By Jeff Grant, THE CATHOLIC SUN
PHOENIX – Anyone who ever wanted to know how vital a deacon is to the life of the Church need look no further than the Book of Acts. In Chapter 6, we read the Apostles gathered other disciples of Christ to explain the need for appointing men of unquestioned repute to minister to the physical and spiritual needs of the young but steadily growing followers of Jesus.
The Holy Spirit led the Apostles to select seven men to aid them in ministry by assuming responsibility for more secular and temporal duties. But over the years, as the Church continued to expand, deacons have taken on a far more spiritual and catechetical role.
At the Second Vatican Council, on Sept. 29, 1964, the Council Fathers approved restoration of the Diaconate as a permanent Order, a full part of the three-fold hierarchy of Holy Orders: bishop, priest, and deacon.
Today, deacon service encompasses three major areas: liturgical, doctrinal and charitable.
“The Deacon is the arms and hands of the bishop. He does extra parochial and parish activities on a diocesan-wide basis. All deacons have a parish assignment, but they take on other things for their spiritual growth and to meet ministry needs,” explained Dcn. James Trant, Director of the Diaconate for the Diocese of Phoenix.
Some of the more easily recognized roles include assisting bishops and priests at the liturgy, proclaiming the Gospel at Mass, preaching the homily, and assisting at the altar. A deacon may distribute Holy Communion, baptize, witness and bless marriages, preside at the Liturgy of the Hours, and preside at funeral liturgies.
Deacons fill many other needs.
Dcn. Trant noted these include street ministries serving the homeless, marriage preparation for Catholics in Native American communities, performing burials where the deceased has no family and may have died in a homeless shelter or hospital. Deacons also work with hospitals and hospices to minister to the ill and dying.
“They are very busy people,” he said.
Formation of deacons is extensive.
The Diocese of Phoenix’s 7-year program includes an initial 2 years learning through the Kino Catechetical Institute, a department of the diocese’s Division of Education and Evangelization. The Kino Institute provides foundational formation in Catholic doctrine. After a year, if a parish council clears a candidate, he can begin the 5-year portion of formation that follows.
That primary portion, explained by Dcn. Doug Bogart, Associate Director of Education and Formation for the Diaconate, includes:
1st year – spirituality, prayer and marital relations
2nd year – social ministry, service to the poor and needy
3rd year — ministry, lecturing, teaching and catechizing
4th year – hospital ministry, service to the sick
5th year – liturgy, homiletics, preaching
“It is very intensive and intentional,” Dcn. Bogart said.
Classes typically are held one weekend per month with a course of one evening per week for five weeks every semester. Many practical experiences occur as well, such as working with hospital chaplains, serving the poor and teaching children’s catechesis.
Most of this wouldn’t be possible without funding.
While the Diocesan Operating Budget provides support, a key source of Diaconate funds is the Charity & Development Appeal.
In place since 1970, the CDA is a diocesan-wide program through which families and others can contribute financially to more than 70 organizations and ministries including its deacons and deacon candidates. The CDA’s 2022 Impact Report lists 240 deacons and 32 candidates.
In 2021, the CDA allocated $1,467,000 in grants to clergy, seminarians, deacons and religious.
“It’s critical,” said Dcn. Trant said of the CDA’s support. “Without it, we would have to go to other sources. The training might look different.”
Monies are applied to a variety of items.
“The CDA fund helps pay for instructors — including priests deacons and lay persons –as well as helps cover administrative costs of running the program, and allows us to offer retreats at reduced cost to men,” Dcn. Bogart explained. “It also enables us to pay for the psychological evaluations and background checks for candidates – all at no cost to the men. The Diaconate community is very grateful for the funding.”
The Diaconate leaders estimated the support saves a candidate over the 7-year formation period between $8,000-$10,000.
Both deacons themselves and candidates are equally grateful.
Ivan Rojas was a member of the 2020 Diaconate class. After completing formation, Rojas was assigned to St. Anne Parish in Gilbert. The married father of three, whose household also includes a niece, said while candidates’ first motivation is the call of the Holy Spirit, they must also consider — as part of their discernment — time and financial implications.
“As married men, our first vocation is our marriage. That is something we are called to attend to during formation. Personally, I was not that concerned, I have a stable job. (But) we are not wealthy. we are a single-income house. At the end of the day, every man says (the CDA support) is a relief,” Rojas said.
One area Rojas is especially grateful for the funding is retreats. They enable deacons and candidates to learn and fellowship in an environment that supports their spiritual formation.
“Jesus drew everything from His Father; He always went to a solitary place. He went away from the worldly noise. That, for me, is what a retreat does. It creates that space; that setting. We need to find that space in our hearts.”
Rojas believes the CDA has enabled the Diocese to attract the best candidates and provide the best teachers and trainers.
“The duties of a deacon require his formation to have a solid spiritual foundation. The funding allows the Diocese to bring forward the most qualified people.
“I am so thankful to our bishop for maintaining the program; and to CDA. There are so many deacons I know who would not be able to go through the program if it weren’t for this support.”
The need for deacons and support may grow.
“We’re blessed with a very large and active laity. We’re one of the few that are really growing,” noted Dcn. Trant. “I could use 40 deacons tomorrow, because of the requests we have. We have a standing line of requests — especially for Hispanics.”
Greater Phoenix remains one of the fastest-growing populations in the United States.
An annual survey of the Permanent Diaconate for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops shows the Diocese has one of the higher ratios of Catholics per Deacon among the country’s largest Dioceses and Archdioceses.
“A Portrait of the Permanent Diaconate: A Study for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops 2020-2021” by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University states there were 4,573 Catholics per deacon in the Diocese of Phoenix — about the same ratio as Philadelphia and well below Detroit and Sacramento, but above Galveston/Houston, Atlanta and Chicago.
“The bottom line is the Church needs deacons, and deacons need to be well-formed,” said Dcn. Bogart. “They teach, preach, administer the Sacraments, and are the face of the Church to believers and nonbelievers alike.
The Diocese is very wise to invest in Diaconate formation.”