What do a dentist, a corrections officer, an auto parts store manager, a former chief of police and a firefighter have in common? They have all been called by God to become deacons for the Diocese of Syracuse.
What is the role of a deacon? According to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, a deacon is a living example of Christ through service to others. He is ordained through Holy Orders, which means he is accepted into the priesthood of Christ which has three levels: bishop, priest and deacon. A deacon’s ministry is service. He ministers to the poor, the needy, the elderly and the imprisoned. He can preach and proclaim the Gospel at Mass and administer the rites of baptism, marriage and Christian burial. A deacon can be married, but if he is single at the time of acceptance into diaconate formation, he cannot marry and must take a vow of celibacy.
“The men attracted to a vocation in the diaconate are ordinary men living extraordinary lives,” said Father Louis Aiello, diocesan diaconate formation director for the past 18 years. “They have incredibly varied backgrounds but they are very accomplished in their professions, family life and faith life. I stand in awe and I am humbled to have the opportunity to direct their formation.”
Becoming a deacon takes a commitment of time and of faith. Prior to application acceptances, there are many discussions and meetings between the candidates’ own pastors and Father Aiello.
“These men have heard a call from God on their lives for many years,” explained Father Aiello. “It is a call to serve Him and to serve the church. They are often men who are generally involved in many of the church ministries, such as the church council, and 90 percent of the candidates come to us with their wives at their side. The men who answer the call are not looking for limelight, but enjoy serving and helping people. From their overall sense of duty, effort and involvement they are called to represent Christ, and our training fits their calling perfectly, but they must seriously consider the balance of faith, family and outside responsibilities.”
Those inquiring into the diaconate must also be working fulltime in some capacity during their application process. “Candidates interested in becoming a deacon already come to us having responsibilities,” said Father Aiello. “At that point they draw their resources together to begin their formation and vet their application. The application and vetting is about six months and the candidates study a tome of information so [the process of becoming a deacon] can’t happen overnight.”
During the review and inquiry process there will be a select group that will cull themselves out of the progression of becoming a deacon. “People will deselect themselves for a number of reasons,” stated Father Aiello. “It may not be the right time or their family may not be in the right position to realize this vocation, but we are careful to help them evaluate themselves at the same time we are evaluating them. Of those who inquire about becoming a deacon, only half will actually apply and of that number, only two-thirds will be ordained. There are generally seven to eight men in the class.”
Once the class is finalized there are four years of study before ordination. In the Diocese of Syracuse, an ordination is coordinated every other year.
“It’s practical to keep to a two-year ordination schedule since we need to mobilize supplies, arrange speakers for the group and we are not a full-time university,” stated Father Aiello. “We always have faith formation classes going on and it just so happened to be every other year a new class [of deacons] began so we just began to ordain deacons every other year.”
This May, the nine candidates will be ordained as deacons. Robert Fangio, a dentist for over 30 years, will be part of that group. “It’s been a wonderful learning experience during the past four years,” stated Fangio. “I don’t think I looked back once. I had peace and I was anxious to get started.”
Fangio believes the years he has spent being a dentist will only help in his efforts to become a good deacon. “As a dentist, I have learned you don’t just have to know all the skills of being a good dentist; you need to see each person individually. You have to look at their face, but speak to their mind since everyone is different and unique and they all have their own thoughts and anxieties. I hope that my talents and gifts that have been given to me as a dentist will continue to help me as a deacon and someday I may have the opportunity to use those skills to help my Catholic brothers and sisters who need dental work but can’t afford it. I’ve always looked at Jesus as the ultimate minister of the sick and poor and what greater privilege could I be given than to be able to minister to those people as well?”
Tim Downes, a retired firefighter and a deacon since 2008, believes being a firefighter was a tremendous asset when he decided to become a deacon. “As a deacon you deal with assisting people who are in crisis and need and that suited me and spoke to my experience as a firefighter when I became a deacon,” explained Downes. “These days my fellow firefighters see me as a deacon, which is good. It helps them to talk with me about things they might not want to talk to another firefighter about. And that’s really gratifying.”
Tony Paperello, an ordained deacon since 2008, also agrees that the skills you learn on the job can only enhance your role as a deacon. Paperello is a corrections officer and feels that his faith life and job dovetail nicely. “At times, I’m not sure who is ministering to who,” laughed Paperello. “I love my job. I really love it, but there is so much negativity behind these walls that it gets hard on everyone. Once you bring God behind those walls, it’s a game changer. I feel blessed all the time and I thank God for everything he has done for me in my life.”
Paperello holds tight also to a phrase he heard Father Aiello use during his formation training as a deacon. “He said, ‘Gentlemen, you don’t just receive the sacrament, you become the sacrament,’ and that is so true. You are not a deacon for three or six hours; you’re a deacon for 24/7.”
Auto parts store manager John Pedrotti agrees. “If you think being called is just a ministry, forget it; it’s a lifestyle and the entire family becomes part of the ministry.” Pedrotti has been ordained a deacon for four years and sees how his past experience working with the public has made him a better deacon today. “It has made me more aware of life. I am more aware of people’s needs and when I help them I think of how Christ must have felt when he was ministering to the people.”
Pedrotti also believes that prior to becoming a deacon, if a candidate thinks he is hearing a call from God, he doesn’t have to guess; he will know it. “God constantly calls you. I prayed and prayed over it but I can’t describe how or what I felt; God kept calling me until I answered.”
John Falge, a retired chief of police for Syracuse currently in the formation process, equates God’s call to that of a woodpecker. “When I got the call from God it was like a woodpecker was just hammering away at me day and night. Finally I realized it was God calling me to be a deacon,” laughed Falge. How is the process going for Falge so far? “I wont be ordained until 2016, but the entire process is going great. We have some of the finest professors you could ever imagine and Father Aiello is terrific. I have always had a great love of my church. I always felt there was more I could be doing to be involved but when I told my family there was absolutely no surprise; half of my kids said, ‘What took you so long?’” laughed Falge. “But I don’t think anyone who comes into the diaconate is all that surprised. They hear the call. They know there is more that God wants them to do. There is no secret coded message. It’s a call that’s loud and clear.”