CS PHOTO BY MICHAEL HOYT
Deacons pray together during the Nov. 4 Permanent Deacon Convocation held at St. Joseph Parish in Largo. About 200 permanent deacons from the Archdiocese of Washington participated in the gathering.
CS PHOTO BY MICHAEL HOYT Deacons pray together during the Nov. 4 Permanent Deacon Convocation held at St. Joseph Parish in Largo. About 200 permanent deacons from the Archdiocese of Washington participated in the gathering.
As they have since the beginning of the Church, deacons today play a vital role in providing Christ-like service at parishes and in a variety of ministries, Cardinal Donald Wuerl said at a recent Permanent Deacon Convocation held at St. Joseph Parish in Largo.

“The very definition of diaconal ministry is service,” Washington’s archbishop said as he celebrated a Mass to open the Nov. 4 convocation. “…The Catechism of the Catholic Church says the deacon is configured to Christ the servant. What a beautiful image and way to see our ministry.

Cardinal Wuerl noted that the gathering of about 200 deacons – believed to be the first such large-scale gathering of the archdiocese’s permanent deacons in a convocation format – offered a “very important moment, the first time we have come together to reflect on and pray about our ministry.”

The cardinal used the pronoun “our,” noting that priests and bishops are first ordained to Holy Orders as transitional deacons and remain deacons after being ordained to the priesthood or episcopacy. To reflect that part of their identity, priests and bishops wear the deacon’s vestment, the dalmatic, beneath their outer vestment, the chasuble, when celebrating Mass.

“It falls to each deacon today, just as it does with priests and bishops, to be the face of God’s mercy,” the cardinal said, emphasizing Pope Francis’s call for today’s Catholics to carry out the New Evangelization by being missionary disciples, bringing Christ’s love to today’s world, especially to those on the margins of society.

Noting the origin of the vocation of deacons described in the Acts of the Apostles – when St. Stephen and the first deacons in the early Christian community were ordained to serve those in need – Cardinal Wuerl said, “What brings you to this ministry is what brought the first seven deacons to this ministry: a love of Christ, a desire to serve his Church, and a willingness to do what it takes to be there for people trying to find their way back to Christ.”

As he concluded his homily, the cardinal said, “May this convocation be a time of renewal for all of us.”

The Archdiocese of Washington has 212 permanent deacons, including 66 retired deacons, most of whom remain active in parish service. The convocation was also attended by 57 wives of deacons.

At the convocation, Deacon Greg Kandra – a nationally known blogger – led a session on “Deacons & Wives: Sharing the Ministry;” and Msgr. Charles Pope, also a noted blogger, led a session for single and widowed deacons. Father Paul Sullins, a priest of the archdiocese who taught in Catholic University’s Department of Sociology, led a session for deacon wives titled, “Women of Faith in Action;” and Deacon James Nalls, the executive director of the Family, Parish and Community Outreach Department for Catholic Charities of the archdiocese, helped lead a session for deacons on “Ministries of Charity – Opportunities and Challenges.”

The gathering was hosted by Washington Auxiliary Bishop Roy Campbell, the pastor of St. Joseph Parish. During the Mass, the permanent deacons sat together, wearing their albs and white stoles. The closing song at the Mass included the words, “Go tell the world about Jesus, tell them about his love.”

After the Mass, Cardinal Wuerl told the Catholic Standard that the gathering reflected “an affirmation of the service provided by all these deacons over the years. The diaconate is an integral part of the life of our archdiocesan Church, and we are so grateful to God for the generosity of the deacons.”

Permanent deacons, he said, bring rich experience and strong commitment as they strengthen the service ministry provided by parishes.

The cardinal also praised the wives of deacons for their support and service.

“In any marriage, you need mutual support and appreciation of the goals they share. The wives of our deacons share that vision, bring that support and offer their own prayerful help to their husbands carrying out that ministry,” he said.

Deacon Donald Longano, the director of the archdiocese’s Office of the Permanent Diaconate, said the gathering offered the deacons the chance to meet in solidarity.

“It’s just a blessing to have these men ordained to the diaconate, and all the liturgical and charitable service they do for the people of this archdiocese,” he said.

The permanent deacons assist at Mass, including reading the Gospel and preaching, and sometimes preside at Baptisms and weddings. Deacons at area parishes participate in a range of charitable outreach, including service to the poor and homeless, to immigrant communities and to people with special needs, and prison ministry.

Msgr. Pope, the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian Parish in Washington who writes blogs for the archdiocese and for the National Catholic Register, praised the impact that deacons have on parish life.

