Men of Ministry

Nov. 6-12, 2003
VOL 122 NO. 39
Men of Ministry
By Eileen Jevis/ SUN staff writer
SUN photo(s) Paul Finch
The ministry of the diaconate (from the Greek word diakonos, which means servant) dates back to biblical times when Peter said in Acts 6:2 that it is not proper for the apostles to give up preaching so that they can wait on tables. Accordingly, they ordained seven deacons, including the martyr Steven, to serve the Christian community.

From 110 AD until the Council of Nicea in 325 AD, the diaconate experienced its golden age. During this period, deacons developed their ministry of word, liturgy and charity. As the church grew, so did the diaconate; however, by the early part of the fourth century, the golden age came to an end. The reasons for this include the rise in presbyterate, the separation of liturgy from the secular way of life and the resentment of excessive diaconal power.

Deacon Leslie Distin, personnel director of the Permanent Diaconate for the Diocese of Syracuse said that the historical role of the deacon was that of a financial one. “The deacons took care of the money and how it was dispersed to the poor,” he said. “In the early church, they had the ear of the bishop. As they gained more power, they over-stepped their boundaries and the hierarchy of bishop, priest and deacon became blurred.” The deacons eventually lost their influence and power with the bishops and the office of the diaconate faded away.

For almost 16 centuries, until Vatican Council II, the diaconate remained a dormant ministry. On April 23, 1968, the American Bishops petitioned for the restoration of the Permanent Diaconate in the U.S.

More than 30 years later, the role of the diaconate ministry is essential in filling the liturgical, pastoral, charitable and administrative functions vital to the church. In the Syracuse Diocese, five of the eight deacons, who were ordained in 1978 and 1979 by Bishop Frank Harrison, are celebrating the 25th anniversary of their or dination.

Deacon Len Monnet, of St. Brigid/St. Joseph Parish in Syracuse reflected on his 25 years of ministry. “There were 13 of us ordained in the first class,” said Deacon Monnet. “Of the 13, eight were ordained at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception and five were ordained at their parishes or other locations.” “When we first started our ministry, we did not serve at our own parish but in other charitable functions such as working with the elderly, acting as spiritual advisors on college campuses, counseling at alcohol and drug rehabilitation programs and working in hospitals,” said Deacon Monnet. “It was felt that the role of deacon and priest would cause confusion among parishioners if we worked together at a parish. In the 1980’s deacons began to assist with parish work as the trend of one-priest parishes began to rise.” The liturgical and sacramental functions of permanent deacons include baptism and baptism preparation, weddings and marriage preparation, communion services, funeral and burial services and preaching. Their pastoral care roles include ministering to the sick, elderly, bereaved, homebound, prisoners, AIDS victims, and the divorced. Deacons also counsel, teach religious education and catechist training and perform social services.

While deacons fill many of the same functions as priests, they cannot confirm or absolve. They cannot anoint the sick because that sacrament includes absolving sins. Deacon Monnet said that the absolute joy of his ministry has been baptizing babies. “The sacrament of baptism opens up other aspects of the ministry. You learn of people’s struggles in their marriage or family life and are presented with an opportunity to help them and counsel them,” he said. “The sacrament also brings the mother and father who may have stopped attending back to church.” Deacon Peter Benz was the first person in the Syracuse Diocese to petition Bishop David Cunningham to allow him to become a permanent deacon. “After hearing my appeal, Bishop Cunningham and Father Yeazel went to Vatican II and voted for the restoration of the permanent diaconate on my behalf. As soon as the diaconate was restored, the application and interview process began and here I am,” said Deacon Benz.

Deacon Benz’s master’s degree in clinical counseling was put to good use in his vocation. In addition to marriage counseling, Deacon Benz counsels couples going through an annulment. He has counseled clients at Alcoholics Anonymous and at the Veteran’s Hospital in Syracuse. He also worked in the chaplain’s office at the US Air Force Base at Hancock Field for six years. Deacon Benz said that his vocation to become a deacon came from his missionary work in Tanzania, East Africa. “I was a missionary in East Africa and still have it in my blood,” said Deacon Benz. “I loved Africa and because of my missionary work there, I wanted to go out and mission here in the Syracuse Diocese. So when they needed me in Truxton or De Ruyter or Phoenix, I went willingly.” Deacon Benz is happy to travel to small, one-priest parishes to preach in order to give the priest there a weekend off.

