Prospective candidates for permanent diaconate can attend inquiry sessions beginning in January
By Bill Brewer
The Diocese of Knoxville will be starting a new class of permanent deacons in 2022 and is now reaching out to Catholic men interested in joining the clergy.
The diocesan Office of the Diaconate and Deacon Formation, which supports ordained deacons serving in the diocese and men inquiring about the permanent diaconate, is interested in connecting with prospective deacons.
Deacon Tim Elliott, director of the diaconate and deacon formation, said six inquiry dates have been scheduled beginning in early 2022. The inquiries will be held on Jan. 8, Feb. 19, March 19, April 23, May 21, and June 18. These inquiries will be held on Saturdays at All Saints Church, with Mass at 9 a.m. followed by an information meeting in the All Saints parish hall.
“These inquiries answer what is the diaconate all about. It’s a question-and-answer session,” Deacon Elliott said. “What is involved in becoming a deacon? What do the men understand, and what don’t they understand? Why does the program require five years of study? What are the expectations?”
Prospective diaconate candidates aren’t required to attend all six inquiry sessions, but they are welcome to.
“We try to answer any questions they may have about the program itself and what’s involved in the program. Associated with the inquiry period is a period of discernment, determining whether they are being called to the diaconate in a time of prayer and reflection,” the deacon noted.
Deacon Elliott, who was a member of the Diocese of Knoxville’s diaconate class that was ordained in 2007 and included 29 men, has led two classes. His first class began in 2011 and was ordained in 2016. It had 26 members. The second class began in 2017 and will be ordained in June. There currently are 25 men in this class.
He explained that while a call to the priesthood occurs within the heart of a man and is confirmed through seminarian study and spiritual growth, a call to the diaconate begins outside a man.
He cited Scripture that described how the early Apostles were overwhelmed with forming Jesus Christ’s Church and leading the faithful, which prompted other men to step up to serve.
“The call to the priesthood usually originates inside a person. The call to the diaconate begins outside. The confirmation of both of those calls comes through the formation period,” Deacon Elliott said, noting that his role is to help potential diaconate candidates identify where their call to serve is coming from.
He already is receiving interest in the new class from several men in the diocese.
“So far, I have about a dozen men who have talked to me, who are thinking about it. I have met one-on-one with each of them to help decipher their call. I don’t want to discourage them, but I want them to start discerning that call. People who come early have a lot longer to think about that call,” Deacon Elliott said.
He pointed out that the permanent-diaconate program requires considerable study centering on four distinct areas: intellectual formation (academic); spiritual formation (gifts and charisms); human formation (what kind of person the candidate is and how he relates to others); and pastoral formation (what kind of leadership skills does the candidate possess or need).
And he noted that diaconal formation must address all four of those areas, with those elements typically present in every class held.
Deacon Elliott explained that once the candidates are identified and join the new class, coursework will be held one weekend each month, starting on a Friday night with evening prayer followed by a two-hour classroom session that lasts until about 9 p.m. The program begins again at 7:45 a.m. Saturday with morning prayer followed by classroom work that continues until about 9 p.m. On Sunday, the program gets underway at 7:45 a.m. with morning prayer and goes until about 3 p.m.
“Altogether, there are about 18 hours of chair time in each weekend. For the rest of the month, they will be reading and will be assigned papers to write as well as preparing for the next class and meeting with their mentor and spiritual director. This continues from September through May for five years,” Deacon Elliott said.
Each summer during that five-year period, the candidates are asked to perform summer projects while they are not in the classroom. The projects focus on the charity of the Church, and they need to demonstrate how the diaconate candidates interact with the people they’re working with or ministering to.
Projects in June, July, and August range from working at Ladies of Charity, Second Harvest, KARM, and Volunteer Ministry Center to serving in the chaplaincy at a hospital or working in parish ministry. The candidates then must attend a weekend-long retreat with their wives each August.
