The call that each person receives in baptism to be more fully molded into the image of the Lord through cooperation with God’s grace occurs throughout our lives through our daily work and prayer. The idea of being molded reminds us of the teaching of the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 64:7) who likened our loving God to a great potter who by His love and grace, helps to shape the gift of our lives according to His great love. Thus, every Christian must be open to ongoing formation at the hand of God.
Formation is especially important for those who are called by the Lord to serve as His deacons. In this case, the purpose of diaconal formation is to help each aspirant to come to know, love and serve the Lord with his whole heart, soul and mind by loving service and commitment to his brothers and sisters. Such formation includes the intellectual, spiritual, parochial, marital, family and personal dimensions of a man’s life and is indispensable for all who wish to answer a vocation to the diaconate.
It is important to remember that such formation is more than education. Education is the academic pursuit of knowledge in a particular field. Diaconal formation is a lifelong process by which a person is molded into the image of Jesus the servant. It involves not only academic studies, but also one’s prayer life, values, daily witness, self-understanding and ministry.
The Nature of a Divine Vocation
Each deacon must be called by God to serve as His deacon. This divine “calling” to serve in the ministry of diaconate is called a vocation. The bishops of the United States describe the mystery of vocation in the following terms:
‘Every Christian vocation is the history of an inexpressible dialogue between God and human beings, between the love of God who calls and the freedom of individuals who respond lovingly to him.’ This calling forth from God is marked first in the reception of the sacraments of Christian initiation. From out of this body of believers Christ then calls some of his disciples, and the Church, discerning their vocational charism, asks the bishop to ordain them to a service of the whole church (NDPD, art. 165).
God calls those whom he chooses to each of the ministries of Holy Orders. It is up to each man who is called by God to recognize and respond generously to the Lord’s invitation.
The signs that are manifested in the life of a man called to the diaconate are varied. On the personal level, he must be a man with a natural inclination to serve all in need, possess good psychological health, display a capacity for dialogue, an openness and desire to share his faith, an ability to listen, dialogue and respect people of every race, religion and ethnicity and culture, a mature sense of responsibility, balanced and prudent judgment and a generous spirit.
In terms of his spiritual life, he must possess a sound faith, good Christian reputation, active involvement in ministry, personal integrity, maturity and holiness. He must be a man who regularly participates in the sacramental life of the Church and has a commitment to serve the poor and needy. If married, he must enjoy a stable and positive marriage. If single, he must display a mature celibate state of life. In either case, he must be a man capable of obedient and fraternal communion who cultivates positive friendships both in the community of faith and in the larger context of neighbor and work.
The Discernment of a Divine Vocation to the Diaconate
A vocation to the diaconate is discerned and identified through prayer, study, open communication with one’s spouse, children, family, pastor, friends and fellow parishioners. A vocation to the diaconate is an abiding awareness that God is asking a lifetime commitment on the part of the man being called to serve God’s people as an ordained deacon of the Church.
If a man senses such a divine calling, it is necessary that he enter formation, for a number of years, in order to discern whether this calling is authentic. Formation in this sense is a journey of self-discovery – the deepening of his faith and ongoing learning that will help each man to decide whether the calling that he senses is to the diaconate and if he wishes to follow it.
The discernment needed to identify and verify a vocation to the diaconate in the life of any aspirant occurs on many levels. Among the most important are the following three areas:
Personal Discernment: An individual initially reflects upon the nature of his perceived call through study, prayer, spiritual guidance and reflection. Key in this area is the establishment of an open and honest relationship between the aspirant and his spiritual director.
Family Discernment: Each aspirant must honestly and openly discuss his perceived vocation with both his wife (if married) and immediate family. As his partner in the covenant of marriage, the support and encouragement of an aspirant’s wife is essential if the discernment process is to succeed. Therefore, it is essential that support and consent, even at this early stage of discernment, arise from an informed understanding on the part of both the aspirant and his wife. Since an aspirant’s wife has a unique and indispensable role in her husband’s discernment of a vocation to the diaconate, it is essential that she be ready and able to participate in all aspects of the formation program that require her attendance. This is particularly true for the weekly Aspirancy formation sessions that are held at the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception in Douglaston. The sessions to which the wives are invited are listed in the annual calendar distributed at the start of each semester.
Communal Discernment: Since the discernment of any divine vocation to the diaconate is never solely a private matter, it is essential that the Church accompany any potential aspirant in his journey of faith. Since the parish is the primary experience of the Church for most inquirers, it is essential that by ministerial service and through the direction of the pastor, the community of faith pray for and help form each aspirant by a mutuality of love and service. Further, the diocesan church is also involved in the aspirant’s discernment, through the work of the Diaconate Office on behalf of the Bishop.
Special Nature of Diaconal Formation
Diaconal formation seeks to be holistic in nature. This means that every element of the program seeks to assist each participant to mature in all aspects of his life. More specifically, formation seeks growth in four specific areas:
Human dimension: Each man who seeks to answer God’s call to the diaconate must strive for psychological, emotional and relational maturity. Key to this growth is a true self-awareness that recognizes one’s strengths and weaknesses. It demands a true sense of humility and a willingness to be honest and open to change.
Spiritual dimension: Each man must seek growth in his spiritual relationship with the Lord Jesus. This growth is manifested in his personal and communal prayer, relationship with his friends and parishioners, participation in spiritual exercises such as retreats, days and evenings of prayer, daily reflection, frequent use of the sacrament of reconciliation and participation in Sunday and daily Eucharist. Each aspirant will be assigned a spiritual director at the start of Aspirancy formation to assist him in his spiritual growth.
Intellectual Dimension: Growth in the knowledge and love of the Catholic faith, the Sacred Scriptures, the Church’s Tradition, the teaching of the Magisterium, our Catholic heritage and culture is essential in diaconal formation.
Pastoral Dimension: Since diaconal ministry is one of service, an ongoing, vibrant participation in pastoral ministry in a parish is a key element in diaconal formation. This ministry will be supervised with the assistance of the pastor and a mentor chosen by the pastor. Key to pastoral ministry is the willingness to be collaborative and obedient to authority.
Stages of Diaconal Formation
There are four distinct but related stages of growth and development that comprise diaconal formation. They can be summarized in the following way:
Inquiry Formation is the period wherein a man who believes he is being called to the diaconate makes an application to enter the formation program. At this stage of his life, the inquirer and his wife are asked to reflect upon their relationship with Christ, their parochial involvement and the health of their marriage. They are asked to attend an Inquiry Session and a Retreat Day, during which they receive an informational packet that describes the requirements for admission into Aspirancy formation.
Aspirancy Formation is a period of 9 months during which a man discerns if God is calling him to the diaconate. During this time he must also make the decision to follow that call.
Candidacy Formation is an intense period of ministerial, liturgical and theological training in preparation for ordination to the diaconate. It lasts approximately four years.
Ongoing Diaconal Formation extends in some form for a deacon’s entire active ministry. Through retreats, days and evenings of prayer and academic courses, each deacon is asked to continually nourish his spiritual and ministerial life in community with his fellow deacons and their wives.