Men in diaconal formation discover their calling in serving the marginalized
October 21, 2022
The 10 men preparing to be ordained as permanent deacons next spring are doing more than studying.
They’re seeking out people – many who would be considered on the margins of society – helping the poor and homeless, evangelizing strangers on the streets, advising people spiritually. They’re also preparing couples for marriage, bringing Holy Communion to the elderly and sponsoring people going through the marriage annulment process.
The men – and often their wives – are embracing the archdiocese’s vision of being one Church: encountering Jesus, equipping disciples and living mercy.
It’s that “living mercy” part of the vision that has been increasingly emphasized for the men who will be ordained into a vocation of service, said Deacon Tim McNeil, chancellor of the archdiocese and director of the permanent diaconate.
They are called to serve their parishes by proclaiming the Gospel, assisting at Mass, facilitating some sacraments and leading prayer. But they also serve the wider community, especially those most in need.
“Deacons in the archdiocese witness daily to the archbishop’s vision of living mercy,” said Deacon McNeil.
“Deacons need the appropriate formation and training before they put themselves close to human suffering and proclaim the Gospel where it is absent,” he said.
And that formation is made possible through the generosity of the faithful to the Archbishop’s Annual Appeal, which helps fund diaconal formation and allows both deacons and those in formation to reach the marginalized.
The campaign’s goal this year is to raise $4.9 million to help fund multiple essential ministries throughout the archdiocese. (See note below.)
Two years ago, Deacon McNeil added a pastoral formation component to the formation program, with the expectation that the men serve the least of their brethren, said Dan Buck, a deacon candidate in formation from St. Gerald Parish in Ralston.
“I was kind of like ‘Oh boy, that’s a lot on top of everything,’” he said. “But … I thank Deacon Tim for doing that because it really pushed all of us into places that just aren’t in our normal day-to-day lives unless we step outside of our comfort zones and go to those places.”
“It really opened my eyes to people who just have had different opportunities, different life paths,” Buck said. “It’s just a great opportunity to be with them, pray with them and accompany them.”
Buck has served with fellow deacon candidate Pat Dempsey, of St. Columbkille Parish in Papillion, at the Stephen Center homeless shelter in south Omaha and in evangelizing through a downtown Omaha street ministry.
SHARING FAITH, HELPING OTHERS
Buck’s passion for the pro-life cause and for the Alpha evangelization program also led him to help start Alpha at the Bethlehem House maternity home in Omaha.
He invited another person in the diaconate program, Craig Martin of St. Robert Bellarmine Parish in Omaha, to join him.
The men, together with family members and others, are wrapping up a course that involves about 20 women, all Bethlehem House residents or graduates.
The Alpha group gathers for a weekly meal, watches a short video and breaks into smaller groups for discussion.
“We have a nice discussion about things that are most important in life, who God is, what he does for us,” said Buck, who serves with his wife, D’Lynn and son Joe Buck, also a St. Gerald parishioner.
Martin said it’s important to him that his wife, Brenda, can work with him in helping others.
Besides serving with the Alpha program, the couple volunteers at Catholic Charities’ Juan Diego Center in south Omaha, helping to unload and sort about 300 bags of groceries collected at St. Robert Parish each month. The food drives are organized by the parish’s Knights of Columbus council.
The Martins also have helped a couple prepare for marriage and will be doing more of that work in their parish, the husband said. “It’s just been a wonderful opportunity to work together and bring folks more deeply into the faith.”
Martin also offers a Communion service once a month at Brighton Gardens, a retirement community in Omaha.
“They’re so thankful and appreciative,” Martin said of the residents. “It’s just wonderful.”
Deacon McNeil has stressed to the men in formation not to get too overwhelmed in their service, Martin said.
“There’s always going to be a need,” the deacon has told his class. “So, find something that you want to do, that you’re interested in.”
