Q&A: Are you called to be a deacon?

Local deacon’s book helps men discern diaconate

A geoscientist by training, Deacon Rex Pilger, 68, business manager for St. Joan of Arc Parish in Arvada, is a deacon of 28 years. A decade of experience in diaconal formation for the Denver Archdiocese led him to write a book, “Every Man a Deacon?” (CreateSpace, 2014) aimed at helping men discern whether they may have a call to the permanent diaconate. Married 42 years, a father and grandfather, Deacon Pilger recently spoke to the Denver Catholic about his straightforward, informative guide. The interview has been edited for space.

Denver Catholic: Why did you write “Every Man a Deacon?”

Deacon Rex Pilger: We had a man (in diaconal formation) whose job was working with the poor. The priest he was working with said, “I believe you should be a deacon.” He was already serving the poor and was a faithful Catholic, so why become a deacon? The answer is

deacon book_WEB

Book: “Every Man a Deacon?” Cost: $11.99 paperback Buy: order through local Catholic bookstores and Amazon.com

that the deacon in his very person is an expression of Christ himself. The deacon is an icon of Christ the Servant.

I see a lot of men engaged in fulltime ministry who would benefit by becoming an icon of Christ the Servant. Their service, their ministry would be sacramentalized. There would be an elevation and a deepening of the meaning of their ministry. There have been a number of men I’m aware of who were in fulltime ministry and it transformed their ministry. They discovered entirely new ways to proclaim and live out the Gospel.

DC: Who is the book for?

RP: The target is men who are already active in Church ministry. Men who have already heard the call of the Lord to serve. Perhaps the Lord is calling them to a deeper, more effective ministry (as) an icon of Christ the Servant.

DC: Why use a question—“Every Man a Deacon?”—for the title?

RP: The idea is to prompt an immediate response: That (a man) asks himself, Oh, am I called to be a deacon? Not every man is called. There are a number of canons that he has to be a Catholic man in good standing with the Church, whether married in the Church or living a single, celibate lifestyle. (Age 35 if married with the permission of their wife, age 25 if unmarried.) Realistically, only a small number of men may actually be called.

Deacon Rex Pilger is the author of the book Every Man a Deacon? He has served as a deacon in the Archdiocese of Denver for 28 years. (Photo by Daniel Petty/Archdiocese of Denver)

Deacon Rex Pilger is the author of the book Every Man a Deacon? He has served as a deacon in the Archdiocese of Denver for 28 years. (Photo by Daniel Petty/Archdiocese of Denver)

DC: How did you receive your call to the diaconate?

RP: My wife and I were invited to the ordination of a deacon from our parish in Louisiana where were living at that time. At one point during the ordination Mass we looked at each other and realized, This could be me. It became a very exciting journey.

DC: Talk about the book’s content.

RP: I discuss what a deacon is and what a deacon does. Then I address certain questions that arise (about diaconal ministry and formation). Becoming a deacon is not about oneself or one’s wife and family. It’s about how God wants you to serve him best. When a child is baptized that boy or girl is receiving a call. That call will come, we hope, through the faith of their family and the faith of the Church. It’s a call to grow and to serve. I serve by awakening the call of others to serve that came with their baptism. More than anything else, that is the meaning of the diaconate: I am called to serve by calling others to serve. That becomes my witness.

DC: What do you hope readers take away from your book?

RP: A desire to discern their own calling, their own vocation, whatever that might be. The word vocation is sometimes misunderstood. We think, I’m a teacher, a truck driver, a policeman—that’s my vocation. There was a priest many years ago who emphasized to me that my vocation is as a Catholic man—as a husband and father—that is my primary vocation. That by which I earn, which supports me and my family, is part of the ways in which the Lord blesses me in my vocation so I can meet the everyday needs my family and I have, but it’s secondary to my religious vocation. Everybody has a “religious” vocation. It’s not merely priests and nuns.

