Utahns answer the call to serve as Catholic deacons
As a teenager growing up in Chihuahua, Mexico, Moises Ruiz Jr. knew of his grandfather's great love for the Roman Catholic Church.
He remembers feeling a nudge when his grandfather died, leaving behind a wish that one of his own would join the clergy.
Saturday, in a Mass at Salt Lake City's Cathedral of the Madeleine, Ruiz -- a 57-year-old father of five, grandfather of 13 and great-grandfather of one -- finally will be ordained.
The Salt Lake City man's ordination will not be to the priesthood, as his grandfather had envisioned. It will be to the diaconate, a calling as old as the Christian church but revived only in recent decades in the Catholic Church.
Bishop John C. Wester will ordain Ruiz and 20 other Utah men as deacons today, enlarging by nearly half the number of men who straddle two streams in the church: They are both laypeople and clergy.
"All of us live in the secular world," says Perry resident Karl Meyersick, one of those being ordained. "This ordination ties us to the mystical world, the clerical side of God's kingdom.
"That's the role of the deacon, to be in the middle," says Meyersick, who works as a logistics manager for a Hill Air Force Base contractor.
Deacons have three main roles: to pray, to assist at worship and to serve the people, particularly the poor, sick and isolated.
"The whole point is service," says Moab resident Rick Klein, a potash mine manager and one of the 21 men.
"This probably sounds corny ... but that's really what I'd like to do," Klein says. "This corner of the state is awfully big, and there's not a lot of clergy down here."
Sandy resident Dale Dillon, who works as a pastoral associate at Draper's St. John the Baptist Church, says he and the other new deacons will free up priests for duties only priests can do: consecrate the Holy Eucharist at Mass, anoint the sick and confer the sacrament of reconciliation.
"We're helping the priests," Dillon says, "go further on fewer."
A priest's right hand
Indeed, the rising number of deacons has been a godsend during decades of declining numbers of priests, says the Rev. Peter Rogers, pastor of St. Catherine of Siena Newman Center at the University of Utah.
Worldwide, nearly 31,000 men had been ordained deacons from the 1970s, after Vatican II restored the diaconate, through 2003. Of those, almost half (14,693) were in the United States, according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Salt Lake City's diocese was among the first to restore the diaconate, ordaining 14 men in 1976. Since then, 66 more have been ordained. Deaths, relocations and retirements left the number at 45 before today's ordination.
Without deacons, Rogers says, "the universal church would be really neglecting a lot of its mission work, especially with those in need and the poor. ... We [priests] would be so consumed with administration that it would be difficult to really meet the needs of the people."
Of the 21 new deacons, four speak Spanish, which will help the church better serve one its fastest-growing communities: immigrants from Mexico and Latin America.
Sister Patricia Riley, who oversees the diocese's four-year training program for deacons, says the program has one main goal: to spiritually form men of prayer.
The men (and many of their wives) gathered generally every other Saturday for four years -- 80 sessions of seven hours each. The classes ranged from scripture study to moral theology and from Christology to preaching.
The group had annual retreats with the bishop, and each met frequently with a spiritual director. During the third year of the program, they served in parishes.
While the program had all the rigor of an academic program, it was mainly about spiritual formation. "They have to be grounded in faith, in prayer," Riley says.
The class originally numbered 24, but one candidate died in a car accident and two dropped out because of work commitments and a wife's illness.
Riley says she already has had calls from 25 or 30 men interested in the next four-year program, although she's unsure when it will begin.
It's a vast difference from the 1970s and '80s, when parishioners and priests alike treated deacons with suspicion, says Silvio Mayo, 85, who was ordained in that first class in 1976 and remains active as chancellor of the diocese.
"It was a new thing for everybody," Mayo says. "No one would call you 'Deacon.' Now it's like it's your first name."
The men being ordained today hail from all walks of life. There are professors and executives, maintenance workers and counselors. Most are middle-aged, married and fathers who say they felt a persistent call to do more for their church.
Ruiz says his path to the diaconate grew "little by little."
An immigrant 33 years ago, he earned his high-school-equivalency diploma and went to community college to study construction. He is a business manager for United Union of Roofers Local No. 91.
He says that during the formation program he especially enjoyed visiting jails and prisons, where many immigrants long for friendship.
