Assisting those who are called to serve as a deacon

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Editor’s note: This article is the first in an ongoing series looking at how the offices in the Anchorage Archdiocese’s Pastoral Center serve the wider needs of the archdiocese.

Five men are scheduled to be ordained permanent deacons for the Archdiocese of Anchorage next spring.

As these men prepare to take their place in a long line of deacons serving the local church, an additional class is already being readied to begin studying in September.

Deacon Mick Fornelli, the director of the office of deacon ministry, said formation is a five-year process in which candidates continue to ask themselves, “Is God calling me to function as a deacon?”

It’s an important question, he said, because often people find the answer comes only through ongoing discernment in the program. For example, the 2018 class of five started out at around 17 men, some of whom prayerfully decided ordination wasn’t their calling at this time.

“It’s a ministry of service,” he said. “Many people see deacons on the altar at their parish assisting the priest and often preaching homilies. But primarily, the diaconate is not a liturgical ministry. We are sometimes called ‘servants of the servants.’”

Meaning, he said, deacons may find themselves in homeless ministry, prison ministry or taking the Eucharist to the sick and homebound. They engage in unpaid service to the poor and to the community.

“One thing I make abundantly clear,” Deacon Fornelli said, “is that one of the most important things men will do in formation is develop an extremely strong prayer life. This is critical to discovering the direction their life will take.”

Candidates are also expected to have a spiritual director to help them with prayer and discernment.

How does one apply to be a deacon, and what do those five years of formation involve?

Someone interested in the diaconate fills out an inquiry form, available at Deacon Fornelli’s office in the downtown Anchorage Pastoral Center. These forms are then submitted along with a recommendation from a parish priest. The diaconate formation committee reviews these documents and makes a recommendation to Anchorage Archbishop Paul Etienne, who has final say.

With September drawing near, Deacon Fornelli said it’s late to be thinking about applying for the next class.

However, “Although it’s a little marginal at this point, we’d take a look at any application.”

The goal is to begin a new class of candidates every three years.

Accepted candidates then attend informational area meetings, one in Anchorage and one in Palmer where they receive additional paperwork requirements and an aspirancy handbook.

“Aspirancy” is the first year of formation and is taught by the permanent deacon community. These deacons are called “permanent” to distinguish them from transitional deacons who go through a period of diaconate service on their way to priestly ordination.

Classes take place on Fridays, and then monthly on Friday evenings and Saturday. If the candidate is married, his wife attends all classes with him. Many classes are taught by local experts, including Vincentian and Dominican priests and laypeople.

But, said Deacon Fornelli, “it’s difficult for us in Alaska to pull in presenters from outside the state.” So, to supplement training in theology or Scripture, the diaconate program has an agreement with the University of Dayton for online courses. These 5-7 week courses are available to anyone in the Archdiocese of Anchorage for a fee.

At this point, between 12-14 men have indicated an interest in the next formation class. This year, Deacon Fornelli will remain as director of the office, but Deacon David Van Tuyl is in training to take over as formation director of the new class.

What are some of the questions and concerns that a man brings to his discernment?

“What kind of time commitment will this be? That’s a major concern,” Deacon Fornelli said. “It’s basically a question of how much time you have. We ask deacons to prioritize family first, then job, then the diaconate.”

So this means for a young man with children still at home, his diaconate service will be more limited than someone whose children are grown or someone who is retired.

“We generally ask for about 20-25 hours a month, but that’s not a hard rule,” he said.

In his own ministry, Deacon Fornelli, who is retired from his professional position, said he generally gives about 60-70 hours per week to the diaconate, including his job at the Pastoral Center where he manages the local Campaign for Human Development, and directs the liturgical committee in addition to his diaconate duties. He also serves in liturgical ministry at St. Patrick Church in Anchorage.

“But I love it. I have a passion for the diaconate,” he said.

Another candidate concern may be, “where will I serve?” Often, a man is assigned to his home parish, but he can be transferred to another nearby parish, and his other priorities — family and job — will be taken into consideration.

Deacon Fornelli said he had two goals when he became director. One was to increase ethnic diversity to the diaconate, and he said two Latino men will be ordained in May. He said many other groups still need representation.

The second goal was to expand to more outlying areas, particularly places that don’t have resident priests. A new deacon will be ordained for Dutch Harbor in May.

Anyone with questions about serving as a permanent deacon for the archdiocese may contact Deacon Fornelli at (907) 297-7770 or mfornelli@caa.ak.org.


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