Deacons, the icons of the servanthood of Christ

April 22, 2014

HOUSTON — Last year on Holy Thursday, the image of the Holy Father washing the feet of a dozen young prison inmates in a juvenile detention center was broadcasted all over the world, demonstrating that we, as Baptized Christians, are each called to be humble servants to all of God’s people. 

That day, Pope Francis was living the words he spoke the night before he was elected Pope just a few weeks earlier: “The Church is called to come out of herself and to go to the peripheries, not only geographically, but also the existential peripheries: the mystery of sin, of pain, of injustice, of ignorance and indifference to religion, of intellectual currents, and of all misery.”

What some may not have noticed in the photo is that Pope Francis literally “wore the heart of a servant” by adorning an alb and a deacon’s stole. 

The word “deacon” is derived from the ancient Greek word diakonos, which means “servant,” “waiting-man,” “minister” or “messenger.” Pope Francis’ actions symbolized the call for deacons throughout the Church to become icons of servant-hood across all margins of life.

“Deacons are called to be servant leaders in a servant Church,” said Deacon Gerald DuPont, director of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston’s Permanent Diaconate Ministry, one of 60-plus ministries supported by the Diocesan Services Fund.

Deacon DuPont said whether in a parish, diocese or through social ministry, deacons serve where they are most needed and must have “the ability to lead, motivate, facilitate and animate others into appropriate action and service.” 

Deacons are public ministers of the Church, ordained for the three-fold ministries of the Word, Liturgy and charity. They are called to serve the holy people of God and to assist lay people in discovering their own Baptismal call in serving others through ministry. The Church relies on the laity, as well as the clergy to meet the vast and diverse needs of its people.

Currently, there are 418 deacons serving in parishes and special ministries throughout the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, which is the second largest number in the U.S. and world. In addition, 296 men are currently in some stage of formation in the Archdiocese’s six-year Permanent Diaconate Program, which begins with a series of pre-requisite educational and discernment programs prior to admission to formation. 

Once accepted to formation, there is a one-year period of Aspirancy during which the integrated program of academic, pastoral, human and spiritual formation begins. This is followed by formal admission to candidacy for ordination and three years of continuing academic, pastoral, human and spiritual formation. 

“This is a discernment process between the candidate, his spouse if he is married, and the Church,” Deacon DuPont said. “Our ministry is responsible for forming these men to become good servants of Christ, to understand whether their call is to the diaconate or possibly embracing more fully their Baptismal call in another area of service. The intent is to match their spiritual gifts and skills provided by God with the needs of the Church and the people we serve.”

During the last two years of the formation process, the candidates’ skills and interests are assessed and they are assigned to a social ministry internship where they serve in hospitals, correctional facilities, halfway houses and homeless shelters, facilities for the elderly priests and deacons and many more. 

Once ordained to the Permanent Diaconate, they make a commitment to serve in that ministry of charity for at least three years. The majority of those ordained balance full-time careers, as well as an assignment to a particular parish or diocesan-level ministry in addition to the social ministry. 

Deacon Rob Ward, who was ordained in 2007 by Daniel Cardinal DiNardo, then Archbishop for the Archdiocese, has been assigned to the Correctional Ministry for the past seven years. 

This ministry and the hospital ministry currently have the most needs in our community. He said he was selected because of his former occupation at a correctional institute, but in the role of deacon, he believes the most important role is bringing the presence of God into the room, wherever they go and whomever they may see.

“The most challenging part is to understand that it’s all about being present, just walking with these people where they are in their journey, not necessarily about saying something wise or theologically based,” Deacon Ward said. “In our social ministries, we interact with a lot of non-Catholics, people of other faiths or no faith at all, and we are not there to convert anybody or force people to become Catholic. We were there to be servants of Christ, to just be there for these people and to help them with their present needs.”

Deacon Ward said this ecumenical component is very apparent in the prison and hospital ministries where there is a large, very diverse population in the 10 counties in the Archdiocese. Many whom they see or attend their services and programs ask questions, are curious and just want to understand. Deacon Ward finds that many times, these people share many common beliefs with Catholics. 

“The ministry of charity for a deacon is where the rubber meets the road,” Deacon Ward said. “Many people see us at the altar on Sundays, but that is actually a small part of what we do. My ministry has given me an opportunity to be humbled by those I serve, to see another side to them, and to receive so much more out of my spiritual life than what I can ever give back to them.”

Deacon DuPont agrees. “The ministry itself enriches the minister, as well as those who are ministered to,” he said. “It’s not a job, but is beneficial for our own spiritual lives. It’s about matching the God-given gifts of each deacon with the ministry and service that the Church needs.”

Since Church continues to change and grow in need, the Permanent Diaconate Ministry works with the ordained deacons, as well as their wives and families, in coordinating continuing education, retreats, assignments, exchange of information, meetings, support and other activities.