Permanent diaconate brings Church to the secular world
May 27, 2021
Deacon Marty Crowley can relate to the challenges police officers face interacting with the public, given today’s highly charged atmosphere of racial tensions and civil unrest.
As a former police officer and police chief, he knows firsthand the need to treat people with respect and fairness, whether dealing with a lawbreaker or a pillar of the community.
That wasn’t emphasized at the police academy when he began in 1971. But Deacon Crowley, ordained in 1984, learned it from his Catholic faith and life as a deacon, both of which informed his career in law enforcement.
As the permanent diaconate marks the 50th anniversary of its establishment in the Omaha archdiocese, the Catholic Voice asked several deacons and leaders of the diaconate formation program to reflect on the role deacons play in bringing the mercy and love of God out into the world.
“I always felt like I took my diaconate to work with me,” said Deacon Crowley, now retired and a member of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish in Omaha. “It was a part of who I was, and the decisions I made were part of it.”
As an Omaha police sergeant, and later as deputy chief, Deacon Crowley was a coordinator of the department’s chaplaincy program.
And as police chief with Boys Town in Omaha, he had positive interactions with troubled youth there, who often hated police, he said. “I gave them a different view of a police officer.”
And that’s one of the countless ways deacons, and their witness of faith, have impacted their world.
SERVANTS OF CHARITY
Following the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI re-established the permanent diaconate as a public ministry in the Church in 1967.
Shortly thereafter, Omaha Archbishop Daniel E. Sheehan enlisted several clergy and lay people to study how deacons could provide expanded ministries to the Catholic faithful, said Deacon Tim McNeil, the archdiocese’s chancellor and, for the past year, director of the permanent diaconate.
“He saw it as an opportunity for ordained men to be closer, out into the world … dressed like everybody else, bringing the Gospel and being servants of charity.”
“We can go to the nooks and crannies that a bishop and a priest cannot, to bring the Church out into the world,” he said, “because we have a foot in both worlds.”
In this way, deacons are meant to accompany the afflicted and the poor – the materially, emotionally, physically, psychologically and spiritually poor – said Deacon McNeil, who was ordained in 2005.
And the need for an understanding of and an affinity for the poor played a role in the appointment of the diaconate’s first director, Father Patrick McCaslin, now retired, who had served at the former St. Therese of the Child Jesus Parish in north Omaha and at the Winnebago Indian Mission.
“I had no blueprint as to what to do with a deacon program,” he said. An early task was to recruit men with a history of ministry, which at the time was generally limited to distributing Communion, serving on parish councils, and participation in St. Vincent de Paul Society, Knights of Columbus and Legion of Mary chapters.
“I had to take what I thought lay ministry ought to be about, and so, my first concept was that we needed a good, strong community, and I built that early community on guidelines like Cursillo, meaning that we would have a common experience that gave us a great sense of unity and a great sense of mission.”
The first diaconate class of six men began a two-year program of study in September 1971, followed by one more year of formation after ordination. Since then, the diaconate formation program evolved into the four-year program it is today.
Deacons’ wives are now also included in the first year of formation, and may opt to attend all four years with their husbands, Deacon McNeil said.
“She’s there as a support, and to have the best understanding of the expectations of the journey and the life that he’s embarking upon, … and their own spirituality and prayer life really adds to the environment and helps to form everybody.”
Deacons often share ministries with their wives, such as Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, baptismal classes and marriage preparation.
A DEACON’S ROLE
Father McCaslin said the role of deacon was initially unclear, and viewed by some with suspicion or misunderstanding. “For the first four or five years, guys would get ordained, and the priests wouldn’t know what to do with them.”
As time went on, the deacon’s role blossomed to include numerous ministries such as assisting at Mass, proclaiming the Gospel, giving homilies, baptizing, leading Communion services, teaching Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, marriage preparation and baptismal classes, witnessing marriages, and conducting wake and funeral services.
And deacons now have a greater role in parish operations as staff members, given the declining numbers of priests, Deacon McNeil said.
But their role as servants of charity bringing Christ out into the community remains central, he said.
Over the years, deacons have done that in numerous ways, he said, such as conducting prison ministries, teaching the faith, serving the Hispanic community, accompanying people seeking marriage annulments, feeding the hungry, comforting the bereaved, visiting the elderly and homebound, and serving as police and fire chaplains, to name a few.
The personal connection is the key, said Deacon Kenneth Batenhorst of St. Mary Parish in West Point, who farms in the area and was ordained in 1996.
And as men who generally are married with families and careers, they are relatable, he said. People view the deacon as “one of us.”
Throughout his ministry, Deacon Batenhorst remained sensitive to the needs of the poor and disenfranchised.
“I keep an eye out for the forgotten,” Deacon Batenhorst said. “Every town has some people who don’t fit in, who are all alone. … Lately a lot of people just want to talk, so I try to speak less and listen more.”
As a servant of charity, a deacon is called to be selfless and to be a channel of God’s love and mercy, said Deacon James Keating, a deacon since 2001 who led the diaconate program from 2011 until joining the faculty at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary in St. Louis last year.
And so, deepening a man’s spirituality is a paramount goal of today’s formation program.
“We live in a time when those aspects of clerical formation are lacking in the normal course of life for American males,” he said. “To be anchored in prayer and emotional maturity is key to clerical ministry.
“A man must be fascinated with God and not with himself,” he said. “If he is so oriented, he can be free to listen for and to the pain of others.
“To alleviate this pain, the deacon pours the Gospel into open wounds, just like the Good Samaritan.”
CONFIGURED TO CHRIST
A deacon must be configured to the servant mysteries of Christ as found in Scripture, Deacon Keating said. “These mysteries of service, Christ’s own charity, are the substance of what is received at ordination, and each deacon needs to enact these mysteries in his ministry so that Christ continues to minister to his Church.”
As a cleric living in the secular world, “he is perfectly positioned to bring the power of the Gospel deep within the secular world,” he said.
Deacon McNeil said deacons also can serve as a bridge.
“The order (of deacons) was created to be the eyes and ears of the bishop,” he said, “and to bring to the bishop … what a man has learned and experienced out in the world.”
“Deacons can minister one-on-one themselves, or, by being those eyes and ears, can surface those other needs or help bring someone who needs something from the Church to whatever ministries or services that they need.”