By Connie Berry
The word “deacon” is derived from the Greek word diakonos, which means “to serve.” On May 12, Bishop Robert Cunningham ordained five new permanent deacons for the Diocese of Syracuse at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. Their wives, families and the priests who vested them were there to support them.
Their journey began in earnest five years ago when they made the commitment to the permanent diaconate program, and as they began study and training for their newest role. But, for all of them, it began long before the first book was opened.
Each new deacon has his own vocation story and each looks forward to this newest chapter in his life.
Deacon Mark Shiner said his personal relationship with Christ has been strong since he was a child. When his parents went to Bible study, young Mark tagged along with the adults. During college, Deacon Shiner said he fell in love with the Catholic Church and felt called to ministry.
“I had fallen in love with the Catholic Church — the contemplative tradition, the intellectual tradition, the liturgy, the work for justice,” Deacon Shiner said
Even though he was in seminary studying for the Episcopal Church, Deacon Shiner couldn’t shake his call to Catholicism.
“I believed God was calling me to ordained ministry and that God was calling me to be Catholic, and these two couldn’t happen together – I was already happily married,” Deacon Shiner explained. “I felt called to resolve this conflict by following God’s calling into the Catholic Church in 1994.”
Deacon Shiner said he feels God has blessed his decision and he has been serving in ministry ever since. Deacon Shiner is Catholic chaplain at Colgate University and is a parishioner at St. Mary’s Church in Hamilton where he has plans to serve however he can.
Deacon Shiner’s wife Rebecca is associate professor in the psychology department at Colgate where she serves as chair, and the couple has two children ages 15 and 11. For Rebecca, spending time with their children and her husband is a top priority. She said she is used to her husband’s ministry schedule and she doesn’t anticipate huge changes to their family’s already full routine.
The students at the Newman Center at Colgate were very much looking forward to Deacon Shiner’s ordination. Some students stayed at school after their finals were over so that they could celebrate with him.
“Campus ministry is very dear to my heart and I am completely in love with the Colgate students,” Deacon Shiner said. “They are incredible and inspiring people.”
Inspiration is the hallmark of Deacon David Losito who will serve at his parish, St. Margaret’s in Mattydale. He and his wife Mary Elizabeth have been married for 14 years. Deacon Losito was a widower with five children when they met. Mary Elizabeth was a widow and together they have eight children, ages 18 to 29. Deacon Losito had first begun the process to study for the diaconate years ago but his life took a different turn.
His deacon story began more than 25 years ago.
“I felt called to the diaconate back then, I was commissioned in the Formation for Minsitry program in September 1987 and I was accepted into the diaconate in 1992,” Deacon Losito explained. “I left in 1994 when my first wife died in a car accident. I reentered in September 2008. I guess I am proof that the call to the diaconate never goes away.”
Mary Elizabeth said she and her husband already had very strong faith but going through the formation process has strengthened it even more.
“There is part of this that is his alone,” Mary Elizabeth said. “But like we said in our marriage vows, I am here to support him.”
With eight children, three of them in college, and the usual family chaos, Mary Elizabeth said her household is definitely a “family circus” like the comic strip. She said the children are proud of their dad’s decision, even though they are in varying steps of their own faith journey.
Mary Elizabeth explained that she and her husband offer Bible study to those in recovery for drug and alcohol addiction. Deacon Losito has taught faith formation and confirmation classes and is no stranger to church service.
Deacon Losito said the deacon formation process is very effective and that Father Lou Aiello is always searching for ways to improve the process.
Father Lou Aiello, formation director for the permanent diaconate, said the deacon’s formation program is well developed, including the component for the wives of deacons. “We want them to grow spiritually along with their husbands,” he said. Father Aiello explained that the deacons, throughout church history, are an example of charity and service.
“If there is a deacon available at Mass, he is the one to proclaim the Gospel because he is a reminder to everyone there of the responsibility to follow Jesus. Their primary charism is charity and they are there to remind people of the primary teaching of Jesus,” Father Aiello said.
For many deacons, their stepping stone to the deacon formation program is the Formation for Ministry program.
Deacon Dare Dutter said he recognized the need for deacons through the Formation for Ministry program. “The classes I took on Vatican II, liturgy and RCIA were especially informative in terms of recognizing my interest in the diaconate,” Deacon Dutter said. “The Vatican II class outlined the return of the focus on deacons, the liturgy class pointed out the role of deacons in the Mass, and the RCIA class illustrated the need to increase the membership in the church, as well as the process for bringing people in.”
Deacon Dutter recognizes the need for additional deacons to handle the ministerial needs that were typically carried out by a priest.
“For decades, priests did so many tasks in running parishes, such as chaplaincies, pastoral counseling, administration tasks and keeping track of the books. These things can no longer be done by them,” Deacon Dutter said. “Deacons can and should take on these roles, as well as any liturgical and sacramental tasks they can take on in order to serve the people of God.”
