I receive so many requests for advice about discerning a call to the diaconate that I thought it would be beneficial to share my thoughts on vocational discernment with those men who are currently in diaconal formation and those who feel they may be called, or are at least thinking about it!
Here are some things to consider as you discern God’s will:
First of all, you MUST be a man of humility, prayer and service. You MUST also be faithful to the Magisterium, that is, to the teaching authority of the Church. These are non-negotiable!
Next, if you are married, you must already be serving well in the diaconia of the family. While in formation, my classmates and I were told again and again that our priorities are: (1) marriage (2) supporting the family and (3) the diaconate. My next bit of advice: work really hard on (1) and (2)!
The last thing the Church wants is for marriages to end because men are too busy “being deacons.” In fact, I know of dioceses that take this so seriously, they do not allow men to start the official discernment process until their children are teenagers. Our Archbishop, however, doesn’t want all of his deacons to be elderly, retired men! Ultimately, being a deacon is not about “what you do” but who you are:
“By virtue of sacramental ordination, the deacon acts in the name of the whole Church and of Christ, and raises the meaning of service to an efficacious sign of grace. […] The deacon is not someone who performs sacramental signs; the deacon is a sacramental sign of Christ the Servant. […] In living out this commitment in such a public, consecrated and permanent way, the deacon stands forth as a sacramental witness that the kingdom of God, made visible in Jesus Christ, has arrived.” (Rev. William T. Donovan, Ph.D., The Sacrament of Service: Understanding Diaconal Spirituality, Green Bay, WI: Alt Publishing Co, 2000), 7-9.
“. . . The very way of life that the ordained deacon is supposed to stand for is at the heart of what it means to be human, and . . . what it means to be Christian. […] The sacrament of Orders in diakonia is the sacrament of the movement from ego to fuller self through care for others, the very dynamism of human and Christian existence! In this way, the diaconate confronts the family of believers and the whole world with a grace-filled sign of the presence of God through a life of service.” (Ibid, 26).
“Just as Christ emptied himself in kenosis [self-sacrifice] for the sake of helpless sinners, so I am called to find my true self by emptying myself and taking on the needs of others. This is what the life of the deacon sacramentalizes for the sake of the whole church. Service of others is the dynamic of transcendence; service is spirituality.” (Ibid, 27).
My wife had major concerns while I was in formation. While I was in graduate school studying theology (a Master’s degree or equivalent is required in the Archdiocese of Portland in Oregon), my first two children were born. My wife was pregnant with our twins and was due “any day” a week before ordination! At the time, I was also the youngest permanent deacon ever ordained in the archdiocese (I was 36 years old).
Part of the formation process in Portland includes current deacons and their wives speaking to men in formation and their wives about what life is like after ordination. The deacon wives were very honest and my wife found this to be very helpful. In addition, since I have a full-time job and young children, the diaconate board wanted to limit my hours of service in my assigned parish. The pastor at that parish along with my wife and I sat down and discussed a schedule that would limit me to between fifteen and seventeen hours per month of “active duty” in the parish. “Active duty” is defined as the amount of time I spend in the parish away from the family.
This has worked out very well! I have been faithful to these hours since ordination and found that I am still able to be very active in the parish. I teach RCIA and handle the spiritual preparations for baptism, confirmation and marriage. I train altar servers, lectors, extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion, and attend parish council meetings. I also found ways to “cheat.” Since I have a flexible schedule, I will occasionally conduct parish business meetings during the work day. These hours do not count toward my “active duty” time since, during the day, I would be away from the family anyway!
I have three very busy and active apostolates. I am the Founder and Director of DynamicDeacon.com, a Christian evangelization and apologetics organization dedicated to the promotion of Catholic values, principles, and teaching through which I speak extensively throughout the United States and overseas. I am featured on The Greatest Commandments: A 40-Week Spiritual Journey for Married Couples, a vibrant marriage enrichment program rooted in Biblical values designed to help husbands and wives know God better, trust Him fully, and love Him completely throughout the journey of married life. I am also the President of Servant Enterprises, a non-profit organization that hosts an international institute for Catholic male spirituality, coordinates dynamic speaking tours and life-changing retreats, and develops products and services that support family life.
None of this happens unless my wife gives her okay. She is a great barometer and does a fantastic job keeping me grounded. If you are married, your wife’s support is critical to serving well as a deacon. Being a good deacon starts with being a good husband and father. The Church has great wisdom in this area:
“In particular, the deacon and his wife must be a living example of fidelity and indissolubility in Christian marriage before a world which is in dire need of such signs. By facing in a spirit of faith the challenges of married life and the demands of daily living, they strengthen the family life not only of the Church community but of the whole of society. They also show how the obligations of family, work and ministry can be harmonized in the service of the Church’s mission. Deacons and their wives and children can be a great encouragement to all others who are working to promote family life.” (Pope John Paul II, “The Heart of the Permanent Diaconate”, address given in Detroit, September 19, 1987.)
“The Sacrament of Matrimony sanctifies conjugal love and constitutes it a sign of the love with which Christ gives himself to the Church (cf. Ephesians 5:25). It is a gift from God and should be a source of nourishment for the spiritual life of those deacons who are married. Since family life and professional responsibilities must necessarily reduce the amount of time which married deacons can dedicate to the ministry, it will be necessary to integrate these various elements in a unitary fashion, especially by means of shared prayer. In marriage, love becomes an interpersonal giving of self, a mutual fidelity, a source of new life, a support in times of joy and sorrow: in short, love becomes service. When lived in faith, this family service is for the rest of the faithful an example of the love of Christ. The married deacon must use it as a stimulus of his diaconia in the Church.” (Congregation for Catholic Education and Congregation for the Clergy, Directory for the Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons, no.61.)
“Married deacons should feel especially obliged to give clear witness to the sanctity of marriage and the family. The more they grow in mutual love, the greater their dedication to their children and the more significant their example for the Christian community. ‘The nurturing and deepening of mutual, sacrificial love between husband and wife constitutes perhaps the most significant involvement of a deacon’s wife in her husband’s public ministry in the Church’. This love grows thanks to chastity which flourishes, even in the exercise of paternal responsibilities, by respect for spouses and the practice of a certain continence. This virtue fosters a mutual self-giving which soon becomes evident in ministry. It eschews possessive behaviour, undue pursuit of professional success and the incapacity to programme time. Instead, it promotes authentic interpersonal relationships and the capacity to see everything in its proper perspective.” (Ibid.)
If you are married, you should ensure that your wife’s concerns are heard and validated. It is important to see what her comfort level is. Both of you should then talk to your pastor, whose support is also very important. If your wife feels she would like you to wait until the kids are older (if you have kids), then wait. The diaconate will still be here when you and your family are ready.
One last thing: I started feeling a call to what I believed was the priesthood back in the seventh grade. After graduating from college and working for a year, I joined a Benedictine monastery and began working toward the priesthood. That was a great plan—but not God’s plan! I ended up getting married several years later and then discerning a call to the diaconate a few years after that. You should think about what you can do to serve the Lord and his Church in case you are not called to the diaconate. The only way to know for sure that you are called by God to the diaconate is when the bishop lays hands on you!
I will be praying for you (and your wife) that God’s will be done.
©2011 Aurem Cordis and Deacon Harold Burke-Sivers