There are more than 13,000 deacons in the United States and 213 in the Diocese of Orlando who are active in ministry. They help serve the spiritual needs of parishioners while also often balancing a family and full-time career. Florida Catholic reporter Glenda Meekins recently interviewed Bishop John Noonan and Deacon Joe Gassman, director of the permanent diaconate for the Diocese of Orlando, on Faith Fit Radio to take a close look at the order of the permanent diaconate and to find out the role of the deacon in the life of the Church. To hear the full interview, visit www.faithfitradio.org.
Q: Can you tell us about the history of the diaconate and the selection of the early deacons?
Bishop Noonan: During the early Church, as a community of faith began to grow, one of the issues that arose was the issue of taking care of the poor and looking after them. The disciples decided they needed somebody to help and that was the formation of the diaconate. Their job was to be ministers and helpers. We hear most about Stephen and Lawrence. They were early Church martyrs and we hear about them preaching but we also hear about them serving, looking after the poor, looking after the needs of the people.
Q: What is the role of the deacon in the Church today?
Deacon Gassman: Just like the early Church where the men were called forth from the community, that’s our advantage today. We’re looking for men that are already doing service within the community and then we’ll sacramentalize that. They become the icon of Christ the Servant within the community. We come from different jobs, we have police officers, bus drivers, teachers, etc. When they take the education that we give them through the formation process, they’re going back into the community to become that living light within the community. Then we bring that to the altar when we assist our priests.
Q: Can you tell us about your own journey to the diaconate?
Deacon Gassman: I didn’t understand what a deacon was until somebody said, “You’d be a good deacon.” I said, “Okay, somebody explain that to me.” I was deeply involved with the parish, I was deeply involved with the community. I was already living the life. When I look back, God had already created me a deacon a long time ago. It was rooted from my family life through the career choices that I made whether it was as a dump truck driver or human relations advisor and eventually my entire being was about serving the community.
Q: What are the requirements and the process of becoming a deacon?
Deacon Gassman: A deacon must be between the ages of 30-55. We’re looking for couples that have been married for 5 years and in a stable relationship. One of the things we always tell the deacons is that when you come in to formation, it’s an amplifier. Odds are we’re not going to teach you anything too new. If there are challenges within the marriage, it will be amplified. If you have a strong marriage, a strong faith, it’s going to amplified and energize you to unbelievable levels.
There is a formative process that is six years long. One formal discernment year and then there is the formal with St. Leo University for the next five years and formal formative lessons. It is 400 hours of really looking at, “Who am I as a person? Who am I as a minister? How does the rest of the world see me?” and then we’ll talk about the specific issues that impact our ministries in this world today.
Q: The word “deacon” means “servant”. How does a deacon serve the Church?
Deacon Gassman: A lot of times the first question a deacon will get is “What can a deacon do?” It’s really not about what we can do. It’s really about who we are and what we bring to the liturgy. We are engaged in the community. If you listen to the prayers of the liturgy, we become the intermediary between the laity and the other ranks of the clergy. All of our prayers are from the people or to the people. It’s inviting the people into full active participation of the liturgy.
Bishop Noonan: Everybody sees the deacon on Sunday but that’s only a little sliver of the reality. A lot of our deacons are really involved in the community in many different ministries. You see them on the altar preaching and helping distribute the Eucharist and the Precious Blood but then on weekdays what are they doing? They are in the hospitals, they’re helping at wake services, burying the dead, baptize, witness marriages, visit the sick, you name it, and they’re there.
For more information on the permanent diaconate, visit www.orlandodiocese.org/ministries-offices/deacons-welcome or email email@example.com
Are you interested in learning more about the vocation to the permanent diaconate?
Attend one of the informational evenings offered during the month of December. All sessions begin at 7 p.m.
Dec. 5: Resurrection Parish, Lakeland
Dec. 7: Holy Name of Jesus Parish, Indialantic
Dec. 12: Our Lady of Hope Parish, Port Orange
Dec. 14: St. Timothy Parish, Lady Lake
Dec. 19: St. Mary Magdalen Parish, Altamonte Springs.