Written by Mike Whitehead
Photos by Mike Whitehead & Jessica Rinaudo
Chris Domingue places his pen on the table so he can hold the notes on his white, lined pad in both hands. As the recorder for his breakout group, it’s Domingue’s responsibility to demonstrate how ministerial ethics is intrinsically linked to the Cardinal virtues.
Heady stuff, for sure, but it’s just another teachable moment for the 16 candidates in the Diocese of Shreveport’s Diaconate formation. The group just completed its first two years of a four-year formation. At the end of the formation, the men will be eligible for ordination in the spring of 2014.
“Each class I complete, each paper I write is an answer to God’s call,” said Domingue, who is one of the candidates in the formation and a member of the Church of Jesus the Good Shepherd in Monroe. “I didn’t realize how hungry I am to learn more about my faith, and I definitely look forward to growing in knowledge. All of this is part of the journey where God is leading me and I am embracing everything with open arms.”
For all 16 men in formation it has been quite a journey.
The candidates meet for class at St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church student center in Ruston from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., three weekend days each month, from September through April. The classes, whose topics range from scripture, spirituality and theology, to ministry, philosophy and church history, are all taught through the University of Dallas.
When you poll each person attending classes, you discover one common thread –– the University of Dallas professors are first-rate. Even though they travel a long distance to teach, they enjoy being with the students because everyone in the room is eager to learn more about their faith, their Church and their ministry.
“I [knew] that the participants would be committed, prayerful and engaged,” said Peter Jones, who has taught multiple classes and is one of many favorite professors. “And these qualities make for great students.”
Deacon candidates Charles Thomas, David Nagem and Steve Lehr compare notes during their weekend deacon formation classes at St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Ruston, LA.
Father Pat Madden, another respected professor who also has taught multiple classes, said he hopes the students take away the love of learning. “In the classes, I hope to provide them with the tools that will enable them to continue their studies of scripture, theology and pastoral practice that will enable them to be life-long learners. I hope they will take away a ‘hunger for more.’”
Providing these quality professors comes at a cost. The Diocese of Shreveport has made a huge commitment to the formation in dollars –– it costs $50,000 per year to fund the program. To show his commitment to his vocational call, each candidate pays $400 per semester for tuition. They also are responsible for buying their books and other materials for class. A portion of the 2012 Diocesan Service Appeal will also help defray costs for the formation.
“The current formation is many times better than the first program (mine, from 1981-1986) and several times better than the last formation (2000-2005),” said Deacon Clary Nash, Director of the Permanent Diaconate and the Permanent Deacon Formation Program for the diocese. “The difference is academic standards of The University of Dallas and the caliber of instructors with diaconate training experience.”
Deacon Oscar Hannibal, who is Deacon Nash’s partner in leading the formation program and the Ruston liaison, likes to state it in pastoral terms: “Every one of these men is precious to me.”
By looking through the lens of 20/20 hindsight, each formation should be better than the last. The decision to have the University of Dallas as the centerpiece of the program led to another important outcome –– a higher standard has been set for being ordained a permanent deacon.
“A new bar has been raised, and the men in formation have willingly accepted that challenge,” said Deacon Nash.
To hold that high standard, candidates are busy when they aren’t in class. They spend their time praying the Liturgy of the Hours twice daily, devouring textbooks and writing papers. By the end of the formation, each candidate will have spent close to 1,500 hours in preparation for his ordination.
Candidates aren’t alone in their journey of faith. Their wives also play a pivotal role in the formation. To be accepted into the formation, each man must have the support of his wife. Then, each year, the candidate’s spouse must renew that commitment. For all practical purposes, entering the diaconate is a partnership between husband and wife. One Sunday a month, the wives join their husbands for the day. Half the day is spent in studying spirituality and half the day is spent in pastoral training.
“During the application process, Deacon Clary told Natalie [my wife] and me how the diaconate was going to change our lives,” said Candidate Charles Thomas, a member of Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church in Shreveport. “After two years, we have seen our spiritual life, ministry in the church and our marriage brought to another level.”
Even though the diaconate has been an integral part of the Church since the Second Vatican Council, the definition of a deacon can sometimes still be quite elusive. What is a deacon? What does a deacon do?
A deacon is an ordained minister of the church. It is a life of service to God’s people. In fact, if you had to define a deacon in one word, it would be “service.” There also is a significant social justice component to the ministry. Since deacons were first instituted in the beginning of Christianity, serving the poor is rooted in the diaconate tradition.
Diaconate Candidates pose together in the St. Thomas Aquinas classroom. Back Row (L to R): Chris Domingue, Robert Ransom, Marc Vereen, Danny LeMoine, David Nagem, Ricardo Rivera, Charles Thomas, Scott Brandle, Orlando Batongbakal, Bill Kleinpeter, Mike Whitehead. Front Row (L to R): Steve Lehr, Mike Wise, Bill Goss, Jack Lynch and Tom Deal.
“The purpose of a deacon is to serve, especially the weakest, the least known and the least appreciated people,” said Candidate Bill Kleinpeter, a member of St. Joseph Catholic Church in Mansfield.
Candidate Ricardo Rivera sees his calling in Spanish ministry, helping at Christ the King Catholic Church. “It always comes down to where you are needed.”
As ministers of the word, deacons proclaim the gospel, preach and teach in the name of the Church. As ministers of sacrament, deacons can baptize, witness marriages and conduct funeral services. Deacon Nash often says a deacon spends about 15 percent of his time on the altar and 85 percent of his time working in the community. A deacon is not a “mini-priest” or a “super altar server.” It’s a distinct ministry in our Church, alongside bishops, priests and the laity.
Deacon Nash is already looking forward to the next two years, “It should be even more fruitful.”
Mike Whitehead is a freelance writer from Shreveport, a Candidate in the current diaconate formation and a member of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic Church.