Deacon David Cook

The earliest guidelines for selecting and training deacons were written by none other than St. Paul, who in I Timothy instructed that deacons must be "men of dignity, not double-tongued, or addicted to much wine or fond of sordid gain" and that they must be tested and only be allowed to serve "if they are beyond reproach." Although the origins of the diaconate are unclear, evidence suggests that the office existed in many Christian communities by the late first century. Many Christians, including Roman Catholics, Anglicans, and Orthodox, have historically recognized deacons, along with bishops and presbyters (or priests), as one of the three major "orders" of ministry.

In the church of the second and third centuries, deacons played vital roles in charity, liturgy, and preaching. Several were elected to the papacy. By the fourth century, however, other offices eclipsed the diaconate in the West. Councils codified the inferior status of deacons relative to presbyters by insisting on reception of the diaconate as a precondition for ordination to the priesthood. In the 16th century, the Council of Trent called for a reinstitution of the diaconate as it had existed in apostolic times, but the call went unheeded for four centuries before the Second Vatican Council of 1962-65 finally restored the permanent diaconate. As a result of Vatican II decrees, candidates for the priesthood still receive ordination as "transitional deacons" prior to becoming priests, but other men -- more than 15,000 in the United States alone -- minister permanently as deacons, as do thousands of men and women in Episcopal, Anglican, Lutheran, and Methodist congregations.


The formation of a deacon -- academic coursework, pastoral training, and spiritual enrichment -- begins with a call. Usually priests recognize laymen with gifts for ministry and an inclination to service and recommend them for the diaconate, but the long application process includes interviews and psychological screening as well. Increasingly, as lay Catholics become familiar with the office, laymen themselves come forward. Father Benedict O'Cinnsealaigh, director of diaconate formation at the Athenaeum of Ohio-Mount St. Mary's Seminary of the West in Cincinnati, explains that such candidates generally feel a close association with the church and are eager to work for it.

Catholic deacons are empowered to administer some sacraments, including baptism. On December 29, 2007, Deacon David Cook baptized his granddaughter, Olivia Rose Cook, at St. Benedict Cathedral in Evansville, Indiana. (KEVIN BACH)


Deacon David Cook, who went through the deacon training program at Saint Meinrad School of Theology in Indiana, is one such case. Cook began to consider a calling to service in the church when he was asked to teach education courses in his parish. At the time, he had never heard of the permanent diaconate, but he gradually learned about the office from his priest and, with the encouragement of his wife, began to consider it. Cook recalls a decisive moment in December 2000, when he was meditating in St. Peter's Basilica and heard the saint's voice clearly reassuring him, "David, you can do this."

The form of the call varies immensely. Deacon David Palma, director of deacon formation and deacon personnel at St. Bernard's School of Theology and Ministry in Rochester, New York, explains that some candidates for the diaconate have a "St. Paul experience" while others embrace their calling only reluctantly. He adds that discernment of a call is not a solitary endeavor but involves the parish and diocese. The formation program itself also plays a role through coursework focused on discernment of the call to ministry.

Just as there is no single form that the call to the diaconate takes, there is no single model for training deacons. Some dioceses have offices charged with the task -- they hold seminars at diocesan offices, parishes, or retreat centers, and the program takes a year or more. In other dioceses, the seminaries that train priests also run programs for the formation of permanent deacons. In still other cases, deacon formation takes place through Catholic theological schools that normally educate members of religious orders and laity. Dioceses without seminaries or theological schools occasionally form partnerships with institutions in other areas. Saint Meinrad, for example, has partnerships with 15 dioceses in 11 states from Wyoming to Delaware.

Deacon David Palma, here greeting Bishop Howard J. Hubbard of Albany, New York, and Bishop Matthew H. Clark of Rochester, New York, directs deacon formation at St. Bernard's School of Theology and Ministry in Rochester. "We don't talk about what deacons do," he says. "We talk about who deacons are."

The challenges of deacon formation

Despite the programs' differences, they confront common challenges. Candidates for the permanent diaconate usually have families and careers -- an important factor because deacons are generally unpaid. In response, formation programs encourage wives' participation, schedule weekend classes, and allow most work to be done off-campus. But difficulties remain. Father Godfrey Mullen, director of the permanent deacon formation program at St. Meinrad, says that the formation of deacons is similar to that of priests but takes place in much less time. Deacon candidates cannot live in the "liturgical hothouse" that shapes candidates for the priesthood.

