Oct. 8, Deacon Day, will mark the 30th anniversary of the permanent diaconate in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. Sixteen Hispanic men were the first ordained in 1981; the following year six African-American men joined their ranks.
Just three decades later, the Church of Philadelphia can boast 268 permanent deacons; 207 are active in the Archdiocese, 11 are externs serving in another diocese, 45 are retired, three are inactive due to illness and two are members of religious orders.
The number is not likely to diminish. “We have 78 men in formation,” said Deacon James T. Owens, director of the Department of Permanent Deacons, who himself was ordained in 1999.
“I believe the program is flourishing because of the pastoral needs of the Archdiocese,” he said. “The Holy Spirit is nudging men to respond to the call for diaconal service. My belief is that men formed as deacons are competent helpers in the vineyard with a great desire to assist the priests.”
Most permanent deacons are also active in the secular world in a variety of professions. Some might actually work for the Church, perhaps as parish business managers or pastoral assistants. In their sacred duties, they may assist the priest at Mass, preach, baptize, and conduct wakes and graveside services.
It is really a three-fold ministry of the Word, the altar and charity, Owens said. They preach the Word through faith formation, they assist the priest on the altar, and charity, which is the real reason the diaconate was established during apostolic times, means going out into the community.
“We encourage all deacons to find an area of service in charitable works,” Deacon Owens said.
The Archdiocese of Philadelphia accepts candidates for the diaconate between the ages of 29 and 50, Deacon Owens explained. The minimum age is because permanent deacons must be 35 to be ordained; and upon acceptance there is a year of discernment followed by five years of formation. Candidates can be married or single, but as a practical matter, most men who apply are married. Of the men currently in formation, only two are single.
Some enter the program because of the example of a deacon or deacons they have known; many enter at the encouragement of their pastor, but none are accepted without their pastor’s approval.
Back in 1981 and 1982 the first permanent deacons ordained were drawn from the Hispanic and African-American communities primarily because there were very few priests in the Archdiocese from these communities. The need is still there.
“The greatest need is in the inner city; most who are applying are from the suburbs,” Deacon Owens said. “We need more workers in the vineyard.”
Deacon Victor Gonzalez came to the mainland from Puerto Rico in 1966, and settled in West Chester, not Philadelphia, but it did have a sizable Hispanic population. As a youth he’d considered the priesthood but decided against it.
In the States Gonzalez married and became the father of three, and he is active in both the Legion of Mary and Cursillo. It was on a trip back to Puerto Rico that he became acutely concerned over the dearth of priests to minister to the people.
Back home Gonzalez talked with his pastor at St. Agnes, Msgr. Thomas Craven, who also was in charge of Hispanic apostolate for the Archdiocese.
Some dioceses had already introduced permanent deacons for Hispanic ministry, why not Philadelphia?” he asked.
Msgr. Craven took the proposal to Cardinal John Krol, who agreed to try it. When the program opened up, Gonzalez was one of the first to apply. He was in that first class, and although recently retired from his engineering job, he is still actively serving as a deacon with St. Agnes.
“I assist at services, I preach every other week, I visit the sick, I do pre-Jordan and baptisms, and I work with all the Spanish groups,” he said.
As Deacon Gonzalez sees it, “being a deacon is like being a bridge between the rest of the clergy and the people. A deacon is a person out there in the community.”
Married permanent deacons very much consider their wives as helpmates in their ministry. Cruzita Gonzalez, Deacon Gonzalez’s wife, is a good example of that. “I think it is very good to work for the Church,” she said. “I go to prayer meetings with him. I’m in the Spanish choir and we go together to hospitals to visit the sick.”
All the permanent deacons and their wives are invited to a 4 p.m. Mass celebrated by Archbishop Chaput Saturday, Oct. 8 in St. Martin’s Chapel at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, with a dinner following.
Although this will be Philadelphia’s new archbishop’s first opportunity to meet his deacons en masse, he already has a deep appreciation for the work they do.
During a Denver convention of the National Association of Permanent Deacons, he said one of the key reasons the U.S. bishops advanced in asking the Holy See to restore the permanent diaconate after Vatican II was to provide an impetus for the Church to adapt to the changing needs of society.
“It’s a privilege for priests and bishops to serve alongside our deacons and draw strength from their unselfish witness to charity,” Archbishop Chaput said. “Deacons embody a special commitment to servanthood as a keystone of the entire ordained ministry.”