Diaconate thrives in diocese
By RENEE WEBB, Globe senior reporter
Diaconate thrive in diocese
By RENEE WEBB
The permanent diaconate in this country is alive and well.
In fact, Deacon David Lopez would call it thriving.
“In the church we often say that if it is from God, it will succeed and thrive,” said Deacon Lopez, Ph.D., director of deacon formation.
Aside from it being God’s will, he credited the success of the diaconate in this country to having men who are involved in parish life, men who have the time and means to make this type of commitment and the availability of resources in the church such as facilities and instructors to provide the education.
The permanent diaconate, he said, is also alive and well in the Diocese of Sioux City.
“The status of the diaconate is very positive here in the diocese; we have been growing a lot in the time that Bishop (Walker) Nickless has been here. He is very, very supportive of the permanent diaconate program,” said Deacon Lopez. “He has been supportive of me in building up our formation program here.”
National parallels local
An article by Catholic News Service stated that at the national level, the number of men in the diaconate is growing but many are also nearing retirement.
“In a certain sense, permanent deacons are always on the verge of retirement because most men tend to be in their 50s when they go through the formation program and get ordained – so you are not looking at 40 years in ministry,” said the deacon, who added that the common pattern is for the men to enter when their children are at least in high school and some wait until children are out of college.
Ordained at 39 three years ago, Deacon Lopez is still the youngest permanent deacon in the diocese. However, there is a man in formation who will be 36 when ordained a deacon.
The minimum age for ordination to the permanent diaconate is presently 35 in the United States. And while the majority of dioceses have a mandatory retirement age for deacons, this diocese recently removed that requirement.
“It depends on one’s health, one’s ability to continue,” he said. “As long as someone continues to be able to do the ministry of the deacon, we are certainly happy for them to continue to be an active permanent deacon.”
He estimated that about one-sixth of the diocesan deacons are retired – no longer are officially assigned to a parish nor are they involved in regular ministry. Although, he added, almost all are somewhat active. A handful of men over 75 are still in active ministry.
Given that the faithful often see men in their 50s and 60s serving as deacons, he noted, makes it harder to draw younger men.
“It’s what they see in their parishes. If people see older men serving as permanent deacons, they get the idea that one must be an older man in order to be one,” he said. “We have really tried to encourage men in their 30s and 40s to enter the formation program.”
To help younger families, the diocese offers childcare during the formation classes and while wives of deacon candidates are always encouraged to attend classes, they are not required.
In the diocese, the formation process takes five years. Classes are held every other Saturday during the academic year.
“It’s a challenge for men with younger families to go through the formation but the rewards are fairly prominent,” said Deacon Lopez, who added that on a personal level he has included his family in many of the experiences. He is one of the few deacons now serving in the diocese with small children. He and his wife, Cecelia, have three children from 3 to 10.
Sometimes, Lopez noted, the men truly do not feel the call from God until they are in their 50s but at other times they may feel the call in their 30s but opt to hold off until time commitments and family obligations have lightened.
But the latter are who the diocese asks to come earlier into the program because, he said, “Even though it’s hard, the graces will pertain everywhere in one’s life. As soon as one starts saying yes to what God wants you to do in a fuller sense, other things will start being easier to do too.”
Diocese follows trend
The first two ordinations to the permanent diaconate in the diocese were in 1978 – Deacon Bill Berger and the late Deacon John Heffernan. These men received some of their formation in Omaha.
In the late 1970s the diocese established its own three-year diaconate formation program and the first class was ordained in 1980. During the 1980s and into the mid-1990s, Deacon Lopez said the diaconate grew steadily but growth leveled off for several years. And when the diocese was without a bishop – between Bishop Daniel DiNardo and Bishop Nickless – the ordination of five deacons was delayed for two years.
“We have been building up the intensity of the formation program and the numbers who are attracted to it,” Deacon Lopez said. “I can’t take responsibility for increasing the numbers of men; all I can do is talk to people about the opportunity to pursue this vocation. It’s really the work of the Holy Spirit that there are so many men in the diocese who are excited about it again – as there were 30 years ago.”
Bishop Nickless has ordained 19 men in four groups since coming to the diocese and currently there are 26 men in formation in three groups.
“In the last seven or eight years we have almost doubled the size of the community,” noted Deacon Lopez, who added there are 10 who will be ordained this coming May. “There has been remarkable growth here in the diocese.”
As numbers grow, it allows more of the faithful to see a deacon active in their parish and that alone can promote the vocation.
“When people do not know anything about it, it makes it harder for people to follow through even if God really is calling them,” he said.
The more visible deacons are the easier it is for men to look at that template and perceive it in their own life. They may notice the deacons have full-time jobs, have young children and so on.
There is diversity in the group he noted in age and background. Some of the men in the program have never been to college, others have Ph.D’s. Some are farmers and others are professionals. Some of the men work full-time in parish ministry, but the majority have full-time jobs in the private sector.
While there have been about six Hispanic applicants, only one has successfully completed the program. This is partly due to the Saturday classes and many cannot get off work that day on a regular basis.
“We are looking at changes that could be made to the program or alternative programs that might be possible to create and staff,” said Deacon Lopez, who acknowledged that the diocese presently does not have the capability of running two programs simultaneously.