When the first permanent deacons began serving in the Diocese of Rochester in 1982, many people did not understand what their roles were, recalled Deacon Edward R. Sergeant.
Now, it’s now clear that deacons are appreciated, said Deacon Sergeant, speaking after an April 28 Mass celebrating the 25th anniversary of the permanent diaconate. The Mass at Sacred Heart Cathedral featured deacons, their families, priests, friends and Bishop Matthew H. Clark.
“Today was absolutely beautiful,” said Deacon Sergeant, parish deacon for Our Lady of the Lakes Catholic Community in the Finger Lakes and full-time chaplain for the Finger Lakes Developmental Disabilities Services Office. “What a wonderful way to celebrate and be recognized for 25 years of service.”
During his homily, Bishop Clark thanked deacons and their spouses for the work they have done during the past quarter century. He noted that deacons are involved in many ministries including serving the incarcerated, the unemployed, those with chronic illnesses and those caught in the cycles of poverty and violence.
During the Mass, deacons renewed their commitment to diaconal service and lit candles of remembrance for deceased members of the diaconal family. Since 1982, 167 deacons have been ordained and 23 have died, Bishop Clark said.
Deacons celebrating their 25th anniversaries of ordination received stoles handmade by Rebecca Cadregari, wife of Deacon David Cadregari. Each stole took more than 12 hours to make, said Deacon David Palma, director of the Office of Deacon Personnel. Deacon Raymond Defendorf, who is a member of the first class of deacons, wrote a recessional song, “Sent to Serve,” for the occasion. Hymns were sung in English, Spanish and Latin, and the Mass was interpreted for the deaf.
“It gave me the gift of tears,” Deacon Leo Kester, a member of the first diaconal class, said of the Mass. “It was a great spiritual moment.”
“Me, too,” agreed his wife, Helen. “We’re both crying.”
The deacons also presented a plaque expressing their appreciation to Bishop Clark, who recalled meeting the first diaconal classes after his installation as bishop. Later he learned that the diaconal candidates had been worried that he would cancel the program.
“I can tell you now 25 years later that never crossed my mind in the slightest,” Bishop Clark said.
Calling the program a big step in the life of the church, the bishop said that during the past 25 years, the permanent diaconate has been beautifully integrated into the diocese and that the deacons have laid a deep and strong foundation here for the program.
“I do honestly say to you, in the best of my vision, you have earned the respect and esteem of the lay faithful, of the priests of this diocese and of the pastoral administrators,” Bishop Clark said.
The permanent diaconate, which differs from the transitional diaconate to which priests in formation are ordained, was proposed by the late Bishop Joseph L. Hogan in his 1975 pastoral letter “You are Living Stones,” which called for the permanent-diaconate program to begin in two years.
Those tasked with carrying out that directive included Father Sebastian Falcone, who headed up the task force to create the permanent-diaconate program, and the permanent diaconate’s first codirectors, the late Msgr. George Cocuzzi and the late Sister of Mercy Mary Hilaire Gaelens.
“I knew (our program) had the potential, but I never thought that it would be fully realized as it is today,” Father Falcone said.
After two years of work, the diaconal task force compiled its results in a booklet called “I Have Come to Serve,” which outlined the diaconal program and detailed many of the complications that arose as the program evolved, Father Falcone said.
“Of the seven directors of the program, three of them have been called to serve on the (leadership of the National Association of Deacon Directors), so we know we did something right,” he noted.
Deacon Palma noted that the diocese is marking the permanent diaconate’s anniversary by compiling its history.
Deacon Carlos Vargas, who recalled how Sister Gaelens called the deacons “her boys,” said the celebration, which was combined with the diaconal convocation, was a great chance for deacons to get together and reminisce.
“It was a wonderful liturgy, and it’s great having everyone here,” he said.
Members of the first class of deacons have continued to contribute to the diaconal community as a whole. Deacon Daniel Pavlina, who serves the Schuyler Catholic Community and is also president of the St. Stephen’s Diaconal Community Association, cited the example of Deacon George Welch, who organizes prayer opportunities for the association.
Both veteran deacons and diaconal candidates say they are ready to serve whenever, wherever.
“It’s a question of responding to God’s call,” Deacon Bill Lenhart of St. Leo Parish in Hilton said of being a permanent deacon. He said two of the highlights of his diaconal service have been baptizing two of his granddaughters and officiating at his son’s wedding in June of 2006.
David Squilla, who is in the diaconal-formation program, said he had heard about the diaconate years ago but waited until after his kids were grown to take part. This year, he is working at the Rochester Psychiatric Center.
“I have never dealt with people in a psychiatric center before,” said Squilla, who is serving at the psychiatric center under the guidance of Deacon Brian McNulty. “They have taught me more than I have taught them.”
Deacon McNulty said although people with mental illnesses need to feel connected to the community, often others avoid them.
“The first reaction is fear of the unknown,” Deacon McNulty said.
Betsy McDermott, the wife of Deacon John McDermott, said she was one of the final deacons’ wives to earn a master’s degree in theology as she and her husband went through diaconal training. She said spouses have the option of joining their husbands in ministry or creating their own ministries.
“Your husband is always busy, so you have to create your own ministry,” McDermott said. “People go to the person wearing the robe, so I get involved in things in the church other than what he’s involved in.”
Some of the deacon jubilarians also were looking forward to the future. On his 50th anniversary, Deacon Nemesio Martinez Vell√≥n noted that he will be 92.
“I look back 25 years, and say what an experience that was,” Deacon Martinez said.