At first, Deacon Nemesio Martinez Vellón disliked working as a prison chaplain at Monroe County Jail in the early 1980s. He confided in a priest that he was hoping to be transferred out of the ministry.
But the priest suggested that he reconsider.
“He said, ‘It’s not where you like, it’s where the need is,’” Deacon Martinez said.
The young candidate for the permanent diaconate took those words to heart and wound up volunteering for about a decade as a Spanish-speaking chaplain at the jail. When a vacancy opened at the state-run Livingston County Correctional facility in Sonyea, Deacon Martinez offered to become a full-time chaplain there.
He said he now realizes that it takes a special person to minister to prisoners. His goal is to help those isolated from society to realize they are important in the eyes of God.
“Not too many people are called to that ministry,” he said.
Deacon Martinez said his experience was an example of what local permanent deacons do: They serve where the need is greatest. This year, that service will be honored as the Diocese of Rochester celebrates the 25th anniversary of the permanent diaconate’s establishment in 1982 as well as the jubilees of 18 men ordained in the first class of permanent deacons.
What is a deacon?
Although many deacons work in parish ministry, the focus of the permanent diaconate is on service, said Deacon David Palma, director of Deacon Personnel and director of deacon formation.
“The ministry of the diaconate is to bridge from the church into the world,” Deacon Palma said.
Permanent deacons differ from transitional deacons, the term for those who are ordained to the diaconate as a step in their formation for priesthood. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, permanent deacons assist bishops and priests in celebrating the Eucharist, in assisting at and blessing marriages, in proclaiming the Gospel and preaching, in presiding over baptisms and funerals, and in dedicating themselves to ministries of charity.
The permanent diaconate is open to married and single men who are 35 and older, although aspiring deacons cannot begin the formation program if they are older than 58. Single candidates must take a vow of celibacy, and married candidates whose spouses die must seek special permission to remarry. Deacon Palma said the committee that established the permanent-diaconate program in the Rochester Diocese believed strongly that the diaconal vocation should not destroy or take away from the sacrament of marriage, he said.
“A wife has to give her informed consent (to a husband becoming a deacon), because this sacrament will have impact on their family,” Deacon Palma said, noting that wives are welcome to attend all formation classes.
Most deacons were active in their parishes’ ministries prior to ordination, Deacon Palma said, and after ordination are asked to volunteer eight to 10 hours a week in a ministry. Some deacons opt to work in paid ministries, he said, while others perform volunteer work on top of their non-ministerial full-time jobs. These men, he said, serve as examples for all Christians.
“How they live their life is so important and so critical,” Deacon Palma said. “They in a very public way are living out this Christian life that we are all called to through baptism.”
Deacons can trace their roots to the New Testament. Acts 6:1, for example, tells of seven disciples who were appointed to serve widows in need so other disciples could focus on prayer and ministry of the word.
In distinguishing between the sacrament of holy orders’ three degrees — deacon, priest and bishop — the catechism quotes St. Ignatius of Antioch: “Let everyone revere the deacons as Jesus Christ, the bishop as the image of the Father, and the presbyters as the senate of God and the assembly of the apostles. For without them one cannot speak of the Church.”
“I Have Come to Serve,” the Rochester Diocese’s plan for the permanent diaconate, notes that by around the third century the deacon became a representation of service rather than one who serves, and by the eighth century deacons had become involved in church administration.
“By the ninth century, the Order had become little more than a stepping-stone to the presbyterate (priesthood)," the document "I Have Come to Serve" said. The diaconate at this time took on its transitional, rather than permanent, nature.
In 1968, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (then called the National Council of Catholic Bishops) restored the permanent diaconate to the U.S. church, following the Second Vatican Council’s call for its restoration in the universal church. Five diaconal programs in the U.S. were launched the next year.
According to a March 2007 national survey by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, an estimated 13,000 permanent deacons serve in the U.S. church, up about 1,200 from 2006. Of those, about 10,000 are engaged in active ministry. Just 11 percent of the deacons nationwide are younger than age 50, the survey found, as compared to 16 percent in 1996. Thirty percent are paid for part-time work with a parish ministry, while 11 percent are full-time parish employees.
The Rochester Diocese has more than 160 permanent deacons, and of those about 100 are active, Deacon Palma said. Bishop Matthew H. Clark has ordained all of these men, a rarity among dioceses nationwide, he added.
“I think deacons have become central to the life of our diocese,” said Bishop Clark, noting that it has been an honor and privilege for him to ordain all the deacons.
Bishop Clark pointed out that it had been the late Bishop Joseph L. Hogan who called for the establishment of the permanent diaconate in the Rochester Diocese through his 1975 pastoral letter "You Are Living Stones." In that pastoral, Bishop Hogan called for the permanent diaconate to be operating within two years.
In keeping with those wishes, a task force — led by the research efforts of Father Sebastian Falcone and including members such as the late Bishop Dennis W. Hickey and current Deacon George Welch — began meeting in 1976 to explore how other dioceses had instituted the diaconate, Deacon Welch said.
The committee developed the diaconate curriculum over a two-year period, Father Falcone said, laying out the nature and functions of deacons in liturgy, in preaching the Gospel and in performing works of charity. The first class was guided by the late Msgr. George Cocuzzi, who served as chancellor.
Deacon Palma noted that men spend about a year as aspirants before becoming diaconal candidates and beginning the four-year formation process. As part of that process, Deacon Palma said each candidate is assigned to field-education placements in a service-oriented agency, an institution and a parish. Placements often are in unfamiliar locations, he said, such as putting a rural deacon candidate in an urban setting or vice versa.
Defining their roles
Deacon Leo A. Kester, a member of the first class of permanent deacons, said the new program first was taught at St. Bernard’s Seminary then at Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School after St. Bernard’s closed. The program included some of the same classes priests take, he said, although these courses were not as in-depth for the diaconal candidates.
“We kind of felt like we were guinea pigs because we were the first class in Rochester,” Deacon Kester remarked. “Courses later on were modified somewhat.”
Deacon Stanley J. Douglas, another member of the first class, said that after his own parish experiences left him wanting more, he decided to become a deacon so he could break open the word, take it to people and be with them. Although he had a clear understanding of the deacon’s role, not everyone was as clear, he noted.
“One priest said, ‘What do we need deacons for? We need priests,’” he recalled.
Deacon Palma said such attitudes have changed with time as deacons have helped the church extend its ministry to the underserved.
“This ministry being restored has been a help during this time of fewer priests, but it hasn’t changed their ministry,” Deacon Palma said. “Their charism and what they are called to hasn’t changed.”