Deacon John Krebsbach of St. Anthony Parish in Forest Grove baptizes a child. (Courtesy Office of the Permanent Diaconate)
Deacon John Krebsbach of St. Anthony Parish in Forest Grove baptizes a child. (Courtesy Office of the Permanent Diaconate)
One foot in workaday life, the other in ordained church service — that is the stance of the deacon.

“It’s so easy for the church to get insulated and self-focused,” said Deacon Brian Diehm, director of the permanent diaconate for the Archdiocese of Portland. “The idea of the permanent diaconate is this bridge between the world and the church.”

The permanent deacon is a clergyman but he is a father and a husband too. He does not wear clerical garb, making clear his close connection with the laity.

Deacons who will remain deacons, not going on to be ordained priests, in general must be between 35 and 65 when they are ordained. Usually, they are married men who work in secular jobs. As their children mature and when they retire, deacons often have more time for ministry. Currently, western Oregon’s 58 active permanent deacons serve as parish workhorses, catechists, ministers to the homeless, visitors to the sick, hospital chaplains or prison ministers.

Deacon Diehm, ordained 17 years ago, quashes the notion that priests don’t know about marriage. But still, permanent deacons are a bit closer to married people because of their experience. Many deacons work with couples seeking to get their marriage status in order with the archdiocesan tribunal.

Serving the

larger church

The first deacons are mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles, Chapter 6, as men of wisdom designated by the laying on of hands to care for widows. As for priests, ordination of a deacon “configures him to Christ,” in the language of church teaching.

Father William Donovan, a New York priest and author, has called the diaconate “the church’s pre-eminent sign of the basic mission of all believers to serve others.” Deacon James Keating of the Archdiocese of Omaha wrote a book in which he said a key virtue of a deacon is to listen to Christ in prayer and discern the needs of his diocese and his bishop.

By universal canon law, deacons can baptize, witness marriage, preside at funerals and give occasional homilies under certain circumstances. They cannot preside at Mass, confirm, hear confessions or anoint the sick.

In western Oregon, Archbishop Alexander Sample has insisted that a deacon does not just serve at the altar, but has another ministry, whether at a parish, a hospital, a prison or elsewhere. Permanent deacons are assigned by and report to the archbishop, not the parish priest.

“There has been a realignment of the diaconate in the archdiocese,” said Deacon Diehm, who took the lead post in 2014 after Archbishop Sample arrived. “There is a greater emphasis on the deacon as a part of a larger church.”

Deacons are called to go into the world to bring people back to sacraments, Deacon Diehm explained. The way they might do that is limited only by imagination. Deacon Diehm, who serves at St. Rose of Lima Parish in Northeast Portland on weekends, did jail ministry for 13 years and now helps Father Matt Libra at a juvenile corrections home in Northeast Portland. Deacon Geoff Schmitt, assistant in the office of the diaconate and deacon at Immaculate Conception Parish in Salem, also is chaplain of Scouting in the archdiocese.

“There is nothing that says a permanent deacon’s ministry has to be associated with a parish,” Deacon Diehm said. “He can be assigned by the bishop to be out in the world . …The bishop can think of deacons as arrows in his quiver to be used where and when needed.”

Formation of deacons

The Archdiocese of Portland has long been ahead of the curve in permanent diaconate formation. The archdiocese revived the ancient office in 1974, shortly after the Second Vatican Council had approved the idea. From the start, the archdiocese has required its permanent deacons to hold a master’s degree in theology or the equivalent, a level of formation other dioceses didn’t adopt until recent years.

“If a deacon can preach and teach in the official name of the church, then he’d better know what the church teaches,” said Deacon Diehm.

Permanent deacons in the Archdiocese of Portland now use the Denver-based Augustine Institute, an online master’s degree program. Whereas the previous University of Portland degree included theological exploration within tradition, the Augustine Institute hews closer to foundational orthodoxy — as is the wish of Archbishop Sample.

The online classes minimize travel expense and reduce risk. Years ago, Deacon Jim McVeigh, for example, hit bad weather driving from Southern Oregon to Portland for classes under the previous program and his pickup rolled on an icy road. He was not seriously hurt.

Like seminarians, permanent deacons in formation tend to matters pastoral, intellectual, spiritual and human.

Deacon formation takes about five years, concluding with practical training in how to serve at the altar and preside at sacraments.

Wives are included in discernment and formation. By canon law, no deacon will be ordained unless his wife is fully supportive and gives permission.

“The man’s first sacrament is marriage,” Deacon Diehm explained. “We don’t want to drive a wedge between a husband and a wife.”

Some wives are involved up front while others lend aid from behind the scenes. Deacons could not do what they do without their wives, Deacon Diehm said.

Deacons can be married at the time of ordination but cannot get married once ordained. If a deacon’s wife dies, he is committed to celibacy.

Would-be deacons and their wives meet deacon couples to get a dose of reality. They write reflection papers. They undergo psychological evaluation and background checks. Then, in the end, it is the archbishop who decides whether a man will be ordained.

There have been four permanent deacons ordained in the past year for the archdiocese. Two more men are in formation and three have been accepted to begin the process.

Not every man who considers permanent diaconate gets to ordination. About three in four who start formal exploration decide against it. More rarely, the church in its own discernment may not call a man forward.

Deacon spirituality

People notice a deacon’s service, but it’s the spiritual life that makes the work possible. The hallmark of the permanent deacon’s spirituality is integrating prayer and daily life.

And so the very presence of deacons offers an important message for everyone, said Deacon Schmitt. “Our society has separated our spirituality from everyday life. But really all of us in the world are also spiritual beings.” He urges deacons to find daily quiet time, calling silence the language of God.

The deacon’s spirituality can be a model for avoiding burnout, Deacon Diehm added.

Self-giving is in the very DNA of the diaconate. The patron saints of deacons are Stephen and Lawrence, two early deacons who were martyred.

Deacon Diehm said the role of permanent deacons is still taking shape, explaining it often takes a century or so for the teaching of a church council to solidify. But one thing is clear: “The deacon should be used to expand the footprint of the church out in the world.”