Celebrating a golden anniversary: Catholic deacons

By Ron Polaniecki

“Reputable men filled with the Spirit” (Act 6:3)—This is the heart of the job description for the first group of deacons in the Catholic Church.  This passage in the Acts of Apostles goes on to say that the primary responsibility of the seven men chosen by the Apostles to become deacons was to take care of the needy and widows.

The ministry of deacons evolved through the centuries, but it has never wavered in its focus on service.

Fast forward from the Apostolic Age to 1972 (exactly 50 years ago).  That’s the year Pope Paul VI issued a proclamation re-establishing the permanent diaconate in the Latin Church.

By the mid-1970s, the first groups of deacons were ordained in dioceses all over the United States and their ranks have grown to approximately 19,000 nationwide today.

Deacons are increasingly visible to the laity in their local parishes in such roles as assisting at Mass, preaching, celebrating baptisms, leading the faithful in prayer including wake and funeral services, distributing Holy Communion, and witnessing marriages.  However, some Catholics would like to learn more about the ministry of deacons.

A lifetime commitment

“A defining characteristic of the diaconate is that it is a lifetime commitment to service,” emphasized Deacon John Rottman, St. Elizabeth of the Trinity Parish, Chicago.  “A deacon is ordained.  In other words, unlike a parish ministry that you join and then, at some point, decide to leave, the permanent diaconate involves a solemn promise for life, not merely agreeing to serve for a stint.”

One instance of a deacon’s ministry not understood by all Catholics, Rottman noted, surfaces occasionally when a deacon brings Holy Communion to a parishioner who is quite ill and homebound.  Sometimes that individual or a family member will ask the deacon if he could administer the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick.  The Anointing includes hearing a person’s confession and giving absolution.  “I’ll explain to the family that only a priest can offer this Sacrament and emphasize how important it is to contact a priest at this time,” underscored Rottman.

Another point not always appreciated by many parishioners is that most permanent deacons remain employed in their full-time careers.  For example, after his ordination to the diaconate, Rottman continued working full-time as a licensed union plumber.

The call to the permanent diaconate is multidimensional, said Rottman.  “As a married deacon, my late wife, Candace, who passed away in 2016, played a significant role in my ministry.”

Rottman went on to say that his wife’s input in the family-centered meetings preparing parishioners for baptism, confirmation and marriage were most valuable.  “Candace’s involvement in sacramental preparation was a very real gift and her insights helped create a positive connection with many of our parish families.”

Some Catholics are unaware of the scope of the service areas of deacons.  Currently, Rottman is fully involved in the operation of the parish food pantry.  However, Rottman noted that his continuing education after his ordination in 2002 included serving the Archdiocese of Chicago’s matrimonial tribunal as a “field advocate” to work with those requesting an annulment.  Further, in conjunction with his chaplain ministry at the Cook County prison, Rottman served in the “Zacchaeus House,” a ministry for parolees transitioning into jobs, housing and family life.

Prison ministry

As to why a deacon would choose to serve people in prison, the reason is made clear in Matthew 25:39, where Jesus exhorts his followers to visit those in prison, explained Deacon Guadalupe Villarreal, Our Lady of Mercy Parish, Aurora, IL.  And Villarreal has been doing this for the past 15 years in his service as chaplain of the DuPage County Jail, which houses 500 inmates.

Villarreal makes a trip to the prison three times a week.  On Wednesdays, he has one-on-one visits with inmates, including Catholics and non-Catholics.  “I listen to them and pray with them.  I ask them, ‘How is your spiritual life?’  Some have committed serious crimes, but I find that 95 percent have remorse,” said Villarreal.

“On Thursdays,” he continued, “I visit with the staff.  Over the years, I have gotten to know them and have even baptized their babies.

“Then on Fridays, I have a Communion Service for about 25 inmates.  Outsiders might be surprised by their intelligence and their involvement in the service, even participating as lectors,” he added.

“While I cannot speak to the inmates about their cases, I have been able in some instances to offer special assistance.  For example, I helped to fulfill the wishes of one very ill inmate who has asked that his remains be sent to his home country,” Villarreal noted.

“And once they are released, as I am able, I try to find them jobs and connect them to resources, such as a finding the right agency for those who are veterans,” he said.

“I have always been well received by the inmates and staff at the prison.  I connect with them, and I am pleased to add that not once have I ever been insulted or harmed in any way,” he noted.

“I am sometimes asked, ‘How do you it?  What do you say to the inmates?’  I tell them that my background in engineering and the corporate world did not prepare me for this.  Rather, I say, it is the Holy Spirit who puts the words in my mouth,” Villarreal affirmed.

Villarreal said he has “seen miracles” and describes his service to the prison community as a “beautiful ministry” he plans to continue as long as he is able.

What are some of the challenges that deacons face?  One is keeping balance, according to Deacon Curt Fiedler, The Church of the Holy Apostles Parish, McHenry, IL.

“My first vocation is a call to the married life and that means being the best loving spouse and guiding father I possibly can.  My second call is to the diaconate and service to the Church.  Often, when I feel I should be doing more in the parish, I need to remind myself that I must make time for my family, give just due to my employer, and, in order to avoid burnout, take care of myself.”

What’s more, Fiedler confided, “Deacons experience the same issues, problems and temptations as everyone else.  The indelible mark of diaconate orders makes us different, but not better.

Preparation for the diaconate

“Through conversations with Catholic laity,” added Fiedler, “I’ve found that many are not aware that—at least in the Rockford Diocese—that preparation for the diaconate, typically takes seven years.”

Fiedler explained, “First, there are two years of ‘Ministry Formation,’ a program open to laity to learn about leading ministries, and which is mandatory for entry into the diaconate program.  For diaconate candidates, this is followed by two years of ‘aspirancy’ for faith formation and discernment.  Finally, there are three years of formation with a focus on theology, spirituality, Canon Law and some of the mechanics of serving.  This rigorous formation program requires attending classes one night a week plus two Saturdays a month during the school year, and self-study/internships during the summer.  Further, deacons are required to participate in continuing education courses each year after ordination.”

However, Fiedler is quick to add, the blessings are many and immeasurable.  For instance, said Fiedler, “The heartfelt gratitude and the promise of prayers expressed by those I serve is personally touching and even a bit overwhelming.”

With the Catholic Church experiencing a decrease in the number of priests serving local parishes, deacons are likely to assume wider roles, said Rottman.  “As deacons, we are proud to embrace the role of serving God’s people as His delegates.  But it’s important that the laity understand that a deacon is neither a high-level altar server nor a substitute priest.”

More information about the permanent diaconate is available from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) website:  usccb.org/committees/clergy-consecrated-life-vocations/permanent-diaconate, as well as from the diaconate page of your local archdiocese’s website.


Ron Polaniecki is a Chicago freelance writer.