One of the central tasks of deacon formation programs, and one of their greatest challenges, is to strengthen the candidates' understanding of the diaconate as a vocation. Unlike most Protestants, for whom deacons are lay office holders, Catholics view deacons as ordained ministers, with an understanding that they, like priests, have been fundamentally transformed through ordination. Deacons are ordained into a ministry of word, liturgy, charity, and justice. As Deacon Cook says, "A key role of all the ordained is to help people to come to Christ, through work both inside the church -- liturgy and word -- as well as outside the church in the secular world." But Deacon Palma argues that candidates, and indeed all Catholics, need more than just a functional understanding of the diaconate. As a result, he says, "We don't talk about what deacons do; we talk about who deacons are."

Defining the office of a deacon involves distinguishing it from the priesthood. Father Mullen notes that although most candidates have a clear sense of the diaconate as an office, some tend to see themselves as "little priests" or to view the diaconate as a "consolation prize" for those who could not pursue a call to the priesthood. But Father O'Cinnsealaigh points out that scripture, history, and a series of documents issued since the 1960s all make clear the distinction of the diaconate -- those charged with the formation of deacons need only draw on them, he says, as they often do. He also feels that laypeople -- especially those who have never had a deacon in their parish -- need to be better educated about the office. Although this happens largely at the parish level, seminaries and theological schools can help. The Athenaeum of Ohio, for example, provides resources that parishes can publish in their bulletins. The program also encourages deacon candidates to be involved with their parishes throughout the formation process in order to help parishes get to know them as individuals and become aware of their office.

Father Benedict O'Cinnsealaigh (here with his pet dog, Cormac) directs deacon formation at the Athenaeum of Ohio-Mount St. Mary's Seminary of the West. He believes that more seminaries should provide resources to help lay people understand the role of permanent deacons.

Of course, educating candidates and lay people about the diaconate is much easier if those who oversee the mission are themselves well informed. Deacon Palma stresses that theological school board members need to have a clear conception of the diaconate as a "particular way of living out the spiritual journey," a conception best formed by study of the church documents governing the office, such as Pope Paul VI's Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem (1967).

Given the challenges involved in forming deacons, what constitutes success for these programs? Directors agree that success means preparing men for "effective ministry for God's people," in Father Mullen's words. By the time a deacon is ordained, he must be able to be "a compassionate and joyful minister wherever he is sent" in the diocese, according to Father O'Cinnsealaigh. Programs need both standards of success and ways to evaluate their effectiveness. At St. Bernard's and many other schools, yearly field placements for candidates provide a useful form of evaluation. Many institutions check in with their alumni informally, often when they return for retreats. They also receive feedback from parishes where their graduates are ministering. As Deacon Palma says, the best measure of effectiveness is that requests for deacons continually exceed the supply. This will likely continue to be the case in most dioceses, making the task of deacon formation programs increasingly vital to the life of the church.

Questions for boards

Education. Is the board fully informed about the nature and role of the diaconate?

Facilities. Do buildings on the campus need to be retrofitted for the needs of the deacon training program? Is new technology needed to facilitate distance learning? Do deacon-formation students feel like visitors or members of the community?

Finances. Can expenses related to deacon formation be tracked over time? Are they rising faster than other programs? Do various programs within the school "compete" for scarce resources, or is there a sense of common mission?

Fundraising. Is the development office raising funds specifically for deacon formation? Define short-term, midrange, and long-term fundraising goals.

Satisfaction. Survey graduates after one and five years using an online survey instrument. How do they rate their satisfaction with their preparation? With their current ministry?

Father Godfrey Mullen works to ensure that deacons do not see their role as a "consolation prize" for the priesthood.

Student recruitment. Based on past enrollment figures, what are the school's goals for future enrollment in deacon training programs? In what way does the unique character of the institution help in the training of deacons, and in what way does it present obstacles?

Success. How does the board define success for this program? What measurements can the board adopt to monitor it?

Tuition and fees. What's the origin of the tuition dollars paid to the school -- the students themselves, or their dioceses? Who is subsidizing the cost of deacon formation?

On the Web

National Directory for the Formation, Ministry, and Life of Permanent Deacons in the United States

  • Guidelines and directives for preparing or updating a diaconate program and formulating policies for the ministry of deacons

  • Basic standards for readiness for the formation of permanent deacons (from the Bishops' Committee on the Diaconate) 

  • Visit of consultation teams to diocesan permanent diaconate formation programs (from the Bishops' Committee on the Diaconate)

Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem

  • Apostolic letter issued by Pope Paul VI in 1967, restoring the permanent diaconate to the Catholic Church

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