A call to serve

Sept. 7-13, 2006
A call to serve
By Luke Eggleston/ SUN staff writer
SUN photo(s) Paul Finch
The Syracuse Diocese prepares an increasingly important element for ministry

Since the origins of the church, the permanent diaconate had always been an available tool. But it took the special emphasis of the Second Vatican Council to restore the tradition to its proper place.
Initially, the role of deacon was revitalized in order to give the church a presence in the secular world. The council envisioned deacons providing the church with spiritual representation in the factories, the firehouses, kitchens and other places largely absent of clergy on a consistent basis.

“It would allow the church to reach down to the secular world,” said Father Lou Aiello, the Syracuse Diocese’s director of the Deacon Formation Program.
Although the Eastern Rite Churches had always maintained the diaconate, the institution needed to be reasserted in the Roman Catholic tradition. Before the Second Vatican Council, the title deacon designated seminarians. In 1967, Pope Paul VI officially restored the position to those men who were not necessarily on the verge of entering the priesthood. Because of its revival after languishing for years, the role of deacon is still a developing one, according to Father Aiello, and deacons and those charged with educating deacons are still receiving new instructions from the church. In more recent years, the priest shortage has “led to the expansion of the role of the diaconate beyond the original intuition of the council of fathers,” Father Aiello said.

A prerequisite for the diaconate is two years in the Formation for Ministry Program. Beyond their role in the church’s outreach, deacons are now critical in the day-to-day operation of many parishes. The deacon’s mission is tripartite as it includes academic, spiritual and ministerial elements. The education of the deacon reflects that mission. Deacon Les Distin, who is currently serving at Most Holy Rosary in Maine, was ordained in 1990. His career in the diaconate has carried him to parishes throughout the Binghamton area including St. Patrick’s, St. Joseph’s and St. Ann’s. He was involved in the latter two parishes as well as St. Stanislaus while they were in the process of merging to become Holy Trinity.

In the parishes at which Deacon Distin has been assigned, he has primarily been used as an administrator. A former superintendent of schools in the Hunter School District, Deacon Distin said that the skills he developed in the secular world; such as administration, organization and management; have enabled him to perform many of the clerical tasks he completes for the diocese. Deacon John Stella was appointed to St. Paul’s in Binghamton following his ordination in 2002. Deacon Stella, who previously worked as a stock broker, is now employed by St. Paul’s as a business administrator. He was careful to separate his positions at the church, noting that his role as business administrator is distinct from his role as deacon.

Long before he began Formation for Ministry training, Deacon Stella knew the diaconate was his goal. He was careful to avoid describing his inspiration as a calling, describing instead how an ongoing conversation with St. Paul’s pastor, Father Robert Sullivan (who is now deceased) led him to the Formation for Ministry Program and ultimately to the diaconate. Deacon Stella relayed that the diaconate program covered a great deal relating to the church. “When you look at each syllabus you get a feeling for the depth and breadth,” he said. “It covered pretty much everything connected to our faith as well as a healthy dose of psychology. It’s pretty comprehensive.”

Among the topics studied were church history, spirituality, the study of the Gospels, homiletics, Christology, sacramentology and social justice. Deacon Stella underscored the fact that he would be hard pressed to recall each of the courses studied during the rigorous four-year program.

Deacon Dale Crotsley was in the same ordination class as Deacon Stella. Now the deacon at Our Lady of Sorrows in Vestal, he had been looking for a way to become more involved in his faith when he discovered that the diaconate was an option.
He noted that the value of the courses offered by the program was amplified by the quality of the clergy teaching the classes. “We were very lucky with the clergy we had,” Deacon Crotsley said.
Deacon Stella said that the Formation for Ministry Program certainly provided him with a foundation for the formation for the diaconate program. His work in the diaconate, however, remains subject to day-to-day education. “The formation for the diaconate training was thorough but there’s no way for it to prepare me for every situation and I continue to learn,” he said.

The diocese is very conscious to involve the prospective deacon’s spouse in the process, according to Deacon Distin. Deacon Crotsley said that, for his class, the spouses of other prospective deacons as well as his own were intrinsically involved in the training.

Marriage counseling is just one of the pieces involved in the process of becoming a deacon. Deacon Distin stressed that the word “counseling” refers specifically to preparing couples and their families for “what they are getting into” rather than in the more conventional sense in which a counselor conducts therapy with a couple involved in a troubled marriage. In addition to marriage counseling, the prospective deacon goes through an application process, a physical examination and a psychological examination before he meets with a committee that includes three deacons, one deacon’s spouse, the chancellor for the diocese (Father Cliff Auth), a priest and also the director for Formation for Ministry, Father Joseph Scardella.

After the meeting in front of the full committee, two committee members meet with the prospective deacon and his spouse at their home. Following both meetings, the committee presents the bishop, in this case Bishop James Moynihan, with a recommendation. The bishop then decides whether or not the prospective deacon will be permitted to participate in the Permanent Diaconate Program.

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