened in love with Christ, he decided to give of himself in a more profound service.”

Father John Nepil (left) and Deacon Darrell Nepil (right) both had rather roundabout ways to their respective vocations, but they both say serving God’s people together as brothers in Holy Orders is a great joy. (Photo provided)

Besides his desire to serve and follow God, the seed that would eventually lead Deacon Darell to the diaconate was planted by a coworker, who would also take holy orders: Deacon Joe Donohoe.

“One day he said to me, ‘You should be a deacon.’ And, of course, I laughed at him and said, ‘I don’t have time for that. My life is too busy.’ But it only took him to suggest it for the idea to keep coming back to my head, and God kept nudging me. Eventually I decided I really wanted to do that,” Deacon Darell said.

The ability to share at the altar during the Mass has deepened the natural relationship of father and son and given Deacon Darell and Father John new opportunities to grow closer to God. 

One of the most meaningful times came when Deacon Darell had a massive stroke in 2018. While he was in the hospital, Father John was able to visit and celebrate Mass at his bed and pray the rosary with him every day, as he had come back from Rome and was working on his dissertation.

“It was probably the most privileged and intimate time I’ve ever had with my father,” Father John said. “It was an amazing gift that really changed our relationship.”

“I feel like that’s a huge reason why I healed and why I am here today,” Deacon Darell added.

“It’s a real gift to have my dad as a deacon and a brother. It’s a tremendous honor. It’s one of the great joys of my life.” Father John concluded. “That’s really what has bonded our relationship together: the sheer desire to serve Jesus, especially in holy orders.”