Diocese celebrates 50th anniversary of restoration of the permanent diaconate in Church

By Dave Jolivet
Anchor Editor

NEW BEDFORD, Mass. — Father Robert A. Oliveira and Permanent Deacon Frank Lucca are on a mission. The men are co-directors of the Diocese of Fall River Office of the Permanent Diaconate. The mission? To get the word out about the role and ministry of the permanent diaconate.


The timing of their endeavor coincides with the 50th anniversary of the restoration of the permanent deaconate in the Roman Catholic Church when Blessed Pope Paul VI gave bishops permission to renew the permanent diaconate as an active order of ministry.

While the ministry has been active again for nearly one-half century in the diocese, some members of the faithful still aren’t quite sure of what a permanent deacon is or does. “Sometimes the deacon is not well-known in the parish life,” Father Oliveira told The Anchor. “He plays such an important role in the life of the parish and working with clergy.”

“There are times when we permanent deacons are called ‘Father’ by some people who are a bit confused after seeing us assist at the altar during Liturgies,” added Deacon Lucca, who has been a deacon in the diocese for five years. “And others think of us as ‘glorified altar boys.’ What we’re trying to do during this 50th anniversary year is to make it known to all the faithful the role of the ministry.”

Bishop Edgar M. da Cunha, S.D.V., is a strong supporter of the permanent diaconate, himself utilizing the ministry when he was a pastor. During his Chrism Mass homily on Tuesday of Holy Week, he said, “It is wonderful that we are all here together: bishop, priests, deacons, those in consecrated life, and the faithful of our diocese,” illustrating the unity of all who make up the Church in Fall River. “I invite all of us here today to rekindle in our hearts and minds, the gift, the power and strength of our unity in Christ. Think about for a moment the power of unity. One grain of wheat alone by itself is insignificant, but when put together with many others, becomes bread to feed the hungry, and the Bread of Life to nourish our souls. One grape alone is nothing of importance, but squeezed together with many others, produces juice to quench our thirst, wine to bring joy to human hearts and to be transformed into the Blood of Christ to strengthen us for the journey.”

“I was very aware and pleased that the bishop made a point to include deacons in his welcome and his hope for a unity of all to make the Fall River Church stronger,” said Father Oliveira.

As part of the effort to end some of the confusion, the diocesan Office of the Permanent Diaconate has asked the permanent deacons in the diocese to, with the permission of the pastor, speak at weekend Liturgies about the role of the permanent diaconate in the Church today.

In its March newsletter to deacons the office wrote: “During the months ahead we are asking our brother deacons to make presentations at Masses in their parish about the diaconate. In addition, we will be asking you to announce a new class for the formation of permanent deacons in the spring of 2019.”

The office has offered deacons two outline talks, should they choose not to prepare their own. In parishes without the service of a permanent deacon, deacons from nearby parishes are encouraged to speak to the faithful.

The letter continued, “So many of our parishioners do not understand the role of the deacon. This is a perfect opportunity to get the word out. More importantly, this is an opportunity to let those who may be considering a vocation to the diaconate know that the next class will begin Aspirancy (a time when men interested in the diaconate will be introduced to the ministry and begin a discernment process) in April 2019.”

Deacon Karl Buder, who ministers at Good Shepherd Parish in Martha’s Vineyard, recently spoke to the faithful there. “Bishop [Edgar M.] da Cunha is a strong supporter of the permanent diaconate. At his last appointment as pastor before he was ordained as a bishop, he had seven deacons in his parish. He would like to have many more men ordained to the permanent diaconate in this diocese.”

Deacon Buder further explained the role of the deacon: “Deacons assist the pastor with parish duties by being active as a servant of God, visiting the sick, providing Spiritual guidance, and administering the Sacraments of Baptism and Marriage; presiding over wakes, funerals and burials, Eucharistic Adoration, Stations of the Cross, teaching, assisting at Mass, and preaching.

“Deacons are expected to evangelize, perform acts of charity, participate in various parish committees and functions and, generally, be involved in the life of the Church.”

He further explained, “Deacons come from all walks of life. After all, Jesus didn’t select 12 theologians as Apostles.”

Deacon Gene Sasseville has been a permanent deacon since 1997, and has served at Holy Name of the Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish in New Bedford since its inception in 1999.

He told faithful there, “I’m very excited to announce that Bishop da Cunha has approved the formation of a new deacon class that will begin the process in the spring of 2019. I’d like to spend a few minutes introducing the diaconate to all of you. Perhaps it is the first time you may have heard much of this. My hope is that for some of you, this may serve as a call to consider a vocation to the diaconate. Although primarily directed to the men gathered here, you ladies may know someone you think or believe who would make a good deacon, so please mention this to them.”

Deacon Sasseville told The Anchor that his homily was “well received and many people thanked me for informing them about what a deacon really is and what the deacon’s preparation is, and all that’s entailed in becoming a deacon.

“I think that I may have kindled a small spark in a few. Who knows? It’s up to the Holy Spirit.”

Father Oliveira, who is also pastor of Holy Name of the Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish in New Bedford, has been co-director of the office for one year, and was assistant director for the previous four years, under director Msgr. John J. Oliveira.

