After more than 1,000 hours over a five-year training period, five men are days away from being ordained by Anchorage Archbishop Paul Etienne to serve as permanent deacons in Alaska.
Family members, friends, clergy and many others are expected to pack Our Lady of Guadalupe Co-Cathedral on May 18 for the 7 p.m. liturgy.
The night before, the public also is invited to a vespers prayer service at 7 p.m. at Holy Family Cathedral.
The men: Dan Winters, Michael Hawker, Jorge Gustavo Azpilcueta, Gabriel Ruiz and Scott Gunnell will serve the archbishop and his priests by preaching the Gospel, assisting at the altar and distributing the body and blood of Christ during Holy Communion. Additionally, the new deacons may preside over public prayer, baptize, witness marriages, bring Communion to the homebound and conduct funeral rites throughout the archdiocese.
They cannot, however, celebrate Mass, hear confessions, ordain men to the priesthood or diaconate, anoint the sick or perform confirmations.
The permanent diaconate has an ancient history, appearing in the first years of Christianity. It waned in the Middle Ages and wasn’t revived until Pope Paul VI restored the order in 1967. Since then the diaconate has skyrocketed in the United States, including in Alaska.
All five Alaskans slated for ordination are married, as are most permanent deacons. As deacons, they are to remain faithfully married and are called to celibacy if their wife dies. Any deacon who is single on his ordination day, makes a vow to life-long celibacy.
Unlike priests, deacons typically hold down day jobs and work in the community.
Scott Gunnell, who will be serve as a deacon at Sacred Heart Church in Wasilla has three grown children and eight grandchildren.
He said his wife, Mary Kay, has offered strong support throughout his journey. It wasn’t a path he could have predicted.
“When I started this journey I was a truck driver/dispatcher,” he said. “I now work in a medical office as an office manager. I am a firm believer that God has a sense of humor, who would have thought that I would have gone from a teenager who really wanted nothing to do with religion to a truck driver to a medical office manager who is exploring the possibility of ordination to the deaconate. Certainly not me nor anyone else in my family!”
But the process has profoundly shaped him, he said.
“I don’t know why, but being able to proclaim the Gospel is one of the main driving factors in me pursuing the deaconate,” he said. “It makes me very nervous, but at the same time I greatly enjoy serving on the altar. To be able to distribute the Body and Blood of Christ to my brothers and sisters in our faith is one of the greatest joys that I have.”
Deacon Mick Fornelli, who has overseen the formation of the future deacons, said each man, upon ordination, will return to serve in his home parish for a minimum of two years. He said the new influx of deacons helps in an archdiocese that is challenged by a shortage of priests.
“The deacon can assist in social service needs by visiting hospitals, visiting the homebound, visiting those in prison, serving the homeless community, and bringing Viaticum to those who are homebound,” he said.
He added that deacons also help parish priests by training for those preparing to receive the sacraments or preparing to enter into the Catholic Church or couples preparing for marriage.
“The permanent deacon, with faculties granted by the archbishop, preside at baptisms, weddings, communion services and funerals,” Deacon Fornelli noted. “The permanent deacon is ordained to be a servant of the servants.”
Deacon candidate Michael Hawker, who will serve at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in Anchorage, said he is drawn to serving those who are suffering from serious illnesses or facing the end of life. The former Alaska legislator realized his call to ministry after surviving a serious bout with cancer.
“I was very near death and I prayed, not for myself, but for my wife and everyone who loved me,” he recalled. “The Lord responded with grace and a miracle of healing that is medically inexplicable. That experience brought my relationship with God clearly into focus, rekindled the flame of my strong, but dormant faith, and motivated me to ask how I might best spend the remaining years of my life in his service.”
The last class of permanent deacons — a group of six men — was ordained in 2015 and 2016. With the upcoming ordinations in May, the Archdiocese of Anchorage will have 19 deacons serving in active ministry, along with five retired deacons serving as needed, and one deacon from another diocese who serves in Alaska.
The growth in the permanent diaconate is likely to continue with an additional 10 men currently being formed for ordination in 2022.
The current group ranges in age from 37 to 61 and hail from five parishes. Anchorage parishes include: Holy Family Cathedral, Our Lady of Guadalupe Co-Cathedral and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton. There will also be a deacon from Sacred Heart Church in Wasilla and St. Christopher by the Sea in Dutch Harbor.
Their preparation has included training in Scripture, Christian anthropology, ecumenism, theology, church history, homiletics, canon law and more.
Deacon Fornelli said the deacon candidates are men who have “demonstrated a openness and willingness to answer the call of God and the Holy Spirit to serve the church.”
“These men have accepted their call to be deacons,” he added, “with the understanding that their lives will change as members of the ordained clergy.”