COMING UP: Collegiality and eucharistic integrity

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The concept of the “collegiality” of bishops has been sharply contested since the Second Vatican Council debated it in 1962, 1963, and 1964. That discussion was sufficiently contentious that a personal intervention from Pope Paul VI was required to incorporate the concept of episcopal collegiality within the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church in such a way that the pope’s primacy and universal jurisdiction were safeguarded. The debate about collegiality has continued ever since. Now, however, it’s focused more on what kind of collegiality exists within national conferences of bishops. Is it an “affective collegiality” of mutual support and encouragement? Or is episcopal collegiality within bishops’ conferences “effective,” such that a conference has real teaching and legislative authority?  

Whether collegiality is “affective,” “effective,” or some combination of the two, it ought to be clear what truly “collegial” behavior isn’t.   

It isn’t individual bishops attempting end-runs around their national conference, appealing for Roman interventions that would forestall debates that their brother bishops wish to engage. It isn’t bishops trying to browbeat the conference chairman into changing an agenda to suit the tastes of a distinct minority — and misleading their brother bishops as to what they’re about when soliciting support for such a gambit. And it isn’t trying to filibuster a conference meeting so that no action is possible on an agenda item that the great majority of bishops wish to consider and act upon. 

If any of those three maneuvers qualifies as collegial, then “collegiality” has no more meaning than the claim that my poor Baltimore Orioles have a great starting rotation. 

For years now — and by “years,” I mean long before the idea of a “President Biden” entered the stream of national consciousness — the bishops of the United States have been concerned that ours is becoming less of a eucharistic Church than Vatican II called us to be when it taught that the Eucharist is the “source and summit” of the Church’s life. Pope St. John Paul II reaffirmed that conciliar summons when, in his final encyclical, he taught that “the Church draws her life from the Eucharist,” which “recapitulates the heart and mystery of the Church.” Yet all around us we see declining Sunday Mass attendance: a sadness that preceded the pandemic but has been further exacerbated by it.  Moreover, surveys suggest that too many Catholics think of Sunday Mass as essentially a social occasion, rather than an encounter with the living God in which Christ is offered to the Father and is given back to his people in holy communion — a communion in and through the body and blood, soul and divinity of Christ, received under the forms of bread and wine.

If the Church lives from the Eucharist and yet the people of the Church don’t participate in the Eucharist as often as they should, or don’t understand what they’re celebrating and receiving when they do, then the Church suffers from a serious eucharistic deficit. Those ordained to leadership in the Church are obliged to do something about that. 

That is why the U.S. bishops have been determined for some time to undertake a comprehensive program of eucharistic education throughout the Church. For the great majority of bishops, that determination has been intensified by the fact that our eucharistic deficit is being compounded by the eucharistic incoherence of public officials who, rejecting authoritative Catholic teaching based on both revelation and reason, nonetheless present themselves for holy communion as if they were in full communion with the Church. The longstanding episcopal failure to address this incoherence exacerbates the eucharistic deficit in American Catholicism by implying that the Church really doesn’t mean what it teaches about the sacred nature of the Eucharist. 

Those suggesting that this is all about “politics” are either ill-informed or deliberately misleading the Church and the gullible parts of the media. Concern for the eucharistic integrity of the Church includes, but goes much deeper than, concerns about the eucharistic incoherence of Catholic public officials who act as if the Church’s settled convictions on the life issues and on worthiness to receive holy communion don’t exist. That is why the U.S. bishops are forging ahead with developing a teaching document that will clarify for the whole Church why we are a Eucharistic community, what the Eucharist truly is, what reception of the Eucharist means, and why everyone in the Church should examine conscience before receiving Christ in the sacrament. 

The wheels of collegiality may grind slowly. In this case, however, they are grinding truly, and for the sake of the Gospel.

George Weigel is an independent columnist whose weekly column is syndicated by the Archdiocese of Denver. The opinions and viewpoints expressed by Mr. Weigel therein are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of the Archdiocese of Denver or the bishops of Denver.