His wife, Marybeth, said she hopes the bond the families formed during the years of formation continues after the ordination ceremony. “Our plan is that we get together at least quarterly and go out dinner,” Marybeth said. While all the husbands were going to class, the wives did the same. They toured the Cathedral and went to the Mother Marianne Cope Museum, Marybeth explained. There was spiritual reading and guest speakers to help the women prepare for the new role their husbands were taking on. “At the beginning of the process, I didn’t know if this was right for me,” Marybeth said. “But as time went on it grew into a wonderful experience.” The Dutters have three grown children who are happy about their dad’s decision, even though deacon ordination fell on graduation weekend for their 22 year old.
Marybeth said she was looking forward to her husband’s role at their parish, Holy Cross in DeWitt, settling into a routine. Deacon Dutter runs his homilies past his wife, she said. And she isn’t adverse to an honest critique. “Yes, he practices his homilies, especially this next one,” she said. The deacons preached at all Masses at their parishes the very weekend they were ordained.
Deacon Paul Lehman’s wife Susan said his call to the permanent diaconate was more of a “gradual and natural evolution” of his spirituality. “He may feel differently but I don’t think there was one ‘Aha!’ moment,” Susan Lehman said.
Deacon Lehman said the whole church is evolving and that the role of deacons is not simply a matter of the priests’ “numbers game.”
“I am sure there is some truth in that [decrease in numbers of priests] but I don’t look at it as if we are a substitute, or the second best choice,” Deacon Lehman said. “The fact is that the church is changing all over the world, it always has been and always will be and with that change there will come new and different opportunities for deacons. I am excited to see what the Lord has in store for us.”
Susan Lehman said that she feels a couple would not begin the diaconate process unless they had a strong relationship to begin with. She said she would not deny support of something her husband is truly passionate about. “I think we had a strong relationship to begin with but it’s been nice to share the path.”
Deacon Lehman had a little more to say about the effect the diaconate program had on his 30-year marriage.
“We have undergone the challenges of making this work and balancing family and work requirements together and this has required us to communicate more and understand what is needed of each of us more,” Deacon Lehman said. “But on a deeper level, when you really work hard to discern a calling, to explore your faith with another you get to know each other on a different level than before. We may have known each other in a personal way before but now we know each other in a spiritual way and you find yourself falling in love all over again.”
Deacon Robert Burke and his wife Betsy are parishioners of the Cathedral. For Deacon Burke, his journey to the permanent diaconate began in earnest when his pastor, Msgr. Neal Quartier, asked him if he had ever thought about becoming a deacon. “It all seemed to come together and I have never doubted this was meant to be my path.”
The Burkes have grown as a couple too as they made their way through the permanent diaconate program. Deacon Burke is grateful for the sacrifices his wife endured as they made the formation program part of their lives.
“My wife Betsy has sacrificed so much for me with her time; coming to classes, retreats, and other functions we had not realized would be such a big part of the program. We have grown together as a couple and as individuals, and we look forward to each new day together,” he said.
Betsy Burke said the diaconate program has given their lives purpose that they would not have had otherwise. She feels they are in the right place for this stage of their lives, and the diaconate program enhanced their relationship.
“It has opened conversations for us and helped us rediscover our direction,” she said.
Father Aiello said he stands in awe of the men and their wives who make the decision to make the commitment to serve their church. “These are men who could do anything with their lives and they have decided to step forward and help the church, giving the commitment to ministry in the church,” he said.
Though the deacon formation program was comprehensive, all five men said there were no real surprises in the program. All were happy to say that they feel they have made lifelong friends in each other. “The best part I found in the formation process was the phenomenal people — amazing instructors, every candidate, but especially the four men I was ordained with and the two men that were part of my immediate class but are not yet ordained. They enriched my faith journey with their friendship, and that will always be a super positive in my life.”
Susan Lehman said diocese is fortunate to have these five new deacons. “The diocese is getting five outstanding men to serve,” Susan Lehman said. “They’re really caring people. These five gentlemen have service in their hearts and they will do whatever is asked of them.”
If you think God might be calling you to the permanent diaconate call Father Aiello at the Office of Deacon Formation at (315) 470-1479. There are information sessions planned in each region of the diocese. The next available session is Sunday, June 10 at St. Mary’s Church in Oswego.
Deacon Robert Burke
Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Syracuse
Msgr. Neal Quartier, Vesting Chaplain
Deacon Dare Dutter
Holy Cross Church, DeWitt
Msgr. J. Robert Yeazel, Vesting Chaplain
Deacon Paul Lehman
St. Mary’s Church, Hamilton
Msgr. John Madden, Vesting Chaplain
Deacon David Losito
St. Margaret’s Church, Mattydale
Father Robert Hyde, Vesting Chaplain
Deacon Mark Shiner
Newman Community at Colgate University, Hamilton
Father Richard Dunn, Vesting Chaplain