The commitment and sacrifice made by the wives and children of men serving as deacons are very real ones. In fact, men must gain the permission of their wives before entering the diaconate program. “The applicant must have the approval of his wife before he starts the process,” said Deacon Distin. “The wife must also fill out an information form and give her assent twice during the four-year program ––– once during the application process and once before ordination.”

In addition, wives of diaconate candidates are strongly encouraged to attend the four-year education and preparation program right alongside their husbands in order to develop their own spirituality and their understanding of their role as his wife. “At the end of the second year of study, there is a discernment retreat for husbands and wives. It is an opportunity for the candidate and his spouse to determine if they really know what they are getting into and if they are convinced that he has received the call from God,“ said Deacon Distin.

Deacon Thomas Crossett said that not only was his wife supportive of his vocation, she was in partnership with him. “There is no separation spiritually although there is a separation canonically,” he said. Because Deacon Crossett’s wife went through the entire four-year program with him, she understood the demands that would be made on her and their family. “Everything we do, we do together,” he said. “When I was about to be ordained, I attended a retreat facilitated by the Parish Council. Father Jim Dolan sent us off to do a question prayer. He instructed us to ask God a question and sit and wait for the answer, no matter how long it took,” said Deacon Crossett. “I asked God if He really wanted me to be ordained a deacon and the message came quickly. I felt it in my heart that God was saying He didn’t care. ‘If you think I will love you less if you don’t become a deacon, then you are crazy,’ was the message I received,” said Deacon Crossett. “It was not a natural thought –– the message just clicked on in my head. He was telling me to do what would bring me joy. I immediately felt at peace with my decision.” Deacon Jules Kulak of St. Cecilia’s Parish in Solvay spent his first 22 years as a deacon at Stella Maris Retreat House in Skaneateles. “Retreat ministry is a blessing,” he said. He and his wife raised eight children, yet his wife committed herself to attending most of the four-year training program.

Most of the wives interviewed are active in their own ministry –– religious education, members of parish choirs, lectors and ministers of Holy Communion. “Together my wife and I do baptismal preparation for the parents,” said Deacon Kulak. “She has been very supportive in my deacon life and has a clear understanding of the requirements and demands of my work.” Deacon John Collins of St. John the Evangelist Parish in Syracuse spent many years of his ministry working with senior citizens. He also visited the homebound, made hospital visits and worked in parish ministry. While he and his wife raised 10 children, she still found time to attend some of the diaconate training with him. “When I was first ordained, I thought I could change the world for the better,” said Deacon Collins.“ As the years have gone by, I realize now that the only thing I want to change is myself –– to become more accepting of others.”

Deacon Wesley Brush was one of the first eight to be ordained in the Syracuse Diocese. He was the editor of The Catholic SUN when Bishop Cunningham asked him to consider becoming a deacon. “As a public figure for The Catholic SUN, I felt that having the title of deacon would enhance my reputation,” he said. “But by the end of the first year of study, I had a different realization. Through self-evaluation, I realized it was more than an honorable title. It was not a badge; it was a vocation.”

Deacon Brush moved to Wisconsin 15 years ago. When he arrived, he discovered the Diocese of Madison did not allow deacons to participate in parish ministry. “In fact, the bishop at that time was not only unwelcoming, he suggested I move elsewhere,” said Deacon Brush. “It took 15 years to get the first diaconate class to be ordained. I gained great satisfaction knowing that I impacted the bishops in Wisconsin to re-establish the diaconate,” he said. “To some extent, this may have been God’s purpose for me coming to Wisconsin.”

Since the restoration of the Permanent Diaconate by Vatican II in 1968, approximately 12,000 men have been ordained as permanent deacons in the in the U.S.

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