On the Call to the Diaconate
One day Eli was asleep in his usual place. His eyes had lately grown so weak that he could not see. The lamp of God was not yet extinguished, and Samuel was sleeping in the temple of the LORD where the ark of God was.
The LORD called to Samuel, who answered, “Here I am.”
He ran to Eli and said, “Here I am. You called me.” “I did not call you,” Eli answered. “Go back to sleep.” So he went back to sleep.
Again the LORD called Samuel, who rose and went to Eli. “Here I am,” he said. “You called me.” But he answered, “I did not call you, my son. Go back to sleep.” Samuel did not yet recognize the LORD, since the word of the LORD had not yet been revealed to him. The LORD called Samuel again, for the third time. Getting up and going to Eli, he said, “Here I am. You called me.” Then Eli understood that the LORD was calling the youth.
So he said to Samuel, “Go to sleep, and if you are called, reply, ‘Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.’” When Samuel went to sleep in his place, the LORD came and stood there, calling out as before: Samuel, Samuel! Samuel answered, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” (1 Samuel 3:3-10)
Over my decades in the service of the Church I have seen this kind of call and response played out in various ways many times. Too frequently, the one in Samuel’s role did not understand what was happening and did not have an “Eli” to help him understand.
The call to diaconal service is unique in that, unlike the call to the priesthood, there is no specific set of duties or service to which the one called is directed. To use an analogy, if a parent saw from a young age that their child had a gift for mathematics, they might encourage the child, directing their studies in that discipline. Similarly, if a child showed a gift for working with wood, the parents might encourage the child in carpentry. Calls to the priesthood generally come at a fairly early age, we are told. The young boy feels that call, and the parent hopefully encourages the boy in that direction.
The call to the diaconate is more complex, partially because deacons are called to serve the people of God, not just sacramentally, not just inside parish or diocesan structures, but in an infinite variety of ways. To make things even more confusing, many of the ways in which the deacon is called by God to serve can and are being accomplished through committed lay persons. The question often asked by those discerning a call to the diaconate is: “Why do I need to be ordained at all? I can serve the Lord and his people without that added grace.”
Rhetorically, we could ask the same question of a person who has found faith in Christ our Savior through a personal encounter or invitation from another Christian. Why should that person, who can go to Mass, hear the word of God, and carry the Word into the world, become baptized? Each sacrament provides its unique grace. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church says:
Celebrated worthily in faith, the sacraments confer the grace that they signify. They are efficacious because in them Christ himself is at work: it is he who baptizes, he who acts in his sacraments in order to communicate the grace that each sacrament signifies. The Father always hears the prayer of his Son's Church which, in the epiclesis of each sacrament, expresses her faith in the power of the Spirit. As fire transforms into itself everything it touches, so the Holy Spirit transforms into the divine life whatever is subjected to his power. (CCC 1127)
For those of us who have answered the call and gone through formation and ordination, I will answer the discerners who still ask that question. What happens with ordination is remarkable. The spirit of service is infused with strength and the Holy Spirit finds new power within the one so transformed. The grace of diaconal service comes alive in a new way.
All of this is wonderful but the basic question must still be answered: Is the call to the diaconate genuine or is it just a compulsion to be more visible in ministry? Is it the frustration of one who thought earlier in life he may have had a call to the priesthood, but found instead a vocation to married life? How does one know the call is from God?
Then the LORD said: Go out and stand on the mountain before the LORD; the LORD will pass by. There was a strong and violent wind rending the mountains and crushing rocks before the LORD—but the LORD was not in the wind; after the wind, an earthquake—but the LORD was not in the earthquake; after the earthquake, fire—but the LORD was not in the fire; after the fire, a light silent sound.*
When he heard this, Elijah hid his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. A voice said to him, Why are you here, Elijah? (1 Kings 19:11-13)
It would be wonderful if God spoke to us clearly and said: “This is what I would like you to do for me.” Very few people get this level of direct instruction. Most of us struggle to understand what God wants from us and many times we only see God’s fingerprints long after he touched us. Making things even worse, the call can be a moving target. Like conversion the call changes over time. As we come to understand the Lord, working hard to understand him through prayer, the sacraments, and scripture, we see his will more clearly. It is like looking into a mirror. From a distance we see an image and the image may look pretty good. As we get closer, we start to see flaws, things that could be done better. The closer we draw the more imperfections we see. So, discernment does not stop with ordination. It is a constant effort.
