By DEACON LORIS SINANIAN, Commentary | Published January 18, 2007
I was once asked, “What was the greatest gift you have received?” My first inclination was to say my wife and family, but after some thought my answer came out, “Being ordained a deacon.”
You may ask why? The answer is simple. Ordination has strengthened my love for my wife; it has strengthened my relationship with our children; and it has given me a greater love and appreciation for our Lord, Jesus Christ.
The Archdiocese of Atlanta is truly blessed—every archbishop, including our current shepherd, Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory, has been very supportive of the diaconate. This support is evidenced by the fact that we currently have 86 men in formation and more than 30 in inquiry. Our diocese ordains men to the permanent diaconate every year and accepts new men into the program annually. Aspirants—those in a period of discernment—begin orientation in January of each year. Ordinations normally take place in February.
The archdiocese has a solid five-year program that follows a year of inquiry, interviews and finally acceptance of some men into aspirancy. The initial process includes information nights for men and their wives who have been recommended for consideration to the archbishop by their pastors. These information nights provide the men and their wives with a comprehensive overview of the next five years, as well as the demands and expectations of aspirancy and formation. The information nights are conducted in a manner that allows for dialogue between the attendees and the director of formation.
Information nights are followed by a formal application that includes application screening, reference checks and a two-level interview process—the first interview with a deacon and his wife and the final interview conducted by a deacon board. All interviews follow a script to ensure that all potential candidates are evaluated on a common baseline. Upon completion of the interviews the deacon board makes its recommendations to the archbishop. Approximately 30 percent of the applicants are recommended for acceptance.
After acceptance into the aspirancy phase, the men experience a period of spiritual awakening and awareness, renewed and expanded prayer life, a deeper understanding of the Catholic faith, and an introduction to diaconal spirituality. The Liturgy of the Hours becomes a part of their lives and the psalms an integral part of their prayer life.
During the aspirancy year sacramental records are obtained and psychological evaluations conducted by licensed psychologists. The men are also evaluated by an “in-class deacon,” their pastors, those overseeing their aspirancy phase, and the deacon board. Upon satisfactory completion of aspirancy, the men are admitted to candidacy and formation.
The in-class deacon remains with the class throughout the entire five years. He acts as a mentor, instructor assistant, prayer leader and advisor to the director of formation.
Formation classes are held on alternate Saturdays from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.—a 10-hour day. The day begins with a holy hour and Communion service, the latter being part of the practicum for the seniors. Additionally, the time period from 5-6 p.m. is allocated for individual consultations as required.
All men, including aspirants, are required to have a mentor and a spiritual director. The mentor must be a deacon, and the spiritual director must be a priest. Quarterly reports are submitted to the director of formation with dates the men have met with their mentor and spiritual director. (These reports also contain remedial action when meetings have not been held as prescribed by formation policy.)
The formation phase incorporates both the intellectual and spiritual aspect required by the “Directory on the Formation, Life and Ministry of Permanent Deacons in the United States.” The intellectual aspect consists of understanding essential Catholic doctrine based on sacred Scripture, sacred tradition, church councils, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, social teachings and other documents, such as papal encyclicals and instructions from the Magisterium.
The spiritual dimension of formation is intended to establish and nurture attitudes, habits and practices that will set the foundation for a lifetime of ongoing spiritual development. The immediate goals are for the men to fully comprehend the diaconate and cultivate a commitment to God’s word in the family, in the Church and in the world; deepen prayer life; become acquainted with Catholic spiritual traditions and prayers; practice and witness to the sacrament of matrimony; receive the Eucharist regularly, daily if possible; receive the sacrament of penance regularly; and obtain monthly spiritual direction.
All candidates attend at least one three-day retreat annually and one or two days of reflection.
The overall time commitment required of men in formation is estimated to be 980 academic class hours, 1,125 academic study hours, 600 parish ministry hours, 350 summer assignment hours, 30 days of social justice ministry work, 25 days of retreats or days of reflection, monthly spiritual direction, and quarterly opportunities for mentoring.
The social justice ministry work helps form the men, bringing them close together and to a deeper understanding of the meaning of the preferential option of the poor. These ministries are different in each year of formation with the first-year men going to Jamaica to work hand-in-hand with the Missionaries of the Poor. Second-year candidates are trained to work in hospices and work a minimum of 20 hours of hands-on experience. The third-year men work in prison ministry, soup kitchens or food pantries, or fulfill similar needs identified by their pastor together with the director of formation. The final year includes a trip to Haiti to witness and work with the “poorest of the poor” in this hemisphere.
The formation program does not overlook the candidates’ wives, although they are not required to attend classes. Family considerations, children, personal interests and desires, as well as work, are taken into consideration. With the formation program accepting younger men, family concerns are paramount. Several days of reflection are offered to the wives of candidates. These days are mandatory, as are several formation classes during the course of the year. The days of reflection are directed at the problems and situations wives of deacons encounter, spiritual development and prayer, diaconal relationships with family and friends, and expectations of wives of deacons. A special retreat is held for wives prior to the ordination of their husbands.
Formation classes are currently being taught by priests and deacons of the archdiocese, together with a few lay instructors, all of whom have master’s degrees in theology or Scripture. The staff currently involves 25 priests, 23 deacons and nine lay people.
Formation also takes its toll. During the course of the five years the dropout rate is slightly over 20 percent. Dropouts result for many reasons, including transfers due to work, commitment beyond expectations, and further discernment suggesting that the diaconate is not meant for the individual, to name a few.
Formation is not easy, and it must be an act of love. This love is really what we simply say is a “calling.” Some are called, some are formed—not all are chosen. That’s what formation is all about.
The deacon formation program takes on a special personality, one that encompasses love and compassion yet recognizes problems with candidates and instructors as well. It must be a program that develops a special camaraderie among the men, making them a “band of brothers.” Formation is witnessing to the growth of men spiritually, emotionally, intellectually and pastorally.
Deacon Loris Sinanian is the director of diaconate formation for the Archdiocese of Atlanta. The following article, originally printed in Deacon Digest and reprinted with permission, provides an explanation of the steps toward the permanent diaconate here in the archdiocese. The diaconate class of 2011 was admitted to candidacy on Jan. 18, and a class of men will be ordained as permanent deacons by Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory on Saturday, Feb. 10, at the Cathedral of Christ the King, Atlanta.