Permanent deacons: Ancient history and modern service

Deacon Richard D’Angelo reads the Gospel at St. Gregory the Great Church in Bluffton on May 9. (Miscellany/Keith Jacobs)

Deacon Richard D’Angelo was ordained almost 30 years ago.

At that time, the permanent diaconate in the United States was still a new entity and people were resistant to the change.

Deacon D’Angelo, who serves at St. Gregory the Great in Bluffton, recalls a time early in his ministry when church members did not want deacons to perform any duties that, until then, had been handled only by priests.

He remembered taking Communion to a homebound parishioner who refused to accept the sacrament from him. He understood her feelings and was patient.

“We’re a very traditional church, and people like to hang on to tradition,” Deacon D’Angelo said.

He asked if he could come and visit with her, and after several weeks, she asked him to bring Communion the next time he came.

“It’s much more respected now. People even call me deacon on the golf course,” he said, chuckling lightly.

Deacon Richard D’Angelo reads the Gospel at St. Gregory the Great Church in Bluffton on May 9. (Miscellany/Keith Jacobs)Ancient origin
It was also respected in the beginning.

The diaconate dates back to apostolic times and flourished during the first four centuries of the church’s history, according to the History of the Permanent Diaconate at

The role of the deacon was all about service to members of the church, and his duties were performed in collaboration with the bishop and priests.

Specifically, the deacon in the early church had three tasks: assist in celebrating liturgy, give instructions in the faith and direct charitable work.

During the Middle Ages, the diaconate as permanent ministry disappeared. It was not restored until the Second Vatican Council in 1967.

Since that time, the ministry has flourished.

100 and counting
More than 100 permanent deacons serve the Diocese of Charleston with another 100 applicants on a waiting list.

Father Edward W. Fitzgerald, pastor of Divine Redeemer Church in Hanahan and director of diaconate formation, said a board is in the process of going through the list of candidates.

He said they will probably accept 30 to 35 men each year.

Deciding who is called first will depend on two factors: when the candidate applied and which parish they want to serve.

“Where the need is will be important,” Father Fitzgerald said.

During formation, men attend classes in a central location one weekend each month. It takes five years to finish all the courses, earn a degree and be ordained.

In the past, priests instructed deacons in the required classes. Because pastors have so many other duties, only one class of deacons could be taught at a time, which meant one class every five years.

Father Fitzgerald said they wanted to relieve the priests and find a way to have a new class each year, so the diocese decided to team with St. Leo University.

Selection process
Because the partnership with St. Leo is brand new, Father Fitzgerald said they are still hammering out specifics.

Generally, the plan is for the selection board to filter through the applications and call the first tier of prospects for an interview at a diocesan location, such as the chancery.

A second interview will take place in the home so board members can speak to the candidate’s wife and observe their family life, Father Fitzgerald said. The couple will also undergo a psychological evaluation.

Once the diocese has accepted him, he will apply to St. Leo. The diocese hopes to have a new class underway by Jan. 2011.

Father Fitzgerald said instruction by St. Leo professors will probably take place in Columbia.

Role of wives
Deacon Joseph F. Cahill said every wife is an integral part of the interview process because her consent, support and understanding of the diaconate ministry is essential to her husband’s success.

A man won’t even be allowed into the program if his family is opposed, said Deacon Cahill, director of the vocations office.

“Marriage came before the diaconate, and it has to continue to come first,” he said.

If a wife feels her husband is spending too much time away from the family, she can write a letter to the diaconate office, which will address the situation.

For this reason, Father Fitzgerald said wives are encouraged to participate in diaconate classes with their husbands. Couples should also attend retreats and engage in ministry together after ordination.

Deacon Charles LaRosa, who was ordained in 2007, said he and his wife Polly have always worked together in the church and enjoyed it. However, when he joined the diaconate, it took their spirituality to a new level.

“I can feel how close Christ has become to all of us. I can see Christ so clearly in the people I work with,” he said. “The whole concept of service takes on a fuller meaning when you become a deacon.”

What they do
Deacon LaRosa is director of outreach ministries at Our Lady of the Lake Church in Chapin. He said that covers a lot of territory, from feeding the poor to working with at-risk youth.

He also teaches confirmation classes, serves at the altar, and gives homilies.

“There’s a lot of flexibility in the ways deacons are used, depending on the parish,” Father Fitzgerald said. “Most of it is at the discretion of the pastor.”

The list of potential duties is extremely long, but what it boils down to is a return to their roots; to apostolic times. Deacons assist in celebrating the liturgy, educate people in the faith, and direct social outreach.

What it takes
A man interested in becoming a deacon should have the heart of a servant and be prepared to serve always in the manner of Jesus, Father Fitzgerald said.

“It’s a calling from God,” he stressed. “Being a deacon is not just a matter of wanting to belong to a club.”

Deacon D’Angelo said it was the fulfillment of a lifetime dream.

He said characteristics essential to a good deacon include patience, commitment, flexibility and a willingness to serve.

Age limits vary depending on the diocese, but generally start at 30 and cap at 55.

“Candidates should be mature in their faith,” Father Fitzgerald said. “Prayer life is important, and a good family life. We want someone who tries their best to live as Christ wants.”

Potential deacons must have a stable home life, strong employment history and experience serving others in the parish.

Education requirements call for a high school diploma at minimum, and applicants must submit to a medical exam.

Most importantly, Father Fitzgerald said, is the support of the parish priest. “Nobody will get in without this.”

In fact, the first step a man should take in the formation process is to speak to his pastor.

Discerning a calling
When Deacon LaRosa was considering the diaconate, he said he prayed constantly for guidance, and spoke to his family and priest.

Although he enjoyed his job as state director of the Vocational Rehabilitation Department, he said he always felt there was more he was supposed to do with his life.

“The more I looked at it and the more I prayed about it, the more I realized the diaconate was something I was called to do,” Deacon LaRosa said.

He said it has enriched his life beyond measure.