MERCY BEGINS AT HOME
Diaconal formation emphasizes that “before men become good deacons they first have to be good husbands, and if they’re blessed with children, good fathers,” said Dan Deluca, one of the men in formation and a member of St. Peter Parish in Omaha.
“So, the call to live out mercy really starts there in the home, with how you approach your wife and your children. They should be the first people that you minister to as a deacon.”
That priority is important for Deluca and his wife, Hope, who have five children ages 12 and under.
“Outside of that, the biggest thing that I do on a regular basis in terms of living mercy is my prayer life,” he said. “Everything we do as Catholics should begin and end in prayer, because the Lord is the source and summit of everything we do.”
The formation he receives in spirituality and prayer is the basis of the call to mercy “to make sure that we are in tune with the Lord, with the Holy Spirit, and that we’re allowing him to guide us and show us those folks out in the world who are in need of his love and mercy,” he said. “When we invite him in, he’s going to make those opportunities very apparent to us.”
Deluca helps with the St. Vincent de Paul Society’s ministry at St. Peter, which is situated in one of the poorest areas of the city. “So, we have a lot of individuals who come to us and need assistance,” he said.
He interviews those seeking assistance for rent, utilities or other aid. “I’ll meet with them and talk with them, try to understand what their situation is and figure out what it is that we’re able to help with.”
He said he started working in the ministry before his second year of diaconal formation.
“What I’ve noticed is as I’ve gone through formation and my prayer life has deepened, I began to see in those individuals that their material needs are only a portion of what we need to minister to. Most of the time, if not always, you see that their spiritual needs are far greater than their needs from a material perspective.”
Deluca said he talks to people about how they are behind on their electric bill: “How did you get there? What is your plan?” But he also tries “to figure out where they are spiritually, taking opportunities to pray with them and inviting the Lord into those conversations.” His ultimate goal is to get them to consider coming to Mass.
‘GO OUT ON A LIMB’
Deluca also serves as a spiritual advisor for the nearly 40 members of the St. Vincent de Paul conference at St. Peter. “In that role, I’m responsible for ministering to the needs of our conference members to help them grow in spirituality.”
Growing in holiness is foundational for a member of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, he said. “One of the ways we express that growth is through our service to the poor, but our primary objective at the conference is for the members to grow in holiness and hopefully answer that universal call to holiness and become saints.”
Family members help with the St. Vincent de Paul ministry, including his older children who assist at the food pantry.
“We try to figure out a lot of things we can do together, which is fun. … We try to make it a family effort as much as possible,” Deluca said. “That’s been a great blessing for them to be able to do that.”
Living mercy – being Christ’s hands, eyes and feet – has a unique place in the lives of the ordained, he said. “But obviously living mercy is something that all of us are called to.
“I would just encourage everybody to jump into that vocation and don’t be afraid to listen to the Lord’s promptings. Watch what he does with you,” Deluca said.
“He’ll put you where he wants you. You’ve just got to be willing to go out on a limb. … The fruit that it bears is amazing. … I’m just always in awe of how he works and what he does.”
NOTE: The diaconal formation program is a four-year process focusing on four dimensions of formation: human, spiritual, intellectual and pastoral. It includes formal education, spiritual direction and practical ministry. After the first year of formation, wives may voluntarily attend all of the formation sessions, attend retreats and support their husbands in whatever way their schedule allows.
The formation program is one of many archdiocesan ministries and programs supported by the Archbishop’s Annual Appeal, such as: Catholic Charities; professional development for faculty and tuition assistance for students in Catholic schools; assistance for individuals and families in crisis; training for lectors and extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion; marriage preparation and family enrichment programs; support for priests; religious education; and adult and youth formation. The 2022-2023 Annual Appeal began last month and runs through June 2023. Leading the campaign this year are Deacon Steve and Sharon Doran of St. Margaret Mary Parish in Omaha and Neil and Becky Pfeifer of Sacred Heart Parish in Norfolk.