When Should the Call be answered?
Before birth the LORD called me, from my mother’s womb he gave me my name.
He made my mouth like a sharp-edged sword, concealed me, shielded by his hand. He made me a sharpened arrow, in his quiver he hid me. He said to me, you are my servant, in you, Israel, I show my glory. (Isaiah 49 1b-3)
The Church in her wisdom has said that Permanent Deacons must be at least 35 years old to be ordained. In a secular vocation, a 35-year-old is well into his career and has generally established himself in his profession. It is also in that early career that advanced training is undertaken to further these pursuits and to gain skills that will serve them throughout their lives. Most are married and have been in mature relationships for over five years and have a mature faith life. There is a saying among those who are involved in diaconal formation that: “Formation does not make deacons. Rather it finds deacons already serving in the Church, provides training, gives them sacramental grace in ordination, and them puts them back into their faith communities more able to fulfill Christ’s servant role in the world.”
There has been an unfortunate trend among many who are responsible for allowing individuals to enter formation for the diaconate to require men who feel called to this ministry to delay their formation until they no longer have children at home. The logic for these decisions has been, on the surface, paternalistic. The man called to serve the Church should not be distracted from his ministry in the domestic church, his home. He should therefore delay taking on the additional load of formation classes and ministerial service that follows until his family no longer needs his intense involvement in those formative years.
If this same attitude were held by professional managers and leaders in the secular environment, there would be few individuals who would take advanced degrees while working and no teachers, since they are required to take ongoing training while they work. Virtually all organizations recognize that individuals who have the aptitude and ability to assume greater responsibility in the organization should be given, even encouraged, to take on additional training to advance their worth to the organization.
Does this additional burden of taking classes while they are working and raising a family upset the balance necessary for good performance as an employee and good performance as a parent? In some cases, the individual bites off more than they can chew and needs to drop the course work or adjust priorities. In a vast majority of cases, especially in well-managed firms where there is vetting prior to allowing a person to take on the advanced load, the individual is successful and all parties benefit: the company has a more skilled employee, the family benefits from greater income, and the person is more fulfilled in their profession.
When a policy is developed in a diocese that says deacons should not be allowed to enter formation until later in life, when the demands of family are lessened (and even that is an assumption that is problematic), we are denying sacramental service to the Church from an individual at the peak of his physical and intellectual ability. The assumption made by those who establish the policy is that they know what is best for a man who, at 30 or more, has already established himself in a career, taken on the role of father to children and husband to a wife in the vocation of marriage.
Further, the formation process itself is a discernment process, for the aspirant/candidate and for the program leadership. There is plenty of opportunity to assess readiness issues, personal spirituality, and family situation. If during the process an individual finds himself in a situation where the active pursuit of a vocation should be delayed, there is a straightforward mechanism for that built into most formation programs. It is, after all, not unusual for a candidate or his family to experience some unexpected change that impacts ongoing pursuit of the vocation.
I have spoken to a number of deacons over the years (I was ordained at 36) and have spoken to a number of deacons who had wanted to pursue their vocation earlier in their lives but were told they needed to wait. In all cases, the deacon has said they regretted the time lost to ministry by being forced to delay. Those of us who were allowed into the program with children in the home found that our increased example was a help rather than a hindrance in developing our family spirituality.
It would be my strongest recommendation, as a deacon of over 30 years, as a human resources professional who has managed training and degree programs, and as a father and grandfather, to look at each situation individually, rather than making a blanket determination that does more harm than good about the criteria under which a man should be admitted to formation for the diaconate.
The Lord calls each person to serve as they are able. As servants of the Lord, we must be open to possibilities and let prayer guide us.
 Scripture texts in this work are taken from the New American Bible, revised edition © 2010, 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington, D.C. and are used by permission of the copyright owner. All Rights Reserved. No part of the New American Bible may be reproduced in any form without permission in writing from the copyright owner.