By Lou Baldwin

Special to The CS&T

The Permanent Diaconate program of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, which had suspended accepting new admissions in October 2009, has been reopened for new candidates, Cardinal Justin Rigali announced Jan. 7.

“I am pleased to announce at this time that the plan for the incorporation of the Permanent Diaconate program into the mission of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary has been formally completed and the process of admission to the Permanent Diaconate program has been restored, this month (January 2011),” the Cardinal said in a letter sent to all priests and deacons of the Archdiocese.

There are two types of ordained deacons: transitional deacons who are usually ordained during their final seminary year before priesthood; and permanent deacons, an ancient order revived after the Second Vatican Council. {{more}}

Permanent deacons usually assist in parishes in such functions as preaching and teaching, visiting the sick, presiding at burial services and performing baptisms, as well as other administrative and charitable duties. Priestly duties they cannot perform include celebrating Mass and hearing confessions.

In the Philadelphia Archdiocese permanent deacons may only preside at the weddings of immediate family members. At the time of their ordination they are given their clerical assignment by the Cardinal, in most cases to their parish of residence, but sometimes to another parish with greater need.

Most permanent deacons are married men but a small percentage of them are single.

At this time the Archdiocese has 243 active permanent deacons, according to Deacon James T. Owens, who is director of the Office for Permanent Deacons and dean of the Permanent Diaconate spanision of St. Charles Seminary.

Although no new candidates to the formation program were admitted last year, in the Philadelphia Archdiocese it is a six-year process, and at this time 83 men are in formation, Deacon Owens said.

Also at this time there are 70 men who have expressed interest, but are not yet in the program, he said. Letters have been sent to the men inviting them to informational meetings at St. Charles Seminary, either on the evening of Jan. 27 or Feb. 3. (Those attending these meetings must preregister by calling 610-664-2213.)

Philadelphia’s first permanent deacons were 16 men from the Hispanic community ordained in 1981. The following year six men from the African-American community were ordained, and since 1986 deacons from various ethnicities have been ordained annually.

In 2008 Cardinal Rigali appointed a committee chaired by Msgr. Gregory J. Parlante to review the program and make recommendations on how it could be structured to best conform with norms issued by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Clergy.

“The program was excellent, but his Eminence wanted to be sure deacons were well prepared both academically and spiritually,” said Msgr. Parlante, who is associate to the Vicar for the Clergy for the Permanent Diaconate.

The committee studied the program for approximately a year and a half before presenting its findings to the Cardinal. The admissions program was then temporarily suspended for this past year while the recommendations as approved by the Cardinal were put into effect.

Among its recommendations was that diaconate formation, which was a free-standing program, should become a spanision of St. Charles Seminary, joining the existing College, Theology and Religious Studies spanisions, with a faculty appointed by the seminary.

“I’m absolutely pleased with the result,” Msgr. Parlante said. “We have a seminary that knows how to form men, and it will take over the formation piece of the diaconate.”

The archdiocesan permanent diaconate program remains a six-year process including an initial aspirancy year, which will focus on fundamentals of diaconal spirituality and ministry.

The next five years will include more theology courses than in the past, with some Monday classes in addition to the present Wednesday classes. Although plans are not finalized, a goal is for those candidates who enter with a bachelor’s degree to achieve a master’s degree in theology. Those who do not have formal academic credentials will receive a certificate in diaconal ministry.

In addition to their formal studies spreading over two annual semesters, the candidates will participate in workshops and days of recollection.

Because the minimum age for ordination to the permanent diaconate is 35, new candidates should be at least 29 years of age but ordinarily not over 50 at the time of application.

Christopher Roberts, a member of Our Mother of Consolation Parish in the Chestnut Hill section of the city, is among the men who have expressed interest in exploring the possibility of becoming a permanent deacon.

“God is at work in the world, calling and gathering a people to Himself, and I would like to help us all understand our own lives within this larger perspective,” he said. “Several priests and many friends have been suggesting for years that I consider the diaconate, so I feel obliged to at least take the process seriously, and throw myself open to the possibility that the Church might want me to serve in this way. It is not up to me – I am happy to offer myself to the process, and I am relieved that is all I have to do. The rest is up to God and the Church.”

Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.