 “The gift of the permanent diaconate is a great treasure, a jewel that is not fully appreciated by some,” Father Oliveira told The Anchor. “Since I have started working with the permanent deacons and candidates, I have developed a great appreciation and admiration for them. Their humble faith and dedication is remarkable.

“One of the greatest gifts for me as a priest is to watch the candidates grow through the process. And those who are already ordained are such an asset to the Church in the diocese, assisting the pastors, working with the sick, preaching, teaching and totally dedicating themselves to serving others.”

“It has been a totally joyful opportunity to serve in the ministry of the diaconate,” added Lucca. “It’s a way of serving the people of God. I enjoy doing it. I came from the corporate world where things were regimented to a degree. As a deacon you never know what your day is going to be like.

“We get to share in the happy times; the Baptisms and weddings; and we also share with our brothers and sisters in the faith in the sad times; the wakes, funerals, burials, and administering to the sick. It’s such an honor and a privilege to be a part of peoples’ lives.”

As part of the ongoing effort to maintain a strong bond among the diocesan permanent deacons, the office is hosting a convocation of all deacons and candidates on April 14 at Holy Name of the Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish in New Bedford. “The convocation is to have a full day of fellowship and Spirituality among the deacons and candidates,” Father Oliveira told The Anchor. “There will be a Mass celebrated by Bishop da Cunha, three conferences, including one given by Father Warren Savage, a priest of the Diocese of Springfield, a teacher and preacher who is involved with the permanent diaconate. He spoke at a Region I diaconate meeting and was very well received.”

There is also an upcoming National Diaconate Congress to take place in New Orleans next July.

The office’s newsletter also announced that Bishop da Cunha has authorized the formation of a new class of permanent deacons beginning in the spring of 2019. Preliminary applications for the 10th diaconate class are now being accepted. The newsletter stated: “In the months ahead, information sessions will be held. The final and formal application process will begin the fall of 2018 for those who wish to be admitted to the 10th diaconate class. The preliminary application may be found on the website (http://www.frpermanentdiaconate.com).”

The origin of the permanent diaconate in the Catholic Church is not certain, and is a topic that has been debated by Catholics and other Christian denominations.

One of the first possible references of the ministry is in the Acts of the Apostles; Acts 6:2-6 — “So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, ‘It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the Word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.’

“They presented these men to the Apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.”

In St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians he references “all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philppi, with the bishops and deacons.”

The word deacon has its root in the Latin word kianonos, meaning minister or servant.

Beginning in the fifth century, the ministry of the diaconate was slowly waning in the Latin Church.

It wasn’t until 50 years ago, in 1968, when Blessed Pope Paul VI approved the restoration of the permanent diaconate.

In his Apostolic Letter, Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem (Restoring the Permanent Diaconate) on June 18, 1967, the pope wrote: “Beginning already in the early days of the Apostles, the Catholic Church has held in great veneration the Sacred order of the diaconate, as the Apostle of the Gentiles himself bears witness. He expressly sends his greeting to the deacons together with the bishops and instructs Timothy which virtues and qualities are to be sought in them in order that they may be regarded as worthy of their ministry.

“Furthermore, the Second Ecumenical Vatican Council, following this very ancient tradition, made honorable mention of the diaconate in the Constitution which begins with the words ‘Lumen Gentium,’ where, after concerning itself with the bishops and the priests, it praised also the third rank of Sacred orders, explaining its dignity and enumerating its functions.

“Indeed while clearly recognizing on the one hand that ‘these functions very necessary to the life of the Church could in the present discipline of the Latin Church be carried out in many regions with difficulty,’ and while on the other hand wishing to make more suitable provision in a matter of such importance wisely decreed that the ‘diaconate in the future could be restored as a particular and permanent rank of the hierarchy.’”

Since that historic day in the Church, the Diocese of Fall River has nine times offered classes for men to become permanent deacons, with the ninth class, currently in formation, scheduled to be ordained next May.

Then-Bishop Daniel A. Cronin enlisted Msgr. John F. Moore as the first diocesan director of the Permanent Diaconate in the early 1970s. Msgr. Moore handed over the reins to Msgr. John J. Oliveira in July of 2002. Between the two, eight permanent deacon class sessions were completed, leading to the ordination of scores of permanent deacons.

“Under the direction of Monsignors Moore and Oliveira, the diocesan Office of the Permanent Diaconate has offered candidates and deacons such wonderful leadership,” said Father Oliveira.

“And I have to offer Deacon Lucca great kudos for sharing his great leadership skills and talents and enthusiasm.”

Currently, the ninth class of permanent deacons is nearly at the end of its formation. 

The members will be instituted into the Order of Acolyte (which allows the men to assist the celebrant during the celebration of Liturgies) on June 19 at Holy Name of the Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in New Bedford.

The class is scheduled to be ordained as permanent deacons by Bishop da Cunha on May 19, 2019 at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Fall River.

For more information about the permanent diaconate, including requirements, visit http://www.frpermanentdiaconate.com.

© 2019 The Anchor and Anchor Publishing    †    Fall River, Massachusetts