He looks forward to helping people with problems, whom he formerly referred to priests or deacons, and wants to volunteer as a translator in hospitals.
"A lot of people," Ruiz says, "are looking for meaning."
Meyersick and Dillon are converts to Catholicism, married to women who were cradle Catholics. Dillon was reared Protestant but had been attending and serving in the Catholic Church for years before he joined. Meyersick had no particular faith affiliation. Both say becoming deacons seemed the next logical step once they committed to Catholicism.
Dillon, 53, says he felt a clear call as he gazed at the Eucharist during adoration two days before entering the church in 2001. "All of a sudden," he says, "that seemed the path that God was leading me to."
For Meyersick, 61, the call seemed a way he and his wife, Donna, could live out their commitment to make church service part of their lives.
"It wasn't just taking from this faith," he says, "but giving to this faith, too."
Klein, 53, says his call came after he sent his second child to college. He didn't want to reach age 65 or 70 and feel satisfaction only from a successful family life.
"I just kind of had this sense," Klein says, "I needed to do something more."
He recalls reading during the formation program that the first half of one's life is about building a tower and the second half about climbing down from the tower.
"That's a beautiful way to look at the diaconate," Klein says. "It's really not about me. It's about God and being of service however I can."
Sandy resident Mark Solak, a meteorologist, says his call developed over years of church involvement in various states.
"It was [a] longing to be more and more involved in parish life," he says, "and more and more it had the theme of service."
Whichever parish he is assigned to, Solak, 61, says he hopes to help parishioners feel they belong.
"I'm looking forward to encouraging people, inviting them, maybe even challenging them to engage more fully, to taste the sweetness that comes from a closer walk with God," Solak says. "When you see some lights coming on, that's tremendously satisfying."
The New Testament and early Christian writers describe deacons as wise men of good reputation who help bishops and priests care for widows, orphans and church finances.
Although priests-in-training serve short periods as transitional deacons, the position of permanent deacon fell out of use in the Roman Catholic Church after the fifth century. The permanent diaconate was restored by the church's bishops at Vatican II in the 1960s.
Deacons' ministry is all about service. They read the gospel and preach at Masses, and conduct communion services, particularly in Utah's far-flung missions where no priest is assigned. They also teach those learning about the faith and preparing for marriage, as well as perform baptisms and preside at weddings and funerals.
Deacons counsel parishioners and visit jails, hospitals, nursing homes and those who cannot leave their homes.
Married men must have their wives' permission to become deacons and are not allowed to remarry if their wives die. Single men must promise not to marry once ordained. Men ages 35 to 69 can be ordained, although a bishop can make exceptions.
Salt Lake City Bishop John C. Wester will assign the 21 new deacons to parishes after their ordination.
-- Kristen Moulton
The Roman Catholic Church will ordain 21 deacons Saturday in a 10 a.m. Mass at Salt Lake City's Cathedral of the Madeleine. The Mass is open to the public, although seats may fill early.
The 21 men and their home parishes are:
St. Henry, Brigham City: Andy Hunnel and Karl Meyersick
St. James the Just, Ogden: Kenneth Murphy
St. Joseph, Ogden: Keith Norrell and John Thaeler
St. Florence Mission, Huntsville: Douglas B. Smith and Terry Waiss
Christ Prince of Peace, Hill Air Force Base: Thomas A. Rodgers
St. Rose of Lima, Layton: Honorio Moreno
Our Lady of Lourdes, Magna: Douglas Otto Biediger
Saints Peter and Paul, West Valley City: Sunday Espinoza and George Sluga
Our Lady of Guadalupe, Salt Lake City: Moises Ruiz Jr.
The Cathedral of the Madeleine: Drew M. Petersen Jr.
St. Catherine of Siena: Armando Solorzano
St. Thomas More, Sandy: Mark E. Solak
St. John the Baptist, Draper: Dale Dillon
St. Mary of the Assumption, Park City: Robert Hardy
St. Christopher, Kanab: William Joseph Trudell
St. Pius X, Moab: Rick Klein
St. Joseph, Monticello: Thomas Corrao
Source: Intermountain Catholic
Catholics often are confused about who is the deacon and who is the priest on the altar. Here's one way to tell the difference: The deacon wears his stole, a long colorful length of fabric, from his left shoulder across his body to his right hip. A priest's stole hangs from his neck with both lengths down the front.