Journey to diaconate recalled - Catholic Courier

Journey to diaconate recalled

The 25th anniversary of a very significant day in both the history of the Diocese of Rochester and in the history of the Defendorf family occurred recently. On April 17, 1982, at 10 a.m., Bishop Matthew H. Clark, the newly appointed Bishop of Rochester, ordained the first class of permanent deacons who would serve the diocese. I was privileged to be part of that first ordination class.

The documents of Vatican II called for the restoration of the diaconate as a distinct order within the church principally in the Constitution on the Church. Following the council, Pope Paul VI gave specific directives for implementing the restoration of the diaconate in an apostolic letter (Diaconatus Ordinem) published in 1967 and followed this up with further “norms” in 1972. The directives left to local bishops the decision to implement the permanent diaconate in each diocese. And so, in his Nov. 28, 1975, pastoral letter, “You are Living Stones,” then-Bishop Joseph L. Hogan expressed his wish that the permanent diaconate be established in the Diocese of Rochester.

Consequently, on April 1, 1976, under the guidance of Bishop Dennis W. Hickey, a task force of “broad-based, representative pastoral persons was convoked to study every facet of this ministry and to work out specific plans for launching the permanent diaconate program for the diocese of Rochester” (from the historical highlights section of “I Have Come to Serve,” the Rochester Diocese’s plan for the permanent diaconate). Two years later, the task force submitted plans and program guidelines for the selection and training of permanent deacons.

Patty, my wife of now nearly 40 years, first heard the task-force report while serving as chairperson of the Diocesan Pastoral Council. After the DPC meeting, she remarked to me that I should consider applying. “You have been doing the work of a deacon as long as I’ve known you,” she said. “I think that you should apply.” Later, following a visit at the home of our friends George and Paula Welch, I began a period of personal prayer and discernment as to whether God might be calling me to ordained diaconal ministry. George, like me a former seminarian, had been asked by the task force to assist with the program for diaconal formation that would be used within the diocese. As the deadline approached, Pat sent for the application forms.

My decision to seek membership in the first class of potential deacons was followed by the submission of my lay-ministry experience, academic transcripts, pastoral references, and individual and couple interviews with members of the task force. Months later, I became one of 24 men invited into the first class of diaconal aspirants. In September 1978, Pat and I packed our kids in the car, dropped off our dog at a kennel and journeyed to Rochester for our first of 3{1/2} years of weekends of study and formation at St. Bernard’s Seminary.

While my journey to diaconal ordination began on Friday, Sept. 17, 1978, at St. Bernard’s, the call from God that I was answering came much earlier. It was a call rooted in a strong Catholic family of both German and Irish heritage. My great-uncle was the original priest of the Hart family of Holy Redeemer Parish in Rochester. Msgr. William Hart, diocesan vicar general under Bishop James Kearney, was as esteemed by his family for his vocation to the priesthood as he was by his fellow priests for his administrative skills and wit. Two cousins of my mother, Fathers William and Richard Hart, also had answered God’s call to priesthood.

In the late 1940s, the dream of many Irish Catholic mothers was that God would choose one of her sons for a priestly vocation. But, how to plant the seed? The seed of my vocation was planted with the assistance of Santa Claus. At about age 6, I recall asking Santa for a cowboy outfit complete with 10-gallon hat, chaps and six-shooter. By some North Pole mishap, my request apparently went to someone else. Instead, Santa brought me a cassock, a stole, a child-size chasuble, a Latin-English missal and a package of Necco Wafers. Consequently, my play time was converted from cowboys and Indians to saying Mass.

Years later, after serving Mass at St. Charles Borromeo Church in Greece, Father Charles Bennett asked me if I had ever thought of the priesthood. “Why, sure,” I said. “I’ve been saying Mass since I was 6.” In September of that year, at age 14, I entered St. Andrew’s Seminary, along with about 60 other ninth-grade boys, to begin a one-year trial of seminary life.

My decision to leave after one year did not sit well with my father, who himself had hoped for a priestly vocation within his family. As I’ve learned during the trial-and-error experience of learning to be a parent myself, angry, disappointed fathers can sometimes say some very unfortunate things. Some words live on long after the anger is forgotten. “You’ll be a priest, or you’ll be a BUM,” were the words spoken in disappointed anger by my very emotional father.

This brings us back to Sept. 17, 1978. Before nesting in at St. Bernard’s, Pat and I made a visit next door to Holy Sepulchre Cemetery to visit my father’s grave. “Dad, I’m doing my best to please God and you. I’m trying my best not to be a BUM. Please remain with me through this journey,” I said.

On Feb. 11, 1979, while doing diaconal volunteer field work as a chaplain at the Elmira Reformatory, Bishop Hogan administered the rite of candidacy — the first ritual step toward ordination. Feb. 11, by pure “God-incidence” was the anniversary of my father’s death.

Dad continued to stay close as I journeyed toward ordination. So, shortly before ordination, as I joined my classmates at the Cenacle Retreat House for our pre-ordination retreat, I composed a new prayer-song, “I Have Come to Serve.” Here’s how it begins:

“On this day Father, the day I start anew

“to become what you have called me to be,

“I give thanks to you for your love, for your faith,

“for your calling me to life.

“For your calling me to life.

“And I know that you’ll always be with me.

“For, I go forth in your name.

“And the love that you’ve shared is the love that I’ll bring.

“As you served, I have come to serve.

“As you served, I have come to serve.”

Deacon Defendorf is pastoral administrator of St. Mary Parish in Bath.

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