“They’re all surprised at how quickly it goes. We’re coming into the last year of formation with the current class. They’ll be ordained, God willing, in June of next year,” Deacon Elliott said, adding that the current class only has two academic courses remaining: one in canon law and the second in pastoral care.
“The rest of it is practicum. How do you do what you do? How do you attend at the altar? How do you prepare a homily? How do you do a baptism? It’s the mechanics of being a deacon. How do you serve?” the deacon continued.
Deacon Elliott, who is one of the course instructors, explained that Scripture study fills much of the classwork in the first two years of the diaconate program. Coursework includes Church history, pastoral care, canon law, moral theology, philosophy, medical ethics, systematic theology, eschatology, Marian theology, and Christology.
The youngest candidate Deacon Elliott has seen in the program was 34 when he applied and will be 39 when he is ordained next June.
“I’ve had them start the program as old as 61. The bulk usually are in their late 40s to mid-50s. I would love to have them younger. The current class is younger by far than previous classes,” he said.
He noted that some candidates come from very stable environments while others may bring “baggage” with them, which the initial formation process helps them sort through before officially entering the class.
“We help them process some of that baggage. They are all required to go through a psychological evaluation prior to being admitted into the program. Their wives go through it, too, so we can get a better picture of their marriage,” the deacon said.
The current class marked a milestone in its study on Sept. 26 when they were installed as acolytes by Bishop Richard F. Stika at the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, where they will be ordained.
“There are different stages during the formation. The first stage is what we call aspirancy. They are aspiring to the program. For two years they are aspirants. That is when we get a good look at them during that two-year period, in their academics, when it’s still active discernment on their part and on the part of the bishop and their formation team,” Deacon Elliott said.
“At the end of two years, they enter into their candidacy. That is what we call a rite of the Church. It is celebrated at a public Mass, and the bishop takes on a certain responsibility at that point for their continued spiritual growth, growth in holiness, growth in their vocation. At that point, they are publicly acknowledged as being in formation for the diaconate. It is a big step. A year later, they are installed as lectors. That is another step,” he added. “Beyond that, the candidates become catechists for life and are charged with religious-education responsibilities, and then they are installed as acolytes with specific duties at the altar, helping the deacon or priest set up the altar, cleaning the vessels after Communion, receiving the gifts from the congregation, and the education of altar servers. That is the last step before ordination.”
Just prior to ordination, the deacon candidates, without their wives, go on a five-day canonical retreat. This retreat in the past has been held at Living Waters Catholic Reflection Center in Maggie Valley, N.C., and at St. Bernard Abbey in Cullman, Ala.
Deacon Elliott is excited about starting a new class of deacon aspirants, including a change in location. The previous class, which was ordained in 2016, held its monthly meetings at a Lenoir City hotel, which he said was functional but somewhat confining.
The current class held its monthly meetings for the first year at the same hotel but then transitioned to the diocese’s sprawling Christ Prince of Peace Retreat Center in Benton, which can comfortably accommodate all the candidates and instructors in living and meeting quarters and also has a chapel for Masses.
“It has been a total blessing for the program to be able to be there. The environment is more conducive. The availability of an onsite chapel has been a huge blessing as well as having priests available there to celebrate Mass and hear confessions and all the spiritual work. The building of a relationship between the men is an incredible thing to see. It will all be done at Christ Prince of Peace, which is just fantastic,” Deacon Elliott said.
Deacon Elliott doesn’t get caught up in class sizes, saying the Diocese of Knoxville’s diaconate will be equally blessed and enriched by five, 15, or 35 new deacons.
“I wouldn’t mind having a class of 10 or 15. And I wouldn’t mind having a class of 30,” he said, noting that his diaconate class, which was the Diocese of Knoxville’s first, began with 37 men, and 29 were ordained. The current class began with 30 men, and 25 are set to be ordained. The class before that one began with 30 men, and 27 were ordained.
He often thinks back to his formation and studying for the diaconate, and he appreciates how it has impacted his faith.
