“If you get the diaconate right,” Bishop W. Shawn McKnight once stated, “everything else about the Church seems to just fall into place.”
With a rightly ordered diaconate, priests do a better job of ministering to their flock. The bishop does a better job of governing and uniting them.
And the people of God do a better job of serving others and accompanying one another to Christ.
Deacons are the glue, the bridge, the intermediaries among the bishop, his priests, the laity in any parish or region, and the community at large.
All with the help of Almighty God.
“God takes our gifts and stretches us and we end up doing things that in our wildest dreams we never could have envisioned being able to do or even pursue,” stated Deacon John Schwartze, the diocese’s recently appointed director of deacon formation.
“With God’s grace, we do it and we do it successfully,” he said.
Deacon Schwartze began his new role with the permanent diaconate on July 1.
He joins Deacon Raymond Purvis, who previously served as director of deacon formation and will now serve as director of deacon life and ministry; and Father Daniel Merz, vicar for the diaconate.
“If you’re discerning a possible call to the diaconate or are in formation to become a deacon, that now falls under my heading,” Deacon Schwartze noted.
“Once you’ve been ordained, you fall under Deacon Ray Purvis’s leadership,” he added, referring to the resources, assistance and ongoing formation the diocese provides to active and retired deacons.
“We both work with Fr. Merz, under the direction of Bishop McKnight,” Deacon Schwartze said. “That’s where it comes together. We work better together.”
Deacon Purvis has been involved in forming deacons in this diocese since February of 2004, when Bishop Emeritus John R. Gaydos appointed him associate director for the diaconate.
He succeeded Deacon Robert Rackers, now retired, as director in 2007.
The diaconate is the first of three ranks in ordained ministry in the Catholic Church.
Like priests and bishops, deacons receive the Sacrament of Holy Orders through the laying-on of hands and the invocation of the Holy Spirit.
But their vocation is distinct from that of other members of the clergy.
One of the most noticeable differences is that most permanent deacons are married.
Deacons hold several roles and responsibilities in the Church, including proclaiming the Gospel reading at Mass, preaching homilies, teaching and leading people in prayer, baptizing, witnessing marriages and conducting funerals and wake services.
They are also expected to be leaders in identifying the needs of others, organizing the Church’s response to those needs and addressing the injustices or inequities that lead to them.
The Apostles established the diaconate shortly after Jesus’s Ascension into heaven and the sending of the Holy Spirit.
The diaconate flourished in the early Church, reaching its apex of influence and responsibility in the third and fourth centuries.
But by the dawn of the Middle Ages, most of its significance had been lost and its responsibilities rolled into the ministerial Priesthood and various religious orders.
Pope St. Paul VI restored the permanent diaconate in 1969, following the Second Vatican Council.
The Jefferson City diocese was among the first in the United States to form and ordain permanent deacons, ordaining its first class of permanent deacons in 1977.
More than 100 deacons now serve throughout the diocese, including some who were ordained for other dioceses and now live here.
Several more are on retired status but continue to serve the Church in various capacities.
Proclaimers, doers of the Word
Before Pope Francis appointed him to lead this diocese, Bishop McKnight wrote his doctoral thesis on the historical, theological and sociological foundations of the diaconate in the Roman Catholic Church.
That became the basis of his book, Understanding the Diaconate, published in 2018.
He appointed Fr. Merz to succeed the late Father Frank Bussmann as vicar for the diaconate upon Fr. Bussmann’s sudden death.
Bishop McKnight worked with Fr. Merz and several others to fine-tune the process of helping men discern a diaconal calling and prepare for the diaconate with the help and support of their wives.
The five-year process — one year of formal discernment and four years of candidacy and formation — emphasizes intellectual, spiritual, emotional and pastoral growth and maturity.
Bishop McKnight is committed to highlighting the connection between deacons’ proclamation of the Gospel and service at the altar with their work among the people throughout the week.
He is challenging deacons and prospective deacons to identify needs in the community and, in collaboration with their pastors, lead parishioners toward creatively addressing those needs.
His goal is for deacons to be innovators, catalysts and intermediaries, helping parishes become universally recognized as centers of charity and mercy.
The diaconate is a calling received from God that flows from baptism, is recognized through a period of discernment and formation and is validated with the Sacrament of Holy Orders.
A new class of prospective deacons is forming, with formal discernment set to begin next January.
