By DEACON MICK FORNELLI
I was first interested in becoming a permanent deacon nearly 28 years ago. Due to several moves, however, I had to wait until finally settling in Alaska.
Upon moving to Anchorage, a new diaconate program was announced. After discerning with my wife, Michelle, we decided to turn in the paperwork. We learned that my name had already been recommended to the formation committee.
I had finally achieved a calling to this ministry that I had felt for decades. One of the first things I realized was that the diaconate is a calling to ministry. It is not a simple career change. Ordination to this ministry occurs because God is calling.
The name “deacon” means minister or servant. In Scripture, in Acts of the Apostles, we hear of seven good men selected to serve the community as the Hellenists (Palestinian Jews) were complaining that the Hebrews were neglecting the Hellenist widows in their daily distribution of food. These seven men needed to be of good reputation, filled with the Holy Spirit and wisdom, given to prayer and ministry of the Word. These men are considered to be the first deacons of the Catholic Church. Among them was Saint Stephen, who became the first martyr of the church. Their function was to serve at table for the distribution of food and goods to ensure a fair and equal share was received by all widows and orphans of the community.
This is still the primary function of permanent deacons. Working in prisons and hospitals, visiting the sick, bringing Viaticum to the ill and dying (not to be confused with the Sacrament of the Sick) and caring for the homeless comprise the primary duties for permanent deacons.
In addition, the bishop of a diocese grants “faculties” to deacons so they can baptize, witness marriages, assist the priest in celebration of the Eucharist, preside at communion services, read the Gospel at Mass and preach homilies. Many deacons teach religious formation and baptism preparation.
At ordination, a deacon pledges obedience to his bishop and all successors. Deacons who are ordained in the unmarried state vow to remain celibate. However, most permanent deacons are married men upon their ordination and thus remain married. Should the wife of a permanent deacon precede him in death, the deacon commits to a life of celibacy for the rest of his life.
In preparation for ordination to the permanent diaconate, wives participate in the formation process of their husbands in order to better understand the ministry their husband are preparing to undertake. The priorities for a deacon are family, job, diaconate. This means a married deacon’s first priority is his family and sustaining an income to support them. This is especially important as the ministry of a permanent deacon is voluntary and includes no material or financial compensation from the diocese or parish.
Serving as a deacon is one of the most fulfilling and joyous times of my life. It has enriched my married life, social life and my relationship with God.
Baptizing infants and presiding at marriages are some of the great joys. When first ordained, I had the privilege of preparing a couple and presiding at their marriage. About a year later, they were the proud parents of a new baby and wanted me to baptize the child. Two years later this same couple had another child and were returning to Alaska in hopes that I would baptize their second child. What a blessing to be used by God to connect this couple and their children to his church.
Because of the shortage of priests in Alaska, deacons have wonderful opportunities to visit many of our mission parishes staffed by amazing lay personnel but lacking the ordained ministry. These visits include presiding at communion services, funerals, weddings and supporting religious education for the laity.
The diaconate is a wonderful vocation. I encourage any man thinking about it to explore a potential calling. A new formation class will begin in September 2016. It is a five-year program. If you feel possibly called to this vocation, talk to a deacon about it. You are also more than welcome to contact me at the Pastoral Center in Anchorage at (907) 297-7770 or by email at email@example.com. You won’t regret it.
The writer was ordained to the diaconate in 2009 and serves as director of Deacon Ministry & Formation for the Anchorage Archdiocese.