When Archbishop Gregory Aymond ordains men as permanent deacons, he always is careful to identify what the church sees as the deacons’ primary responsibility: They are to serve.
That call to service has resonated with Deacon Ray Duplechain, director of the Office of the Permanent Diaconate for the Archdiocese of New Orleans since 2010, who recently was elected director of the National Association of Diaconate Directors (NADD), an umbrella group representing the 18,000 permanent deacons in the United States.
In addition to coordinating the ministry of 160 active deacons in the archdiocese – along with another 77 deacons who are retired – Deacon Duplechain will, for the next two years, be the deacons’ liaison to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations.
Each bishop has priorities
Deacon Duplechain says the NADD has no set agenda other than trying to fulfill the ministry goals of bishops, each of whom has specific needs in his own diocese.
But his election comes at an important time in church history because in 2018 the permanent diaconate will celebrate the 50th anniversary of its revival, which was called for by the Second Vatican Council. New Orleans will host the 50th anniversary national conference of deacons in 2018.
“It’s important for us to be able to understand the mission, vision and vocation of the permanent deacon, because this is only 50 years old,” Deacon Duplechain said. “Each diocese has a bishop who has particular challenges and needs, so the diaconate serves to fill those challenges. What happens here doesn’t necessarily happen in different dioceses.”
In New Orleans, the first class of permanent deacons was ordained by Archbishop Philip Hannan in 1974. In those early years, the restored order of permanent deacons was considered a novelty, both to clergy and laity, Deacon Duplechain said.
“Some people viewed them as mini priests,” Deacon Duplechain said. “Many of these guys had attended the seminary and considered a vocation to the priesthood. Others viewed them as altar servers. It was a novelty because we had not had permanent deacons in the church in more than 1,000 years.”
U.S. has most deacons
The U.S. has by far the largest number of permanent deacons of any country in the world. (There are 43,000 deacons worldwide.) Deacons are ordained to proclaim and preach the Gospel, and they have faculties to witness marriages, confer baptism and preside at funerals.
In addition to their parish sacramental ministry, Deacon Duplechain said, deacons serve in hospitals, nursing homes and prisons as well as provide hospice care, marriage preparation and annulment guidance.
“But this is not talked about much – deacons are on the fringes,” Deacon Duplechain said. “Deacons function in the shadows, where people who are in our families or social groups may come to us. Those people may not be sitting in the pews every week, but they have needs.”
The permanent diaconate has been an unqualified success, Deacon Duplechain said. Since most men who enter formation for the diaconate are married, there were initial misgivings that the diaconate would be weakened through divorce.
Strong marriages proven
Studies have proven that wrong, Deacon Duplechain said.
“That really hasn’t happened in our archdiocese,” Deacon Duplechain said. “I know of three (divorces) in all the years since we’ve been re-established, and it really hasn’t been a significant issue for us on the national level. That validates the fact that most guys who become deacons are in stable marriages. No one who is married can be ordained without the consent of his wife.”
Most deacons have full-time jobs and families, and that places added demands on the entire household.
“As you can understand, we’re pulled away from our homes for various occasions,” Deacon Duplechain said. “You have family, job and diaconate, but this is a vocation. You’re always going to be a deacon, no matter what. A priest is always a father, no matter what. Balancing that life is where the challenge comes. The wife, many times, picks up and carries more of the load while her spouse is serving the church.”
Deacon Swiler led the way
Deacon Duplechain said his predecessor, Deacon Jim Swiler, was important on the national level, first as president of the NADD, to help develop norms for diaconate formation and ministry. That document, called the “National Directory for Formation, Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons in the United States,” was approved by the U.S. bishops in 2003.
Deacon Duplechain, who was ordained in 1996 by Archbishop Francis Schulte, said each archbishop under whom he has served has been a blessing to the diaconate.
Archbishop Schulte appointed several deacons to lead archdiocesan offices; Archbishop Alfred Hughes made available the campus of Infant Jesus of Prague in Harvey as a diaconate formation center; and Archbishop Aymond has embraced the deacons’ ministry of service.
The 50th national conference in New Orleans will be a great chance to reflect on the deacon’s vocation.
“There’s a saying of Mother Teresa that I hold deep within my heart: ‘God didn’t call me to be successful; he called me to be faithful,’” Deacon Duplechain said. “That is my mantra.”