Discerning the permanent diaconate

Bishop Stika presides at the Rite of Admission to Candidacy for Holy Orders for the next class of deacons

By Dan McWilliams

Twenty-five men, making up the diocese’s incoming class of permanent deacons, took a major step in their discernment Oct. 20 as they participated in the Rite of Admission to Candidacy for Holy Orders.

Bishop Richard F. Stika presided as the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus hosted its first candidacy Mass in its new building.

Concelebrants included cathedral rector Father David Boettner, Father Ron Franco, CSP, and Monsignor Al Humbrecht. Deacon Fredy Vargas was deacon of the Word, and Deacon Walt Otey was deacon of the altar. More than 20 permanent deacons attended the Mass.

The 25 candidates “have humbly pronounced that they have a desire and a will to accept the call of Jesus to eventually, God willing, be ordained as deacons of the Catholic Church,” Bishop Stika said in his opening remarks. “To be of service, to work at the table, to be ministers of charity, to assist the priests, and then someday they’re going to make a pledge of obedience to me, and that’s the one I enjoy most.”

Candidate Joe Herman of St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Mountain City said the Rite of Candidacy “means a lot to share it with my brother candidates, now that we’ve been going to the classes and so forth for the last two and a half years. It’s just an honor to be called by God to do this.”

The deacon studies require “a lot of reading, a lot of paper writing, things of that nature,” Mr. Herman said. “The weekends are very rewarding, though, just getting to spend time with the instructors and my brother candidates.”

The candidates meet at Christ Prince of Peace Retreat Center in Benton once a month.

The men are about 50 percent along their path to ordination.

“We’re about to the halfway mark right now,” Mr. Herman said. “We’ll be ordained, God willing, in June of 2022.”

Candidate Rafael Pubillones of St. Thomas the Apostle Parish in Lenoir City tried to assess what the candidacy day meant to him.

“Oh, my goodness, it’s beyond words—very, very humbling, very, very exciting,” he said. “It becomes even more humbling when you think of things that may be in front of you: serving the Lord, serving the Church, serving the people of God.”

He says he sometimes thinks of his eventual ordination.

“Sometimes I do, and sometimes I don’t because it seems to be pretty far off, but it really isn’t, with all the preparation we still need to do,” he said.

The deacons pore through a great amount of reading material in their studies.

“I think we average easily about a couple hundred pages to read and write two or three papers a month,” Mr. Pubillones said. “You may think a month is plenty to do that, but before you know it the month is almost over.”

Bishop Stika shares a personal moment with the young son of permanent diaconate candidate Chad Shields of Christ the King Parish in Tazewell during the Rite of Admission to Candidacy for Holy Orders.

In his homily, the bishop said that those in the diaconate, like those in the priesthood, are not to be placed “up on a pedestal.”

“Today, our brothers make a statement that even though they’ve been going to school and are involved in their parishes, they’re making a public statement, a public pronouncement that they feel the call of God to be deacons,” Bishop Stika said. “They’ve still got a loooooong time to study,” he added, to laughter.

The candidacy stage is not like being a candidate for a political office or for a job, in which there is something to win, the bishop said.

“The rite of candidacy in the Church is totally different. You’re not competing against anybody. In fact, you’re accepting from God, from the Church, an invitation,” he said. “To be a deacon means that you will be a person within the parish who will provide in many ways an official capability to teach the faith. You can bless, preside at funerals, and baptize. You can be Christ to other people.

“You will follow in the long tradition of the early Church when we had St. Stephen, the first deacon, first martyr of the Church, whose feast day we celebrate right after Christmas. To be ministers of charity, to proclaim the Gospel, but that’s all a ways off. Right now you are candidates, and you must continue your studies, because the people of God need, and in some ways demand, someone who knows about the faith. It’s not enough that you smile at them and that you reassure them, but more than that it’s that you teach them.”

Bishop Stika said that anytime Jesus entered a city, town, or village, he would always preach, heal, and feed.

“So in order to preach the Word of God, you have to be competent and know the Word of God, and in order to teach Jesus you must know Jesus through your prayer and commitment to prayer,” the bishop said.

Bishop Stika spoke of two additional stages the candidates will reach: those of reader and acolyte.

