Special to The Dialog
Ordained and ready to help: Permanent deacons have been serving in parish ministries for 37 years
Much has changed since Hal Jopp was among the first 20 men ordained in 1980 as permanent deacons for the Diocese of Wilmington.
“I’m not sure that people were sure what to do with us,” Jopp said of his ordination class. “I don’t think we considered ourselves presiders.” Rather, that first class knew they would assist at the altar and preach. Beyond that, no one seemed to know what they would do.”
When John Harvey was in training before being ordained in 2013, “I was anxious. I would think, ‘how are we supposed to do this as deacons, the various ministries we would be entering into, such as [presiding at] baptisms, funeral services outside of Mass, pastorally dealing with people and the problems they put before you.’” His anxiety expressed the increased role for deacons in the church.
Both Deacons Jopp and Harvey believe deacons may be called on to do even more, given the current priest shortage. Jopp, director of the diocese’s Office for Deacons, has the task of making sure the training program for deacon candidates is adequate to meet what is expected of them. Since Jopp underwent training, the length of the diaconate formation program has doubled, from two-and-one-half years to five years.
Catholic Appeal helps
The Office for Deacons is one of more than 30 diocesan offices and ministries supported by the Annual Catholic Appeal. This year’s Annual Catholic Appeal’s goal is $4,523,000.
“Their Eyes Were Opened and They Recognized Him,” taken from Luke 24:31, is the theme of this year’s appeal. Catholics in the pew will be asked to make pledges on Commitment Weekend, April 29-30. Pledges may be paid in monthly installments or in one lump sum; in cash, by check or credit card, and online.
New pastoral models
Bishop Malooly wrote in “Together in the Spirit: A Pastoral Vision” last spring that at this time, “priesthood is a special concern because the number of men being ordained is down substantially. … Even as we put forth our best efforts to increase the number of vocations, we still have to deal with the current reality that we will soon not be able to have a pastor for every parish.”
That means the diocese must “develop new models for parish structure and administration … integrating the gifts of both laity and clergy.”
Bishop Malooly said the resident pastor model will remain not only the most desirable but the dominant form of parish in the diocese. Some parishes will go to a “linkage model,” in which one pastor will lead two or more parishes; this model is used in downtown Wilmington, between the Cathedral of St. Peter, St. Patrick’s, and St. Mary’s, and downstate with Holy Cross in Dover linked with Immaculate Conception in Marydel, Md.
A new model is the Parish Life Coordinator Model, in which a parish life coordinator, sacramental minister, and priest moderator work together to lead the parish.
“The intention of these models is to begin to maximize the ministry of our clergy and to mobilize the gifts of all the baptized,” Bishop Malooly wrote.
Deacon Jopp noted that deacons already are helping parishes by leading wake and graveside services and presiding at baptisms, freeing time for the pastor for other sacramental responsibilities.
One deacon, Mike Oliver, a classmate of Harvey, is administrator of Holy Spirit Church in New Castle. Others serve as parish life coordinators, director of religious education, facilities manager, and director of development. Some, such as himself, direct diocesan ministries and offices.
“Deacons are to respond to the needs of the church,” Jopp said. “We don’t do the same thing all the time.”
Part of the clergy
Deacons are part of the clergy, as are priests, but cannot preside at Mass, consecrate Communion, or hear confessions. Their training, led by St. Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology in Indiana, includes theological studies, a short-course at St. Meinrad on homiletics (how to preach effectively), and a year-long pastoral associateship.
That theological and pastoral training comes atop their background in business and other careers. “Their work skills may be of importance” under new parish structures, Jopp said.
Currently, the diocese has 79 active deacons, with another 22 retired. Eight men are expected to be ordained in August, and a class of 21 is in its first year of the five-year formation program.
The diaconate is the first of three ranks in ordained ministry. Deacons preparing for the priesthood are transitional deacons. Those not planning to be ordained priests are called permanent deacons. Married men may be ordained deacons, and single men may be ordained with a commitment to celibacy.
“Hopefully, in a few years we will have around 100 active deacons,” Jopp said. “Who would have guessed that 36 years ago?”
Harvey leads the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults program at Holy Cross, which he has been involved in since 1984. He is one of two in his class who continued studies toward a master’s degree; he expects to receive his degree in May.
Holy Cross has five deacons, yet Harvey said “there’s plenty to do.” He thinks deacons could take on even more duties. “There’s more than enough for priests to do these days. I think more should be given to deacons.”
“I think you’re going to see more and more of that, deacons taking on more responsibilities.”
He sees it as the natural role of the deacon, to fill whatever needs the church might have at a given time.