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About two dozen men sat attentively, holding on to every last word of Father Don Wester as he preached at a recent homiletics class.

These men are nearing the end of a five-year road of formation to become permanent deacons for the Archdiocese of St. Louis, with their ordination set for June of 2014. But before they get ready to head out into the world in their new vocation, they were learning the practical points of preaching a homily, one of many ways in which permanent deacons can serve the Church.

"I want you to understand ... It's not my job as a preacher that everyone leaves happy or resolved," Father Wester instructed the group at their class earlier this month at All Saints Parish in St. Peters. "It's important not to think that you can do it all for them."

He added, "We ought to be reading the Word to where people look up and say, 'Oh, he's talking to me.'"

A recent study by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate shows that there has been a growth in the number of U.S. permanent deacons, who, through the sacrament of holy orders, are ordained members of the clergy, serving the Church as assigned by the bishops.

In the Archdiocese of St. Louis, there has been a noticeable growth in the number of permanent deacons, according to Deacon Tom Forster, associate director for life and ministry with the archdiocesan Office of the Permanent Diaconate.

"We kind of knew this all along, and this (study) solidified my thoughts," he said. "Thirty-one years ago, when I joined as a candidate, I didn't see or know a deacon to ask anything about. That's how limited they were."

With an increase in numbers, permanent deacons also have been doing much to educate others about the role that they have in the life of the Church, said Deacon Forster. After all, the vocation in its modern form has only been around for the last 50 years or so since its reinstatement by Pope Paul VI in 1967 during the Second Vatican Council. The late Cardinal John J. Carberry ordained the archdiocese's first group of 12 men to the permanent diaconate in 1977.

"It was always said to me ... that we're not here to be junior priests, we're not here because there is a vocation shortage with priests," said Deacon Forster. "The challenge is for others to understand (the permanent diaconate) has its own charism in the sacrament of holy orders. That identity, which is in line with the presbyterate (priests) and episcopate (bishops), is still trying to be found."

An embodiment of service

Service is at the very heart of the permanent diaconate, explained Deacon Forster, who was ordained for the archdiocese in 1985.

"The word deacon comes from the Greek, 'diakonia,' which means 'servant' or 'to serve,'" he said. "But initially, if you go way back to the late '70s or early '80s, in the formative years, it wasn't thought about in that sense at all." Back then, there was a much more prevalent attitude of deacons serving as an assistant to the liturgical needs of the priest, or administering the sacraments, such as baptisms and marriages, he said.

But as the diaconate has grown and developed, the idea of service at the heart of the permanent diaconate has made a natural fit, because service can be reflected in multiple ways beyond the typical parish assignments, he said. Deacons serve in many other ways, within their own parishes with RCIA and PSR programs, for example; and elsewhere, including as hospital and prison chaplains, helping the homeless, ministering to the divorced and widowed, advancing pro-life issues, working with the elderly in nursing homes and even ministering to on-the-road truck drivers.

While deacons share the sacrament of holy orders with priests and bishops, their unique role allows them to serve in three areas: liturgy, word and charity, or service. What also makes deacons unique is that they may have a vocation to marriage, both of which have signifcance.

"If a man is married -- and the vast majority are -- it's as if one vocation is overlayed on the other," said Deacon Forster. "We tell the couple they have to understand the requirements. Because the diaconate can have an impact on marriage and on family life."

Deacon Forster remembers a former diaconate director once telling him that "the diaconate is a commitment, and it's an individual responsibility. With the help of God, he has to discern whether he has that vocation, and if he doesn't, that doesn't mean there's no room for him in the Church. There are many lay men and women who give of their talents without having to be ordained."

In the trenches

Deacon Dennis Barbero has been ordained for just four years, but his service to the elderly of north St. Louis County dates back about a decade and a half.

Deacon Barbero, who serves at St. Rose Philippine Duchesne Parish in Florissant, has a regular rotation of nursing homes and other senior residential facilities that he visits on a regular basis. Upon his ordination in 2009, he was assigned to serve the 21 senior care facilities in the Northeast County Deanery. One of his duties is to bring the Eucharist to residents, but he stressed that the service is much more than that.

"Bringing the Eucharist is just part of the responsibility," he said during a recent visit at Delmar Gardens North skilled nursing home. "It's also assisting them in their spiritual life where they're at. Many people here don't ever go back to their original homes. When someone comes here, this becomes their community. This becomes God's house to them, because they can't leave. So we try to bring Him to them. And we as a team (including the staff and lay volunteers) support them. What I care about is their adjustment. We see there's a spiritual transition here."

After his 2009 ordination, Deacon Barbero formed the Alliance for Senior Ministry, a collaboration with other deacons and laypeople to serve the spiritual needs of senior communities. Its mission, he noted, is to share the love and Gospel message of Christ, as well as providing fellowship and companionship.

"We wanted to improve the quality of their spirituality, so we looked to the pastors of these parishes to combine our resources and provide a more effective outreach," said Deacon Barbero.

Deacon Barbero said that what brings him joy in being a permanent deacon is seeing the face of Christ manifested in those who serve others, particularly the elderly. He pointed to the example of Teresa Miller, who has been volunteering at the nursing home for 25 years. Miller's husband, Wyatt, died three weeks before he was to be ordained a permanent deacon in 1984.

"You see in her shadow Christ standing," he said. "I believe Christ is in that shadow, and it's a matter of how you bring that shadow out. You can see the transition from Christ being in her shadow to being on her face, through love, care and nurturing."

Making the commitment

Over the years, the permanent diaconate formation program has grown into a five-year program. It includes a year of informal association, which allows deacon candidates to continue discernment, and an additional four years of college-level academic studies, supervised ministry, and pastoral, liturgical, spiritual and human formation.

That can seem intimidating to men considering the diaconate, especially those who do not have a college education, said Deacon Forster. Records from the Office of the Permanent Diaconate show that 45 percent of men ordained in the last 10 years do not have a college degree.

Jim Hoefl, who is in his last year of formation as a deacon candidate, had some college credits under his belt when he entered the formation program.

"For some people that is an issue," said Hoefl, who is currently serving at St. Gabriel the Archangel Parish in south St. Louis. "You are told these are college-level courses. And guys who are 20 to 30 years out of school think they are not good and can't do this. We know the academics are important, but I say don't let that be a hindrance." The Permanent Diaconate Office also noted that it offers assistance to men who need extra help in academics.

"I think a bigger question to ask is, 'What do I have to offer? Am I worthy?'" said Hoefl. A deacon and his wife once told him, "In one aspect, nobody's worthy, and in the other aspect everybody is worthy."

Permanent diaconate
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