What does a deacon do?
The deacon is a man who is ordained to a ministry of service—as an emissary of the bishop and a servant leader who animates others to live out a life of service. With priests and bishops, he receives the Sacrament of Holy Orders. He is an ordained clergyman primarily living in the life style of the laity. Pope John Paul II said that, "the deacon is the Church's service sacramentalized. He is the visible sign of service to which all the baptized are called." There are three primary areas of diaconal ministry: Proclaiming the Word of God in the parish and marketplace; assisting the priest at Eucharist and presiding at devotions, services and the sacraments of baptism and matrimony; and being an animator of service in the parish and broader community in acts of charity and promoting social justice issues and initiatives. All three of these aspects—Word, Liturgy and Charity—are integral and essential to a deacon’s role.
I would like to work for the Church. Is a deacon a part-time or full-time position?
A permanent deacon assumes his ordained role 24/7 and is obligated to fulfill the three-fold aspects of diaconal ministry, daily structured prayer and correct Christian moral living while also engaged in his full-time family and job responsibilities. But the diaconate is neither a job nor a salaried position. It is ordained ministry manifested by answering God’s call to a vocation. Being invited and accepted into the aspirancy and candidate paths is not an invitation to a career change or career advancement. Employment and personal financial sustenance are a requirement for acceptance into the program.
How old do you need to be to apply?
An applicant has to be at least 31 years of age at time of application. The program is a minimum of four years in length and Canon law of the Catholic Church stipulates that a man must be at least 35 at the time of ordination to the permanent diaconate.
I think I will wait until I retire and then become a deacon. Is that OK?
In the Archdiocese of Chicago a man can be no older than 62 years of age at the time of application. A minimum of four years of ordained service to the archdiocese after ordination is required (deacons may retire at 70). Also, remember, a man must be financially self-sufficient to be a participant in the program. The average age of current participants in formation is approximately 50 (81% of current participants are under 60; 31% are under 50).
Is celibacy a requirement?
The definition of celibacy for the Church is in contrast to a secular definition. Celibacy refers to the station in life of not being married. Applicants to the program may be either single or married. The secular world adapts a definition of celibacy that centers on sexual conduct. The Church utilizes the word ‘chastity’ when referring to the correct moral behavior and conduct based on divine, natural and Catholic moral law that all Christians need to faithfully follow. Chastity—correct moral conduct and behavior—pertains to all the baptized, whether single or married. Ordained clergy, in a particular way, are public people whose lives must always faithfully reflect all aspects of Catholic moral teaching.
Do I need a college degree to apply?
An applicant to the program needs, minimally, a GED. A college degree is not required. All formation and academics in the program are taught at the undergraduate college level.
The four-year program appears structured and time-consuming with many obligations. What if I need time to think about the concept of ‘vocation’ and my readiness before assuming the obligations of the first year (aspirancy)?
When you first begin hearing the Holy Spirit calling you to consider a vocation to the permanent diaconate you are an ‘inquirer.’ This is a specific period of time before considering potential application. Those individuals who are experiencing the first signs of a vocation are encouraged to bring into dialogue and prayer their initial feelings and thoughts about a vocation with spouse, family and pastor. The Institute for Diaconal Studies (IDS) believes these first steps are crucial and that—for some—an extended period of inquiry can be helpful before considering application and obligations of aspirancy (first year in the program). The program assists all individuals in this inquiry path and supports pastors in their role by offering structured elements of prayer and discernment. Establishing a solid relationship with a sponsoring pastor and parish is necessary during this inquiry path. Applications may only be requested and submitted by a sponsoring pastor.
Discernment of a vocation is a life-long process and receives particular attention during the formation journey.
What is aspirancy? And is the entire program for four years or longer?
The formation program leading to potential ordination to the permanent diaconate is minimally a four-year journey. The first year is referred to as ‘Aspirancy’ - individuals aspiring to become a ‘candidate’ in formation. After aspirancy there are a minimum of three years of formation referred to as candidacy. Program content is mandated through documents established by the norms of the Holy See (Vatican 1998) and a directory issued by the bishops in the United States referred to as the National Directory for the Formation, Ministry, and Life of Permanent Deacons in the United States—USCCB 2005 (National Directory for short). Because of these mandates/obligations, many dioceses have programs that extend beyond the minimum four years. IDS of the Archdiocese of Chicago has transitioned gradually since 2006 to comply with the National Directory and because of this strategy faithfully and successfully maintains the Chicago program at four years.
What about tuition and books? What if I can’t afford it?
The archdiocese pays for about half the tuition costs, and your sponsoring parish is expected to pay the other half. Applicants are responsible for costs of books, spiritual direction, transportation and fees. Limited scholarships and financial aid may be available upon pastor written aid application.
I’ve been out of school for awhile. Are classes difficult?
Classes are equivalent to college courses (undergraduate) and are taught in an adult user-friendly, yet, challenging style. Good reading and writing skills are paramount as is the ability to articulate orthodox (Catholic Christian) theological knowledge. Initiative, ability to research and resource, as well as extract foundational knowledge through classroom participation and diligence toward assignments are the hallmarks of a successful candidate. Students are held accountable through various outcomes/assessment instruments.
Also, when a participant becomes a candidate (after a year of aspirancy) he is assigned a ‘Candidate Advisor,’ an ordained deacon who will walk the entire candidate path with the participant. If necessary, a ‘Formation Guide’ may be assigned to help with study and test-talking.
Can I make up classes if I am sick or have another emergency?
Generally, yes. But the participant is expected to make arrangements to complete any missed assignments necessary to meet program requirements.
Once I am accepted into the program, does that mean I’ll be ordained in four years?
