Discerning the call

When 27 new permanent deacons made their vows in the sacrament of holy orders on June 30 to be witnesses to the Gospel through a life of service, it culminated four years of discernment, formation and training as part of their journey to ordination.

Becoming a deacon involves a vocation from God. A man becomes deacon not just out of personal desire or interest, but for the common good of the church as determined by the bishop.

For these reasons the selection, discernment and formation of deacon candidates are rigorous efforts. The entire formation process, in fact, is a journey of discernment, says Uli Schmitt, director of the diocesan Office of Clergy Formation since 2013.

Uli notes that through systematic opportunities for prayer, spiritual direction, formal online coursework, and homiletic and pastoral skills development, the deacon candidate over a four-year process is able to reflect critically on his life and the various ministries to which he might be assigned.

The 27 deacons are the first class to be ordained under the new formation program instituted in 2014. The program “is a transformation process for men and their families so they can grow into the heart, the ministry, the spirituality and the life of a deacon,” he says. While theological education is crucial, “the process is always grounded in spirituality and the spiritual life, not so much in academics. That was the first consideration, to find a better, deeper spiritual grounding in the process, to make sure that the spirituality we teach is not something that is just taught in a class, but experienced as they go through formation.”

The deacon candidates from the beginning are asked to discern their calling. “Discernment is a strong part of the process,” Uli says. “We provide tools not only to explain discernment, but practical experiences so the candidates learn how to discern better their calling to the diaconate and to the broader category of decision making in Christian life.”

The candidates “have to have the grace to be transformed. The initial challenge is that the deacon formation program is not something you can do on the side, not something you can do in addition to what you are already doing. It needs to be integrated into your life. The candidates have to show flexibility, openness and willingness to shift priorities and integrate an entirely new ministry and formation process into their existing family and professional lives.”

When the new formation program started four years ago, the diocese chose the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius “as the bedrock for our spiritual formation process,” Uli notes. “It’s an apostolic spirituality that’s required of the deacon and not contemplative in nature, but searching for God in all the world.”

A team of local experts trained in Ignatian spirituality, including Jesuit Father Michael Moynahan, pastor of St. Ignatius Parish, was formed to provide content and resources throughout the process and to accompany the deacon candidates. The candidates and their wives met for six weekend sessions each year at Christ the King Passionist Retreat Center in Citrus Heights. For academic learning, the candidates used the University of Notre Dame’s online STEP program for courses on their own, followed up by discussions during the weekend retreats.

The deacon candidates were guided through the Spiritual Exercises – normally spread over one month with a different theme each week – with one theme as the focus for each year of the four-year process. The theme presentations were four hours on the Saturday of each weekend gathering and included resources, questions, silent time for reflection, journaling and discussion.

Father Michael, who is in his ninth year as pastor of St. Ignatius Parish, previously taught theology and spirituality at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, Santa Clara University and Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash.

Using Ignatian spirituality “is deepening within the candidates their capacity as well as their desire for listening,” Father Michael notes. “To be effective in ministry, you need to listen, you need to be aware. I would also say, as St. Ignatius did, two of the most important virtues of humanity are gratitude and generosity. By sharing these themes from the Spiritual Exercises, deacons find the more aware they are, the greater their capacity to listen to what is going on within and around, the more that gratitude is deepened. As that is deepened, they will naturally want to respond generously in their ministries, whether in a parish, a pulpit or in spiritual accompaniment.”

As a member of the Ignatian spirituality team, Sister of Mercy Michelle Gorman interacted with the deacons’ wives for an hour and a half on each of the weekends. “The wives support their husbands and God speaks to them as well in particular ways,” notes Sister Michelle, who served on the Mercy West-Midwest leadership team from 2008 to 2013 and since 2013 has done retreat work while also being chaplain to the California State Senate.

 “We provided a separate space on the formation weekends for the wives to discuss their spiritual journeys,” she says. “We studied women in the Hebrew Scriptures and New Testament, women’s lives in the church and women’s spirituality. Many of the wives told me they saw the value of getting together as it gave them an opportunity to know each other and to share their experiences in a safe environment.”

Sister Michelle adds that the wives “discussed how they felt and the kinds of fears, anxieties, concerns and worries they had about how parishioners would possibly perceive them differently and how people might have new expectations of them. Some wives are already highly educated in theology and engaged in ministry and some are not. Some just want to live their lives as they have been doing. Various life situations happened over the course of the past three years, so all of that was brought to prayer and support of each other.”

Deacon Mark Holt of Holy Family Parish in Citrus Heights, who was ordained in 2004, and his wife Nilda also helped with the formation process, offering advice and relating practical experiences in pastoral ministry, as well as helping to mentor the new deacons and their wives.

The formation program “has matured to what it is today, growing and evolving as it has needed to,” Deacon Mark notes. “Someone told me years ago you need five years of ministry as a deacon to more fully grasp what it means to be a deacon. The five years provides the new deacon with the opportunity to grow and mature in his ministry, honing the skills he acquired during his formation. Although the five-year guideline seems to hold true for myself as well as for many new deacons, this class is as prepared spiritually, intellectually and personally as any deacons can be for what they are about to engage in.”

During each year of the formation process the deacons were engaged in field ministry according to diocesan priorities and pastoral ministry, Uli notes. This included ministry with the poor, visiting the sick and dying, ministering to the imprisoned, participating in ecumenical events and experiences, and working in multicultural ministry, branching out from their own ethnic and cultural traditions.

Bishop Jaime Soto “has emphasized that the deacons should take a stronger leadership role in ecumenism, and it’s also clear with the makeup of our parish communities that deacons need to be culturally competent,” Uli says.

The next class of candidates, who would be ordained in 2022, will include some 24 men and their wives, who will begin the formation process this month. The formation program now integrates English and Spanish-speaking candidates in one cohort. Uli notes that “all new deacons must be at a basic level bilingual and liturgically versed in English and Spanish.”

New candidates are made aware that even though they are members of a particular parish, they may not serve that parish after they are ordained. “That may happen and often it does, but deacons are placed where the diocese needs them to serve,” he says.

Uli sees the number of permanent deacons continuing to grow. “There’s a great need for deacons,” he says. “Bishop Soto has referred to them as his ‘native clergy.’ They provide stability to parish life and their ministry and bring great expertise. We also need them to serve as chaplains in prison ministry or hospitals, as well as in other diocesan roles. I’m excited about the potential of diaconal ministry in our diocese.”

A look at the formation program for permanent deacons

In the sacrament of holy orders, deacons are ordained for service, to fulfill a special role in the building up and activity of the local church.

The diocese’s formation program, which starts with an aspirancy period of one year, includes both the the aspirant and his wife. During this time emphasis is given to the discernment of the call to the diaconate. To aid this process of discernment, the study and reflection of basic Catholic teaching, Catholic spirituality, pastoral ministry and specifically diaconal service are emphasized.

The aspirancy period is followed by a three-year course of studies and pastoral experience. This program is designed to equip the candidate to the diaconate with the spiritual, theological, liturgical and pastoral skills for ministry as a deacon in the church.

For more specific details about becoming a permanent deacon, visit https://www.scd.org/clergy-formation/permanent-diaconate or call Uli Schmitt at 916.733.0244.

In photo above, Uli Schmitt, director of the diocesan Office of Clergy Formation, meets with Sister of Mercy Michelle Gorman, who worked with the wives of deacons during the formation process.

Catholic Herald Issue