With few exceptions, married men cannot be priests in the Catholic Church, but they can wear robes, assist in the Mass, give sermons, officiate at baptisms, weddings and funerals, visit the sick, comfort the brokenhearted and lift the poor.

They can do all that if, that is, they are deacons — and the Diocese of Salt Lake City just ordained a new batch of them.

Last month, five white-robed men between ages 45 and 61 walked solemnly and slowly down the center aisle of the exquisite Cathedral of the Madeleine and prostrated themselves before the altar, where Bishop Oscar A. Solis laid his hands on their individual heads and ordained them.

This was the diocese’s fifth class of deacons — and an important step for the more than 300,000 Catholics in the Beehive State.

“With the shortage of priests and religious [orders] in our diocese, they will have significant ministerial roles in the sacramental and pastoral life of our church,” Solis told the Intermountain Catholic. “They are God’s answer to our prayers to send laborers to the vineyard and new missionary disciples who will share our faith with joy and enthusiasm.”

Elsewhere, the priest shortage is much more extreme.

Last fall, the majority of 180 Catholic bishops from nine countries along the Amazon signed a proposal, calling on Pope Francis to open the priesthood to married men to serve rural communities that might see a priest for Mass only once a year.

Solis was in Rome last week, meeting with the pontiff along with other Catholic bishops in the region (including Archbishop John Wester of New Mexico, Solis’ immediate predecessor in Utah) when the Amazon proposal of married priests came up.

The pope did not detail his response to the idea, but the Utah bishop told Catholic News Service in an interview it was his impression that the question of married priests and female deacons would continue to be discussed.

Francis said “he didn't actually believe in the ordination of married men,” Solis is quoted as saying, “but what are you going to do with all those people who are deprived of the Eucharist?”

For now, deacons can provide many of the priestly functions, just not the sacraments: They cannot administer confirmations, anoint the sick or hear confessions.

Still, their role is crucial.

Deacons are not “glorified altar boys” or “liturgical decorations on the altars,” Solis told the men at their ordination, according to the diocesan newspaper. “Neither are you sent to become wannabe priests.”

They are to be “servants… with humility of heart,” the bishop said. “Disciples of Christ.”

And their journey of service includes women — their wives.

An old but new role

Deacons (coming from the Greek for servant or caretaker) existed in the earliest days of the Catholic Church, said Deacon Drew Petersen, Utah’s diocesan director of diaconate formation.

They played a major role in the faith for the first three centuries, particularly assisting with the physical needs of the growing Christian movement, Petersen said. The position then slowly disappeared “as the demand [for their services] faded.”

It was reinstated after the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, he said, and has continued to expand in Utah and elsewhere.

Utah was among the first U.S. dioceses to ordain deacons, starting in the 1970s, Petersen said, but some of those deacons are now dead.

Currently, the diocese has 63 deacons, with another 62 names of men who have expressed interest in the program.

Typically, getting to deacon ordination is an arduous five-year process. This latest group — Jeff Allen, Jeremy Castellano, Robert Cowlishaw, Tom Devereux and Gregory Working — did it in four, because they all had previous training as “lay ecclesial ministers,” which required another four years.

Neither is a paid position, so most applicants have full-time jobs. They must attend biweekly, all-day Saturday training sessions in preaching, theology, social justice and human development as well as how to serve intellectual, spiritual and pastoral needs of others.

They also attend special classroom and online trainings on what to do if they suspect a minor is being abused. The message: Call the police immediately.

That included at least a year of a “practicum,” or hands-on service in a parish similar to an internship.

Candidates need to “really think about the time commitment of being a deacon,” Petersen said. They still have jobs and families and pressures while doing things “they never did before.”

Being a deacon is like having a part-time job, which varies depending on the parish, he said, and could mean anywhere from 20 to 50 hours a week.

Wives, especially, must be ready to adapt, he said. A deacon’s “whole lifestyle changes.”

Two paths

Jeff and Mindi Allen of Murray were ready for the challenges of deacon life.

Jeff was a baptized Catholic, but when his parents divorced, his faith connection ended. Mindi was a recent convert to the historic religion when the couple met.

“We believe the church and God brought us together,” said Jeff, a director at Utah Retirement Systems.

After rearing their five children, now ages 24 to 37, Jeff becoming a deacon “seemed a natural next step,” Mindi said. “We’ve always been involved with the church. This was just a different way to serve God’s people.”

Those Saturday sessions helped Mindi, who works as an early interventionist at Utah Schools for the Deaf and the Blind as well as a sign language interpreter for Masses, learn more about her church’s history, teachings and various types of services.

She’s now becoming a lay ecclesial minister, just like her husband did.

“We had a strong marriage,” Jeff said. “This brought us closer together.”

Deacon Jeremy Castellano was thinking about becoming a priest while attending Kearns High School but found romantic love instead.

He met his wife, Melissa, his junior year. He graduated in June 1993. By August, they were wed.

But Jeremy still felt the call.

In 2008, he talked to his priest about ways to serve the church beyond the priesthood, and the cleric was encouraging.

Like the other new deacons, Jeremy, a KUTV news photographer, began by training as a lay ecclesial minister. He then enrolled in theological distance learning at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago and earned a master’s degree.

Finally, he joined the deacon class in March 2016.

“Melissa was a rock star, really supportive, picked up extra responsibilities at home,” said Jeremy, since the couple have two high school-age kids. “Plus, she came to diaconate classes every other week with me.”

Given all the family obligations, it was important to “carve out time for ourselves,” he said, “and to learn together more about our faith than we had ever known.”

It was, he said, like a spiritual “date night.”

Jeremy was moved by a saying he heard during training that God doesn’t necessarily choose the best person for these assignments but rather whom he needs.

That’s a comforting notion to the new deacon.

“With all my faults and imperfections, I am not perfect,” Jeremy said, but being a deacon is “what God needs out of me.”