“As you go through this process, eventually you will receive the office of reader. It’s another formal pronouncement that the Word of God will be important to you and that you will live it and believe in it and trust in it,” he said. “And then the other component is acolyte: a server, a person who assists at the Lord’s celebration of the Eucharist. None of these say to you, ‘Climb on a pedestal, because now you are wearing an alb and a cincture and everybody will see you.’ The only person on a pedestal is Jesus, and His pedestal was the cross.”

The bishop said the deacons are going to be people of faith.

“Allow the Spirit to deepen that faith. Accept the challenge to trust in Jesus and never be afraid—still, your family comes first and your spouse comes first, because that’s your primary vocation. They’re your support. . . . Be like the pope: be the servant to the servants of God.”

Bishop Stika said the upcoming candidacy ceremony in the Mass would be “very simple, and yet the ceremony is profound, because it’s part of your ongoing conversation with God, for if you have felt the call of God to be of service to God’s people, that’s pretty profound. Stay close to Jesus; He will guide you. Love your families, and embrace the challenges of what it means to be a minister of the Church. And also, be joyful. Don’t be old, crotchety men.”

At that point, Deacon Tim Elliott, director of the diaconate and deacon formation for the diocese, stepped to the microphone.

“My dear bishop, the following 25 men have completed the prescribed two-and-a-half-year period of inquiry and aspirancy, and they have met the necessary requirements of their formation to date,” he said. “They have been diligent in their studies, but more importantly through their prayer and spiritual growth, they have been humbly discerning their vocation, growing ever stronger in their faith and their commitment to the Church.

“With God’s help and the continued prayers of the Church of East Tennessee, they have petitioned to be installed as candidates for the sacrament of holy orders, for the order of the permanent diaconate.”

Deacon Elliott then called the aspirants by name, and each responded “present.”

Bishop Richard F. Stika is shown with the 25 members of the new Diocese of Knoxville permanent diaconate class and their wives in front of the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus on Oct. 20.

The bishop asked the men, “Do you resolve to complete your preparation so that in due time through holy orders you will be prepared to assume ministry within the Church?” and “Do you resolve to prepare yourselves in mind and spirit to give faithful service to Christ the Lord and His body, the Church?”

After their response in the affirmative, the bishop said, “The Church accepts your resolve with joy. May God who has begun the good work in you bring it to fulfillment.”

In his closing remarks, Bishop Stika said he would like to change the candidacy rite in one respect.

“What I would do is put an extra prayer in for the wives of the deacons. I would. Why? Because you have to be a part of the equation to allow them to study to be deacons, right?” he said. “Now, some of you might have husbands who are retired and you just want to get them out of the house. ‘Get out of here. Go study.

Go be a deacon or cut the grass or something.’ But I know you give a lot. You give up a lot of time with your husbands to the Church. That’s not always easy, is it? Especially if you have family, kids, and all that.

“So in a very, very, very, and a couple more verys in there, I just want to say thank you for allowing, God willing, the Church to share in that special love that you have for your spouse. Like I said, the primary vocation for these guys is to be a husband, and if appropriate, a father. The vocation to the diaconate should never get in that way, because that’s your primary witness in faith. . . . Ordination is a moment in time, but the sacrament of marriage is ongoing. When you were married, you made promises in front of the minister of the church or the state, and that’s a moment in time that’s lived out. The sacrament of marriage is an ongoing, everyday process of sharing love.”

Deacon Elliott said that for the 25 men, “the Rite of Candidacy is a very important step. They have already been studying and discerning their vocation to the diaconate for two and a half years. They still have three years to go in the program. However, when they are installed as a candidate for the sacrament of holy orders they are formally recognized for the first time by the bishop and the Church. They are recognized to be formally pursuing a vocation.

“The bishop informs them that he will be praying for them and supporting them spiritually in the years of formation that lie ahead. The bishop also asks the Church if they are willing to spiritually support and pray for these candidates.”

The part of the rite in which each man responds “present” is “very simple,” Deacon Elliott said. “This is a very beautiful way of indicating that they are present in the moment, present to the bishop, present to the Church, and are willing to be a present to the Church.”

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