The Aspirancy Path year and three years of Candidacy constitute a period and process of discernment and evaluation of a man’s call to ordained ministry. In addition to call, one must always pray over another question: Is this the right time for me to continue in formation? As noted previously, the added demands of formation present challenges. Health issues, caring for children, and assisting elderly parents are just some points for reflection. Occasionally, participants must step back for a time to address issues and priorities in their personal lives. However, acceptance into the program in no way confers a right to ordination.
My pastor has mentioned that with my extensive parish ministry experience and college and graduate-level background, I should be ordained rather quickly. Are you saying that even though I have an advanced degree and have also worked in a parish environment for a long time I would still be required to attend classes and formation for all four years?
Yes. Extended time in formation geared toward ordained ministry, and, particularly the diaconate, is necessary to prepare a person spiritually, intellectually and emotionally for the rigors and demands on the ordained. For most, this also means acquiring a new set of skills acclimated to this precise ministry. In the case of a person already possessing an advanced degree in theology (Master, Doctorate), academic class work is evaluated and in some cases credit is recorded for previous successful study. This does not, however, affect the four-year timeline. Students with advanced theological degrees are still required to participate fully in four years of formation.
Will new deacons be automatically assigned to their own parish?
A deacon is ordained for the archdiocese. The current norm usually assigns a newly-ordained deacon to his sponsoring parish—which may, or may not, be the deacon’s home/residential parish. The Bishop, however, always remains free to make assignments based on archdiocesan need. In consultation with the pastor, and with input from wife and family, duties are determined and a ministry agreement is signed with the parish.
If ordained, will I be transferred to a different parish in the future?
As stated in the previous query, deacons are ordained for the archdiocese and not for one particular parish. Generally, first assignments are with the sponsoring parish. A current norm is that deacons ordained for ten years and under the age of 62 will be assigned to a different parish. This is similar to what occurs with priests. These transfers are for the positive welfare of the clergyperson and the communities they serve. For deacons being reassigned, efforts are made to ensure that travel distances are manageable and the needs of the new community are met and the skills of the deacon are appropriately utilized. Wives are an integral part of the dialogue in this process.
Can an ordained deacon marry if his wife predeceases him?
A discipline of the Latin Rite is that deacons cannot get married once ordained. On a case-by-case basis, widowed deacons with minor children may apply to Rome for a dispensation to marry. This is the exception and not the rule, however, and offers no guarantee.
Since single permanent deacons cannot marry after ordination can I get married while studying for the permanent diaconate?
A candidate for Holy Orders who is unmarried makes a promise to a lifetime of chastity and celibacy (celibacy refers to the state of being not married). If a candidate were to enter the Sacrament of Matrimony during the candidacy years he would be asked to step back from the program for a minimum of three years. This period provides further discernment for both the candidate and IDS. Issues regarding family life, age, wife’s consent, etc. would need to be evaluated before consideration of potential re-entry to the program.
What kind of salary can I expect after ordination?
The permanent deacon is not a salaried position within the Archdiocese of Chicago. It is a calling—an invitation from God to a life of Christian service. In its noblest form it exemplifies stewardship as a lived reality. In some cases, deacons assume roles within parishes that are a salaried position, e.g., Business Manager, DRE, Youth Minister and Pastoral Associate. Those positions follow the personnel guidelines of the archdiocese. As mentioned in a previous query, being invited and accepted into inquiry, aspirany or candidacy is not an invitation to a career change or career advancement. Employment and personal financial sustenance are a requirement for acceptance into the Candidacy Path.
I have heard that the deacon is distinctively different from a priest—as is the academic tract and formation. Is this true? And can a permanent deacon move forward to priesthood?
The Sacrament of Holy Orders is three-fold: deacon, priest, bishop. In reality, the permanent diaconate lives up to its name—permanent. The Second Vatican Council desired a distinct and permanent order. Although the permanent deacon receives the Sacrament of Holy Orders, the formation and academic path is distinct from the priesthood path and the role and function of a deacon —post-ordination—is distinct from a priest. The United States Bishop’s Conference has stated that a path to priesthood from the permanent diaconate is not the norm and in only rare instances should the potential be considered.
At a lower level of the hierarchy are deacons, upon whom hands are imposed "not unto the priesthood, but unto a ministry of service."(74*) For strengthened by sacramental grace, in communion with the bishop and his group of priests they serve in the diaconate of the liturgy, of the word, and of charity to the people of God. It is the duty of the deacon, according as it shall have been assigned to him by competent authority, to administer baptism solemnly, to be custodian and dispenser of the Eucharist, to assist at and bless marriages in the name of the Church, to bring Viaticum to the dying, to read the Sacred Scripture to the faithful, to instruct and exhort the people, to preside over the worship and prayer of the faithful, to administer sacramentals, to officiate at funeral and burial services. Dedicated to duties of charity and of administration, let deacons be mindful of the admonition of Blessed Polycarp: "Be merciful, diligent, walking according to the truth of the Lord, who became the servant of all."(75*)
Since these duties, so very necessary to the life of the Church, can be fulfilled only with difficulty in many regions in accordance with the discipline of the Latin Church as it exists today, the diaconate can in the future be restored as a proper and permanent rank of the hierarchy. It pertains to the competent territorial bodies of bishops, of one kind or another, with the approval of the Supreme Pontiff, to decide whether and where it is opportune for such deacons to be established for the care of souls. With the consent of the Roman Pontiff, this diaconate can, in the future, be conferred upon men of more mature age, even upon those living in the married state. It may also be conferred upon suitable young men, for whom the law of celibacy must remain intact.
Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, November 21, 1964