Did you know that your Sunday homilist operates an insurance agency, and also ministers to people with psychiatric issues?
Or that the man who performed last Saturday’s wedding is a distinguished college professor?
Or that the person who officiated at a recent family funeral is a retired engineer?
Interesting mixes, to be sure. Despite the diversity of professional backgrounds, there’s a common link among permanent deacons: their deep desire to serve the church.
“These guys are tremendously dedicated men,” said Deacon David Palma, diocesan director of deacon personnel. He noted that approximately 100 permanent deacons — including many from the Southern Tier — are on active assignment in the Rochester Diocese, and that several more are retired but remain highly involved in ministry.
This vocation, prevalent in the ancient church, was restored in the universal Catholic Church following the Second Vatican Council. Permanent deacons carry out such duties as reading the Gospel and preaching at Masses; presiding at baptisms, weddings and funerals; teaching and counseling; and performing various acts of charity and justice.
In 1982, Bishop Matthew H. Clark ordained the Diocese of Rochester’s first class of permanent deacons. Three of those 24 men — Deacons Raymond Defendorf, George Welch and Bill Dougherty — are still serving in the Tier. On the other end of the spectrum, four permanent deacons were ordained by Bishop Clark on May 21 at Sacred Heart Cathedral, with one hailing from the Tier: Deacon David LaFortune, who serves as pastoral associate at Schuyler Catholic Community (St. Mary of the Lake, Watkins Glen, and St. Benedict, Odessa).
A permanent deacon’s four-year formation period involves obtaining a master’s degree in theology as well as engaging in field work, spiritual reflection and development of ministerial skills. Deacon Palma said the age range for ordination runs from mid-30s to the maximum of 62 years old, with most men ordained in their late 40s and early 50s. What would drive somebody to take on such a large commitment at that point of his life, for a volunteer ministry (excepting deacons who are hired in such roles as chaplain or parish staff member) with a recommended commitment of 10 to 15 hours per week?
“I guess it’s the breed of people that apply for the diaconate. The majority of deacons, all but a very few, have been involved not only in their parishes but also their renewal movements,” said Deacon Warren Rutan of Blessed Trinity/St. Patrick parishes in Tioga County. Deacon Rutan, a former engineer for IBM Corp., said his experience with the Cursillo movement led him toward the diaconate.
Whereas several deacons such as Deacon Rutan are retired from their professions, others are still working full time. Deacon Robert McCormick, of Our Lady of the Valley Parish in western Steuben County, balances the diaconate with his duties at Alfred State College, where he has been a business professor for more than 30 years.
“Very often when I speak, I talk of three major things I do in my life,” Deacon McCormick said, referring to the diaconate, his family and his teaching career that saw him earn a state Chancellor’s Award last year. “Each thing that I do, I absolutely love doing.”
Deacon McCormick added that his ministry has spilled over into his teaching, explaining that “when you deal with students, you have to have a compassionate and understanding nature.” He noted that several students, aware of his standing as a deacon, have sent him e-mails asking for prayers.
Other Southern Tier deacons with backgrounds in education are Deacons Welch and Dougherty, both retired public-school administrators; and Deacon Dan Hurley, who recently ended four years as principal of Ithaca’s Immaculate Conception School to take a new assignment outside the Southern Tier.
Meanwhile, Deacon Michael Mangione owns an insurance agency in Addison and is part-time chaplain at Elmira Psychiatric Center. In addition, he is the parish deacon for three central Steuben County churches: St. Catherine of Siena in Addison, St. Stanislaus in Bradford and St. Joseph’s in Campbell.
“There are deacons in all walks of life,” Deacon Mangione said. “Pretty much, I think you just like people. It doesn’t matter whether they’re in a psychiatric center, hospital, campground, whatever it is — you’re going to gravitate toward being there for them.”
Upon reaching age 75, a deacon must submit a letter of retirement to the bishop, thus releasing him from any official obligation. Yet Deacon Dougherty, who officially retired four years ago from Elmira’s St. Casimir/St. Charles Borromeo parishes, is still highly active in the cluster.
“Each year I vow ‘no more weddings’ and yet three, four, five couples — people I’ve baptized — say ‘won’t you do just one?’ And then they have their friends,” he said with a laugh. “But I love it. It’s just so wonderful to be a part of parish life.”
If anything, Deacon Rutan — who retired in 2004 — has seen his duties expand due to parish reconfiguration. He was originally the parish deacon for two churches, and now he covers six.
“I have preached and deaconed at all of the worship sites,” Deacon Rutan said. “I can say no, but as long as I’m in good health prefer to remain active.”
Such eagerness and willingness is crucial in this day and age, Deacon Palma acknowledged.
“People tell me the deacons are a wonderful asset in this time of fewer priests,” he said.
Regarding weddings, funerals and baptisms, “this is where the deacon is so useful in the parish. If the people don’t require a Mass, the deacon can do this and do it alone,” Deacon Rutan said.
Deacon Palma noted that wives play a crucial role in the deacons’ ability to fulfill both family and ministerial obligations.
“They have a unique experience of being married to Roman Catholic clergy,” he said.
Permanent deacons are indeed clergy — yet Deacon Mangione remarked that they’re not always viewed that way. Although they cannot officiate at Mass, he said he’d like to see more people regard the diaconate as “a parallel ministry to the priesthood. It’s not a subservient ministry.”
Deacon Palma agreed that “people are still learning about this ministry,” but he also feels that the acceptance level has risen sharply over the past 23 years.
“We’ve come a long way,” he said.
Deacon Dougherty recalled that when he was ordained in 1982, parishioners “kind of stood off and watched to see how all this was going to play out.” Yet overall, he said, “People have been very open to my ministry.”
In fact, Deacon Palma said that permanent deacons are in high demand in the Southern Tier as well as other parts of the diocese.
“Do we have enough deacons to fill all the requests? No,” he said.
Three Southern Tier deacons have died within the past two years: Deacon Michael Campanelli of Ss. Peter and Paul Parish in Elmira; and Deacons Robert Dizer and George Burnett, both of Blessed Trinity/St. Patrick. Yet four men from the Tier are currently in formation, and Deacon Palma said several more have expressed interest in the diaconate.
Information sessions about the permanent diaconate are held regularly around the diocese. A day of reflection is required before entering the diaconal program, with the next such days offered on Aug. 13 and Aug. 27 at St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry near Rochester. Deacon Palma noted that since teleconferencing of St. Bernard’s classes recently began at St. Mary of the Lake Church in Watkins Glen, it has become easier for Southern Tier residents to complete their diaconal education.
At the end of that educational journey lies ordination day — which, for people such as Deacon Rutan, is an unforgettable experience. He recalls how he strongly sensed the Holy Spirit during Bishop Clark’s laying of the hands at his 1993 ordination, saying that he’s been guided by that feeling ever since.
“Instead of downward pressure on my head, I felt his hands were lifting me up,” Deacon Rutan said.
EDITOR’S NOTE: For further information about the permanent diaconate program, visit the “deacons” link at www.dor.org or contact Deacon David Palma at email@example.com or 800/388-7177, ext. 1237 (outside Monroe County).