Fifty years of the diaconate in the United States

by Paul Braun | New Earth

Deacons

Deacons James McAllister, Oriska, left, and Paul Schneider, Fargo, right, assist Bishop Folda during Mass at St. Anthony of Padua Church. (Paul Braun | New Earth)

“So the Twelve called together the community of the disciples and said, ‘It is not right for us to neglect the word of God to serve at table. Brothers, select from among you seven reputable men, filled with the Spirit and wisdom, whom we shall appoint to this task, whereas we shall devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.’ The proposal was acceptable to the whole community, so they chose Stephen, a man filled with faith and the Holy Spirit, also Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicholas of Antioch, a convert to Judaism. They presented these men to the apostles who prayed and laid hands on them” (Acts 6: 2-6).

This passage from the Acts of the Apostles is the biblical reference to the establishment of the diaconate in the church. This passage is in the spirit of how the diaconate is understood to this day.

In the early days of the church, at least up until the fifth century, deacons were considered the “right hand men” of bishops and carried immense responsibility. They became the eyes and ears of the bishop and were responsible of the distribution of food and funds to the poor. Many held positions of what we would identify today as vicar general, judicial vicar, finance officer, etc. In modern times, under current canon law, priests fill most of these positions.

However, in the early years of the church, the position of deacon was looked upon with so much esteem that of the 37 men elected pope between 432 and 684 A.D., 34 were deacons and not priests. Sometime after the fifth century, there was a gradual decline in the permanent diaconate in the Roman Catholic Church, and the diaconate became a “transitional” step on the way to priesthood.

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Five of the candidates currently in formation and discernment to the permanent diaconate proclaim their willingness to serve before Bishop Folda at St. Anthony of Padua Church in Fargo on February 3. (Paul Braun | New Earth)

Although there were some who started to study the re-establishing the permanent diaconate back in the 19th century, it wasn’t until 1957 that Pope John XXIII spoke out in favor of restoring the position as a permanent order, but concluded the timing wasn’t quite right.

During deliberations of the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI called for the restoration of the permanent diaconate. That decree was implemented in 1967 through the Second Vatican Council’s Lumen Gentium, which states: “At a lower level of the hierarchy are deacons, upon whom hands are imposed not unto the priesthood, but unto a ministry of service.”

Fifty years ago, in 1968, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops petitioned the Vatican to allow bishops to establish permanent deacon formation in the United States. Eleven years later, Bishop Driscoll ordained the first 11 permanent deacons in the Diocese of Fargo on December 29, 1979. Since then the permanent diaconate ministry in the Fargo Diocese has been growing.

On Feb. 3 of this year at St. Anthony of Padua’s Church in Fargo, eight men proclaimed before God and Bishop Folda that they were ready to take the next step towards ordination to be permanent deacons in the Catholic Church.

“To serve the Server, that has been near and dear to me since I was an altar server and throughout my life,” said Dr. Jeff Vaagen of St. Joseph’s Church in Devils Lake, one of the candidates currently discerning and studying for the permanent diaconate ministry. “It’s truly a calling from the Holy Spirit through prayer, the intercessions of people close to you, and more prayer.”

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Deacon Bruce Dahl of Nativity Church in Fargo prepares the altar at the All-School Mass at Shanley High School on February 1. (Paul Braun | New Earth)

The diaconate in the Catholic Church today contains reminders of its past. Transitional deacons are seminarians who have completed most of their formation to the priesthood, and are ordained transitional deacons a year before their priestly ordination (three seminarians are scheduled to be ordained transitional deacons for the Fargo Diocese in June). Permanent deacons are men, usually married with families, who are ordained to serve in many roles in the church while still maintaining their professional vocations and family life. They proclaim and preach the Gospel at Mass, and are an invaluable resource to local parish priests. They also witness marriages and baptisms and preside at burial vigils and cemetery services.

“One of the greatest things I see is that they are brother clergymen,” said Father Chad Wilhelm, pastor of St. Joseph’s Church in Devils Lake. ”With the current shortage of priests, the diaconate is necessary, and it’s also one of the things that is imperative so that I can help my parishioners in the visiting of the sick and those in need. As there are less priests, the diaconate is taking more of a formal role in the parish than it used to. Now they are seen as a living part of the daily life of a parish.”

“The permanent deacons of our Diocese have been a real blessing to our parishes and people,” said Bishop Folda. “They assist our priests in serving the needs of parishioners, and they often can reach people that our priests cannot. Last fall, I had the opportunity to lead the annual retreat for our deacons and their spouses, and I was deeply impressed by their prayerfulness and their desire to serve Christ and his Church.”

Formation training and discernment for the permanent diaconate is about a six-year process. Candidates attend weekend formation classes several times a year, alongside their wives if they are married. In fact, discerning men may not enter the diaconate formation program or continue to ordination without the support and permission of their spouses.

“I pretty much said yes right away, but then later found out more of the details of what was coming up,” said Leanne Ripplinger of St. James Basilica in Jamestown, who is married to deacon candidate Kirk Ripplinger. “I had no idea how involved the wives are. We attend all of the same formation weekends together, which is wonderful for the building of our own faith and knowledge, and to support our husbands. We do all of the same studying right alongside of each other. I foresee it continuing, and if, God willing, he is ordained, that I am there to support him in whatever way I can either within his direct service or as his wife backing him up.”

“I wasn’t surprised she said yes due to her great faith,” said Kirk Ripplinger. “One of the things we are reminded of as a married couple is that the voice of God comes to you quite often through the voice of your spouse, so a yes from her is, in a way, a yes from God. That in turn resulted in my yes, but we both know that if for any reason Leanne discerns that this isn’t for her, then we’re done. If the church discerns this isn’t for us as a couple, we’re done. If I discern this isn’t a calling for me anymore, we’re done.”

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Deacon Stu Longtin distributes food from the St. Anthony of Padua food pantry as part of Christ’s call to minster to the poor. (Paul Braun | New Earth)

Deacons are also called to other ministries such as assisting Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA), faith instruction courses, marriage preparation classes, and pastoral counseling. They also have duties across the diocese like campus ministry, nursing home and hospital ministry, and other social service work – all of this while often holding a daytime job and, in most cases, being husbands and fathers. The extra time involved can be a determining factor on whether a man can and should submit himself to a life of service to Christ and his Church.

“It does come down to circumstances, and very happy circumstances, that lead a person to a time in their life where they are able to do that,” said Dr. Vaagen. “Also, I suppose the maturing in our faith where we’re able to say yes to being present, so it’s all circumstance and age and maturity that brings us to this point. It’s a feeling of great joy, and also humility, to be able to be here and be able to say yes.”

“I think the diaconate is going to become more and more vital to the existence of the church in the future,” said Father Wilhelm. “It will be especially important in the outlying areas where priests cannot administer the parish, so I think a lot of the deacons will be out even more helping in the daily life of the parish. The priest, of course, will come in and offer the Mass, but the deacons will be the day-to-day administrators of parishes across the prairies if we don’t have enough coverage from priests. I pray for more deacons, more priests, more religious, and more holy marriages.”

“Select from among you (seven) reputable men, filled with the Spirit and wisdom” (Acts 6:3).