Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta


National Text Guides Changes In Atlanta Diaconate

By GRETCHEN KEISER, Staff Writer | Published September 11, 2008

The Archdiocese of Atlanta has taken a proactive, leadership role in implementing the U.S. bishops’ National Directory for the Formation, Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons for the diaconate program here.

After completing an internal self-study, the diocese in 2008 became the first in the country to invite a national evaluation team in to make recommendations about strengthening facets of the formation program and the diaconal ministry in light of the new directory.

Deacon Dennis Dorner said he is energized by what has been accomplished and what lies ahead and by the team of local people who have begun serving as advisors and collaborators.

“It is a bright new day, and there are so many people working so hard to see this come together. It is very exciting,” said Deacon Dorner, appointed two and a half years ago as director of deacon personnel.

“I think it is all going to make for a much more vibrant diaconate, a better prepared diaconate, and hopefully better service to the people of God in the archdiocese because we have better prepared deacons.”

Describing some of the structural changes that are taking place, he said roles have been reconfigured and an advisory board created to assist in vital areas including curriculum, selecting candidates for permanent deacon, and evaluating their readiness for ordination as their formation progresses.

Deacon Dorner said his role is to direct the office as a whole, while reporting through Msgr. Luis Zarama, vicar general, to the archbishop and his title is director of the office of the diaconate. Deacon Steve Swope who began in August as the new associate director of formation will report to Deacon Dorner. Father Tim Hepburn is the newly named spiritual director for the diaconate.

In December 2004 the U.S. bishops approved the new national directory.

At the request of Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory, the self-study process outlined in the directory was begun in the archdiocese after Deacon Dorner’s appointment in 2006.

A group of 11 people, including priests, deacons, sisters and other laity, did “a systematic review of the entire diaconate program from candidate selection all the way through post-ordination,” Deacon Dorner said. “We followed the whole self-study document.”

“Then we had a visiting committee come in who were on the original writing committee (for the national directory). … They reviewed what the self-study had said and came back with their own recommendations.”

The Archdiocese of Atlanta was the first in the country to request the external review, which gives dioceses a great chance to evaluate what they are already doing and to benefit from the recommendations of those most familiar with the directory to enhance the diocesan program.

Deacon Bill Ditewig Ph.D., director of graduate programs in theology and associate professor of theology and religious studies at St. Leo University, and Dr. Ann Healey conducted the review.

Two new Archdiocese of Atlanta documents, a new formation directory and a new policies and procedures manual, were prepared as a result, reviewed and approved by Archbishop Gregory, and implemented in June.

They are considered draft documents for two years, Deacon Dorner said, because they are open to changes as they are tested by experience. They are posted on the archdiocesan Web site.

A new diaconate advisory board was also constituted this summer, including all members of the self-study group.

“The bishop, at the advisement of the visiting committee, actually asked the members of the self-study committee, with a few extra hands (added), to become the advisory board. It really made sense that they would become the new advisory board. … It is amazing the time they have spent studying the directory,” Deacon Dorner said.

Several subcommittees have been created for curriculum, candidate selection, continuing education, inculturation, and deacons’ wives and families.

At the moment the board is meeting monthly because of the work being done.

Change should not be misconstrued as a criticism of the program as it existed up until now, Deacon Dorner said. Deacon Loris Sinanian, who retired in June as director of deacon formation after more than a decade, put “his heart and his soul” into the diaconate program, Deacon Dorner said.

In fact, “we are trying to improve the diaconate program” using “some wonderful resources that are now in the new directory” and spread the tasks across a larger group of dedicated people.

A top priority has been to evaluate the 2009 candidates’ readiness for ordination. The new directory emphasizes four pillars of formation, which consider whether the men “have been formed intellectually, spiritually, pastorally and humanly so they can actually display all four pillars in their life. To not have all four of them or to be out of balance with them will really affect their ministry.”

A second priority was curriculum, where a subcommittee chaired by Father Theodore Book, is working. Changes will be phased in, with the most significant coming in January 2010. There will also be a greater emphasis on social justice in the formation process.

In order to make a smoother transition, a new class of aspirants to become permanent deacons will not be formed in the archdiocese in 2009.

However, a series of four information sessions for potential applicants and their wives will begin this November and end in May 2009 to prepare a class of aspirants for 2010. The four sessions will be mandatory and will offer an extended time for those considering the diaconate to understand who a deacon is supposed to be, the sacramental servant role of the deacon in the church, and the role of the deacon’s wife, if the candidate is married.

The advisory board members include William Allen, Father Book, Father Rafael Carballo, Father Timothy Gadziala, Father Victor Galier, Father Hepburn, Deacon Thomas Huff, Deacon Brian Kilkelly, Deacon Jerry Lett, Barbara Metzger, Charles Prejean, Deacon Joe Pat Rhodes, Sister Valentina Sheridan, RSM, and Phyllis Wigton. Deacons Dorner and Swope and Phillis Curry, executive assistant to Deacon Dorner, also serve on the board.