“Being a deacon has strengthened me. I can’t speak enough about the grace of the sacrament and what it does to a person. It continues to form and develop the person. It strengthened my marriage. It has strengthened my relationship with my family and kids. It has strengthened relationships within my parish,” he said, sharing that he strengthened his prayer and grew to love the Liturgy of the Hours.
“It has become a lifeline. It drives you deeper. It develops a desire for more prayer and reflection. Your reading habits change; you start reading books you never thought you would read before. It drives you to want to share your joy with other people. It brings you closer to your spouse because you pray more together. The promise of obedience to the bishop is transformative because you begin to learn to submit your own will to the will of the Church,” Deacon Elliott said.
“You learn more about freedom because it is not just the freedom to do what you want to do but the freedom to make an informed choice to do what is right. It strengthens the natural inclination I have and everybody has toward charity, toward service, and the grace of the sacrament lifts those up and presents them in an entirely different light. You almost become driven to see that servant mentality grow inside yourself and grow inside others who are formed with you,” he continued.
And he pointed out that unexpected graces await the deacon candidates when they are ordained, such as ministering in areas they never expected or serving in parishes they never considered. As an example, he cited a deacon who oversaw the day-to-day, week-to-week operation of a parish as parochial administrator. A visiting priest would drive in on the weekends to celebrate Mass.
“The grace of the sacrament causes you to step forward into areas you never thought you would. Getting involved with marriage preparation now might mean working with a couple on an annulment. You’re able to speak with confidence about marriage as a sacrament and not just as a living arrangement and how you get along with each other and see the fulfillment of that sacrament in your life. I love being a deacon. Human formation is part of the formation, along with spiritual formation,” he said.
“Sometimes you get tapped after you’re ordained to do things you never thought you would do. We’re called to that, too. So, with our unique gifts of being able to step into a role that is necessary, that happens,” he added.
Once ordained, Bishop Stika will assign the deacons to the churches where they will serve. And while the bishop can assign a deacon anywhere there is a need, Deacon Elliott said Bishop Stika typically does not assign a deacon far from his residence. He said the assignment usually is within a 35- to 45-minute drive from home.
Deacon Elliott described Bishop Stika as the most “deacon friendly” bishop he has encountered. Bishop Stika served as vicar for deacons in the Archdiocese of St. Louis before he came to the Diocese of Knoxville.
“He’s had a close relationship with deacons for a very long time and has a special place in his heart for deacons. But he also puts them to work,” Deacon Elliott pointed out.
Deacon Elliott explained that the diaconate was very vibrant in the early Church, but for various reasons it started to wane in the Middle Ages, becoming a steppingstone to the priesthood.
Vatican II laid the groundwork for the diaconate’s return to prominence, and in the post-Vatican II Church, sacramental ordination as a deacon was instituted by Pope Paul VI for permanent deacons and priests.
Deacon Elliott further explained that in today’s Church, the deacon typically writes the prayers of the faithful for the parish, bringing the needs of the parish into the Mass; the deacon proclaims the Gospel; deacons can deliver homilies; and they can serve as ministers at baptisms, officiate weddings, and conduct services at a funeral, such as a rosary, or prayer service, or interment.
Deacons cannot celebrate Mass, but they typically are part of the Masses where baptisms, weddings, funerals, or confirmations are held. They are involved in religious education and faith formation.
“We can’t celebrate Mass, but sometimes we’re called to do a Communion service, which is a Scripture service with the distribution of Communion that already has been consecrated at a Mass. We don’t celebrate Mass, but we serve the priests who do celebrate Mass,” Deacon Elliott said. “The permanent diaconate is a marriage between the neighborhoods, the families, and the sanctuary. There was a charge for them to be simultaneously in the world and in the Church. They’re at the water cooler in the workplace when a discussion comes up and can lend a moral voice to that discussion. Sometimes that voice is not welcome.”
He gave the example of deacons working side-by-side with workers on an assembly line, or in an engineering office, or on a construction site because that is their primary vocation. They are ministering where priests cannot go.
Are there established age limits for diaconate vocations?