The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks of the Sacrament of Holy Orders in this way:
Catholic doctrine, expressed in the liturgy, the Magisterium, and the constant practice of the Church, recognizes that there are two degrees of ministerial participation in the priesthood of Christ: the episcopacy and the presbyterate. The diaconate is intended to help and serve them. For this reason the term sacerdos in current usage denotes bishops and priests but not deacons. Yet Catholic doctrine teaches that the degrees of priestly participation (episcopate and presbyterate) and the degree of service (diaconate) are all three conferred by a sacramental act called “ordination,” that is, by the Sacrament of Holy Orders. [CCC 1554]
“The deacon receives a particular configuration to Christ, the head and shepherd
of the church, who for love of the Father made himself the least and the servant of all.”
[Pope John Paul II, Plenarium of the Congregation for the Clergy and Catholic Education, 1995]
The history of the permanent diaconate in the Diocese of Birmingham dates from the ordination of its first permanent deacon in 1973. Additional permanent deacons were ordained in 1975, 1977, and 1981. In 1996, Bishop David E. Foley, D.D. established a committee to develop a new diaconate formation program that would address several pastoral needs: Hispanic ministry, ministry to African-American Catholics, ministry to the incarcerated, and ministry in the most rural parts of the diocese. The new formation program, developed in compliance with USCCB guidelines promulgated in 1984, was announced in January of 1997 and begun later that year at St. Bernard Abbey. Eighteen men in that class were ordained permanent deacons for the diocese in December of 2000. The next formation program, which added the lay apostolates and teaching the faith as critical needs, began in 2001 and resulted in the ordinations of 15 new deacons in 2005.
With the issuance of the National Directory for the Formation, Ministry, and Life of Permanent Deacons in the United States by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2004 for implementation beginning in 2005, the diocesan formation program was revised to incorporate new requirements. In August of 2008, Bishop Robert J. Baker, S.T.D., authorized the beginning of the next program consistent with the new National Directory requirements. The new program addresses the objectives of the human, spiritual, intellectual, and pastoral dimensions of formation during periods of inquiry, aspirancy, candidacy, and post-ordination, as outlined in the National Directory. Bishop Baker ordained 18 new permanent deacons of that class on December 7, 2013, at the Cathedral of Saint Paul. A subsequent program began in 2014, resulting in the ordination by Bishop Baker of 24 new permanent deacons on December 1, 2018.
Inquiry: An inquiry and eventual application for entrance into diaconal formation is not just a personal and family journey. The Church must accompany it. The parish is the primary experience of Church for most inquirers. It is the responsibility of this community and, in particular, its pastor to invite from among its members those who may be qualified to serve as ordained ministers of the Church. Similarly, those church and community agencies that have often carried out the Church’s mission of charity and justice have a unique opportunity to call forth appropriate nominees from among their personnel. [National Directory 171]
Aspirancy: (T)he aspirant path must be a distinctive program that provides for a thorough discernment of a diaconal vocation. Therefore, it must provide an appropriate initiation into diaconal spirituality; supervised pastoral experiences, especially among the poor and marginalized; and an adequate assessment of the aspirant’s potential to be promoted to candidate formation, and ultimately to ordination. The aspirant path also must enable the formation personnel to create an environment in which a wife of a married aspirant can be appropriately prepared to give her consent to his continuation, and more essentially, to ascertain her compatibility with her husband’s diaconal vocation and eventual ministry. [National Directory 186]
Candidacy: The candidate phase . . . is the occasion for continued discernment of a diaconal vocation and immediate preparation for ordination. Throughout this path in formation, the candidate himself assumes the primary responsibility for his discernment and development. [National Directory 204] A substantive program includes not only class preparation, participation, and attendance, but also seminars, workshops, field education projects, theological reflection, shared opportunities for spiritual growth (e.g., liturgical celebrations and prayer, spiritual conferences, retreats), individual spiritual direction, and other formation experiences. [National Directory 206]
Post-Ordination: The goal for this path in formation is to responsibly address the various aspects of a deacon’s ministry, the development of his personality and, above all, his commitment to spiritual growth. . . . The primary source for post-ordination formation is the ministry itself. [National Directory 239] (In the Diocese of Birmingham in Alabama, the post-ordination requirements include participation in the quarterly meetings of the College of Deacons and the annual retreat for deacons and their wives.) Over 75 permanent deacons ordained for the diocese or transferring here from other dioceses are currently (2019) serving in over 40 parishes and various apostolates, with several ministering in other states.
Beginning in 2018, the latest Inquiry stage for those discerning a possible call to the permanent diaconate will continue throughout 2019. Additional information is available by contacting:
Deacon J. S. Anzalone, Ph.D.
Director of Diaconate Formation