It’s making a comeback. Even though the permanent diaconate basically fell out of use in the Western Church centuries ago, there are now over 16,000 active permanent deacons in the United States alone. Since Vatican II, the Church has seen a renewal in her understanding of and appreciation for this important ministry—a renewal that’s bearing fruit today (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1571).
But what has attracted these 16,000 men to dedicate their lives to the service of the Catholic Church? There are plenty of ways to help others; why have these men chosen the permanent diaconate?
What is the Permanent Diaconate?
God calls some men to be permanent deacons—to dedicate their lives to serve the Church in imitation of Christ. It’s true that every Christian is called to serve others, but deacons are configured to this calling in a particular way through the sacrament of Holy Orders. The sacrament places an indelible seal or mark on their souls, uniting them to Christ, who “came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom” (Mt. 20:28).
Deacons are able to give others not only food for their bodies (they do that, too), but above all, food for their souls. They answer needs that no merely humanitarian mission can.
Permanent deacons minister in many ways: they participate in liturgy (as lectors, reading the Gospel and/or preaching the homily, as Eucharistic ministers); they work at the service of charity and justice (like mission work or prison ministry, for example), offer faith-formation (like RCIA or RCIC as well as marriage preparation), and above all, they witness to the Gospel within their professional and daily life.
How do I become a deacon?
There are two stages of preparation before ordination: the aspirant path (usually one year) and the candidate path; it usually lasts 4-5 years total.
Application takes place through the diocesan office. Once accepted by the bishop, aspirant level of formation begins. It’s a time to discern the capacity and readiness for candidacy through prayer, study, spiritual direction, interviews with the formation director and continued parish life.
The candidacy is marked by continued discernment of God’s call and preparation for ordination through the means already mentioned, with a more focused approach.
According to Canon Law, candidates for the permanent diaconate must be at least 25 years old, if unmarried, and at least 35 years old, if married (in this case, he also needs his wife’s consent) (c.f. canon 1031).
If an unmarried man is ordained to the diaconate, he commits himself to a life of celibacy; married men commit themselves to the same, should their wife pass away before them (c.f. canon 1037).
How do I know if it’s for me?
The calling to the permanent diaconate is a vocation; it begins with God’s initiative. The National Directory for the Formation, Life, and Ministry of Permanent Deacons in the United States, a helpful and detailed book available on the USCCB webpage, offers some common traits of those called to the diaconate:
- inclination/desire to serve the Christian Community
- psychological integrity
- capacity for dialogue, for sharing one’s faith
- sense of responsibility, accountability, prudent judgment, generous service and the ability to lead and motivate others;
- good Christian reputation
- participation in the Church’s life and apostolic work
I’m interested… What do I do now?
If you identify with these qualities and feel you may be called to this service to the Church, here are some suggestions as you begin the process of discernment:
• Look. Visit the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Website. You can find Church documents and references, information about the diaconate in your particular diocese, as well as the person to contact for more information.
• Pray. Deepen your prayer life. God speaks to your heart and will show you his plan, but you have to give him the opportunity.
• Seek counsel. Each person’s spiritual journey is unique; you need personal guidance to understand the particular path God has for you. Contact your parish priest or diocesan vocations director (you can find a directory here on vocation.com) to make arrangements.
• Ask. Are there any permanent deacons at your parish? Talk to them about their personal experience and discernment process.
• Talk. Be open with your spouse and family about your interest in the permanent diaconate. Pray about it together, research together, share discoveries and insights. It’s a process that affects and involves the whole family.
“No one has greater love than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (Jn. 15:13). The permanent diaconate is precisely this: responding to God’s call to lay down your life every day to serve him in your brothers and sisters.
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