Saturday, May 15 will be an important day for the Diocese of Syracuse, as I ordain eight men to the permanent diaconate. These men have completed a seven-year formation program, including two years in the commissioned lay ministry program. Together with their wives, they have participated in classes, seminars and additional formation activities to prepare them for their new vocation.
We remember from our catechism days that one of the seven sacraments is Holy Orders. We sometimes miss the plural form thinking that the sacrament refers only to the priesthood. However, there are three distinct orders: diaconate, priesthood and the episcopacy.
The role of the deacon is one of service. Just as Christ came not to be served but to serve, the deacon is called to be a servant in imitation of Christ. He is a minister of the Word, participating as an evangelizer and teacher in the Church’s mission of proclaiming the Gospel. In this capacity, he proclaims the Gospel at Mass, delivers the homily, in accord with the provisions of Canon Law, and teaches in a variety of catechetical programs. The deacon proclaims the Word in such a way that he first witnesses to its empowerment in his own life. Thus, he can effectively empower others to live the Gospel message in the circumstances in which they are called to live their baptismal vocation.
The deacon is a minister of the liturgy. He exercises this responsibility when he participates in the penitential rite, proclaims the Gospel, voices the needs of the people in the General Intercessions, assists the priest with the preparation of the gifts for sacrifice and dismisses the community at the conclusion of the Eucharistic Liturgy. Other liturgical roles that may be fulfilled by the deacon include baptizing, leading the faithful in prayer, witnessing marriages, and presiding over wake and funeral services.
The deacon is a minister of charity and justice. Through this ministry he is called to recognize the needs of others and reach out in love to meet those needs. In a world hungry and thirsty for convincing signs of the compassion and liberating love of God, the deacon visibly manifests the mission of the Church in his words and deeds, responding to the master’s command of service and offering real-life examples of how to carry it out.
The deacon is ordained to serve the diocesan Church. He ministers under the direction of the bishop and the pastoral supervisor appointed by the bishop. Our new deacons will receive an assignment for parish ministry, as well as a ministry of service and charity either within the parish or outside of it.
Deacons exercise their ministry in jails and prisons, as hospital chaplains, parish business administrators, youth ministers, in religious education and in parish outreach programs. They spend 8 to 10 hours a week in volunteer service to the parish. When I, in collaboration with my advisors, assign a deacon to a ministry I take into account his particular talents and gifts. The majority of diaconal service takes place within parish communities. Assignments can be changed at the request of the deacon or at the initiative of the bishop. Each year, our deacons are expected to submit a report to me, complete a weekend retreat and participate in 20 hours of continuing education to enhance their ministry.
Our deacons are a great blessing to the diocese. At the present time we have 65 active deacons, 13 who are retired but remain active and seven working outside of the diocese. Twenty-five of our deacons have been called home to the Lord since the first ordination class in 1978. We rejoice that eight more men will be joining the ranks this coming Saturday. We pray that others will join them in the months and years ahead.
In ordaining these men to the order of the diaconate I am not simply giving them a job or even a tenured position of great importance. Neither am I calling them to a position of employment, but rather to a partnership with Jesus Christ in the task of leading others to Him. In choosing them, Christ has asked them to be His ambassadors. And in choosing to send them out He has not chosen them to live a life retired from the world but to represent Him in the world. As I ordain these men I will pray that they will know unbounded satisfaction and ever present joy which comes from serving God’s people as ordained deacons.
Most Rev. Robert J. Cunningham
Bishop of Syracuse