“They’re very, very generous with their time,” he said. “Most are married and have families and careers. On top of all that, they still take care of us at our parishes.”

Deacon Richard Walker of St. Luke Parish in Washington, who served as chairman of the planning committee for the convocation, said the gathering gave the deacons a chance to pray and learn together, and to increase communication and mutual support among each other. He noted that a new 14-member Council of Permanent Deacons has been formed for the archdiocese, with representatives from the different deaneries.

Deacon Walker, a single deacon ordained in 2008, is retired from serving as director of security and training for a firm, after 20 years of service in the U.S. Army. Now at his parish, his ministries include managing the food bank, working with altar servers, assisting with preparation for the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation and marriage, and helping with the RCIA program for people becoming Catholic.

“When you’re a deacon, you’re not a ‘one trick pony,’” he said, noting that deacons serve where the Church needs them to go.

A key part of their work is evangelization, Deacon Walker added, noting that their ministries in the parish and community allow them to “meet people where they are.”

 “We meet people outside church walls,” he said. “We give them the word of God, show his mercy through our concern and actions, through the service we provide. Regardless of whether they’re Catholic or Christian, we hope the fruits of our labors will draw people into the Church.”

Charmie Vince, whose husband, Deacon Bob Vince, serves at St. Jane de Chantal Parish in Bethesda, told the Catholic Standard that she sees his vocation as “a ministry for our whole family.” She noted that she earlier directed the religious education program at a parish where her husband served. “I don’t feel excluded. I feel I’m part of the extension of his ordination,” she said. “…The wives are such an incredible support for the ordained deacons.”

That point was echoed by Deacon Ira Chase, who serves at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception and said his wife of 54 years, Judy, attended four years of diaconate classes with him, and has supported his vocation since he was ordained as a deacon in 1985. They have four children, five grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

“We share a ministry,” he said. “It’s very, very important to me to have my wife by my side. She keeps me grounded (and) keeps my ministry in perspective.”

Before he led the session on deacons and wives sharing in ministry, Deacon Kandra said, “This is a homecoming,” noting that he was baptized at St. Catherine Laboure Parish in Wheaton, received the sacraments of First Holy Communion and Confirmation at St. Peter Parish in Olney where he attended elementary school, graduated from St. Vincent Pallotti High School in Laurel, and he and his wife Siobhan were married at the chapel at St. Mary’s Parish in Rockville.

“This is where I learned how to pray, serve Mass and learned how to be a member of the body of Christ,” said Deacon Kandra, who worked as a writer and producer for CBS News for nearly three decades. Now a deacon of the Diocese of Brooklyn, New York, in recent years he wrote the popular “Deacon’s Bench” blog and now writes a blog for the Aleteia website and works as multimedia editor for the Catholic Near East Welfare Association. He serves as a deacon at Our Lady Queen of Martyrs Parish in Queens.

Deacon Kandra said the vocations of marriage and the diaconate are rooted in a call to love: “We are men and women called to love as completely and fully as Christ did.”

He joked that his talk’s subtitle, “The Collar and the Ring,” highlighting symbols of those two vocations, reminded him of the old commercial for Wisk laundry detergent getting rid of “ring around the collar.”

Those vocations of marriage and the diaconate, rather than being at odds, “complement and enhance one another,” he said.

A deacon who is married is called to be a servant in both vocations, said Deacon Kandra. “He serves his wife, his family, his Church, and by extension, the people of God.”

Both vocations also require daily prayer, and by praying together, a deacon and his wife can seek God’s guidance in living out their vocations, in sharing the grace of those sacraments, and in maintaining balance and perspective in their life together. Wives of deacons, he added, “are like Mary, women who say, ‘Yes.’”

Communication is vital for both vocations, Deacon Kandra said. “Talk often, honestly and openly with each other and with the pastor. Share what’s in your mind and your heart. Let him know your limitations.”

Deacons are called to preach the Gospel with their words and by the way that they live, not just in church, but in every moment of every day, he said, adding, “The diaconate is not just what we do. It’s a way of living, a way of life… Being a deacon is not about what we do. It’s about who we are.”

Describing the blessing of his twin vocations, Deacon Kandra said, “I love the smell of chrism on my hands after baptism, the smell of incense on my clothes after benediction. I love walking with people in moments of challenge and joy. I tell people I made two great decisions in life – the decision to get married and to become a deacon.”

Both vocations, he said, involve “a decision to love… as Christ loved, with open hearts and open arms.”