Men who believe they are called to the diaconate are encouraged to discuss it with their pastor and with a deacon if their parish has one.
“The bishop is looking for applicants who are servant leaders — servants in that they are doers, leaders in that they can initiate a ministry and bring people into it and facilitate it, and who then can go and find another need in the parish,” said Deacon Schwartze.
Pastors will put Fr. Merz and Deacon Schwartze in contact with the men who they believe are called and ready to pursue diaconal formation.
“The person we’re looking for already has the diaconate spirit,” Fr. Merz noted. “The vocation to ministry should come forth not because it’s what someone wants, but in order for them to serve the Church and for the betterment of the Church.”
Bishop McKnight, Fr. Merz and Deacons Schwartze and Purvis, with input from fellow deacons, priests and laypeople, have revamped the program for forming new deacons.
“We take into account more of the different dimensions of formation,” said Deacon Purvis. “In the past, we’ve tended to focus more on the intellectual and spiritual and not as much on the human development and pastoral aspect.”
Courses will be less focused on lectures, and more time will be given for reflection.
There will be an increased emphasis on each candidate’s psychological and emotional health, as well as the strength of his marriage and family life.
“Diaconal ordination does not in any way diminish the responsibilities of married life,” Fr. Merz noted. “The bishop wants to make sure we are not putting an undue burden on an already struggling marriage.”
Deacon Purvis said one of the formation program’s strongest points is its local faculty, which includes priests, deacons and lay men and women, some from other countries.
“We have excellent instructors and a wonderful formation program,” Deacon Schwartze added. “I’m looking forward to attending it with the candidates.”
The program will be given in trimesters, with each course presenting somewhat shorter, more focused material.
Previously, candidates took one course on the Old Testament and one on the New Testament. Now, that will be divided into the Pentateuch, the Prophets, the Wisdom books, the Synoptic gospels, St. John’s gospel and St. Paul’s epistles.
Candidates will also study the Early Church Fathers; salvation history; philosophy and fundamental theology; sacramental and moral theology; ethics; the Catechism of the Catholic Church; Church history; canon law; liturgy; the nature of Christ; the Church’s social teaching; and the End Times.
From the beginning, candidates will be given more opportunities to prepare and give presentations, building up their public speaking skills.
They will be challenged to evaluate and build-up their prayer lives and their ability to pray in different ways with different people.
“Sometimes as a minister of the Gospel, you have to teach or facilitate prayer that’s not yours,” said Fr. Merz.
Deacon Purvis noted that candidates are encouraged and eventually required to incorporate the Liturgy of the Hours into their daily prayer regimen.
On Ordination Day, they will promise God to continue praying the Liturgy of the Hours every day.
Fr. Merz was quick to thank Deacon Purvis for his years of service in preparing past candidates of ordination and helping them continue to grow in faith and wisdom through their ministries.
Deacon Purvis pointed out that ongoing education and community-building is crucial for deacons to be effective in their ministry.
“The deacon community — and the wives are an integral part of that — gathers several times a year, once for a retreat, once for continuing education and formation together, and other special occasions,” he noted.
The diocese also has a deacon council made up of deacon couples, who periodically meet to advise the bishop on aspects of diaconal formation and ministry and the welfare of the deacon community.
At the beginning of formal discernment, a deacon couple in each deanery is assigned to mentor aspiring deacons and their wives through the application process.
Deacon Schwartze said he and his wife have experienced tremendous camaraderie among the deacon community since they returned to the diocese a few years ago.
“It goes beyond ordination classes,” he said. “It’s a real blessing what we’ve got going on here. Our gatherings are very enriching and very communal.”
Fr. Merz predicted that over time, the cooperative roles between pastors and deacons in the diocese will continue to become clearer and more uniform.
“Bishop McKnight talks about the deacons as facilitators and intermediaries,” he said. “Several years down the road, I think we’ll have a lot more clarity about how deacons facilitate the sacramental ministry of the parish.
“And from that fruitful collaboration, there will grow vocations to the diaconate,” he said.
Candidates need their pastor’s support throughout formation.
“That relationship is critical,” said Deacon Schwartze.
Deacon Purvis said parishioners should be on the lookout for fellow congregants who have the gifts and commitment to be good deacons.
Current deacons should also be in ongoing dialogue with pastors about who might make good deacons in the future.
He said one of the best attractors for potential deacons is seeing good deacons in action.
“Where we have the good models, we get the good men,” he said.