Deacons trained for diocese with help from Annual Catholic Appeal


For The Dialog


Mike Olliver enjoys his work as a permanent deacon at Holy Spirit Church in New Castle, especially when it involves the service aspect of his ministry.

“I’m not sure who gets the most out of it – me or them,” Olliver said of the time he spends talking and praying with people with a relative or close friend who is very ill, or celebrating a milestone such as the baptism of a child. “It’s amazing.”

Olliver, 58, is one of nine men ordained as deacons last year, at the end of a five-year formation program. They bring to about 100 the number ordained for the Diocese of Wilmington since 1980, following the Catholic Church’s reinstitution of the permanent diaconate.

Permanent deacons are part of the Catholic Church’s clergy, who also include priests and bishops, and men ordained to the “transitional diaconate” before being ordained priests.

Deacon Hal Jopp, director of the diocese’s Office for Deacons, preaches the homily during Sunday Mass at a St. Elizabeth of Hungary in Denton, Md., recently, where he serves as a deacon with Father Hilary Rogers, pastor of St. Benedict in Ridgely, Md., and its mission.
The Dialog/Jason Minto Photography

Their role differs from that of priest and bishops in that they cannot consecrate the Eucharist or forgive sins through the sacrament of reconciliation. Deacons may proclaim the Gospel, assist at the altar and perform baptisms and weddings. Their ministry focuses on service to others, following the example of deacons at the time of the Apostles.

The Annual Catholic Appeal helps provide the formation required for Olliver, his classmate Scott Peterson of Holy Cross in Dover, and current student Christopher Moran of St. Peter the Apostle in New Castle. The formation of deacons is one of 37 specific offices and ministries in Delaware and on Maryland’s Eastern Shore supported in part by the appeal; parish assessments are other major source of income for those offices and ministries that served more than 100,000 people last year.

This year’s Appeal goal is $4,347,000, the same as last year. Diocesan officials froze the amount because the diocese is also conducting a capital campaign, “Sustaining Hope for the Future.”

Catholics in the pews will be asked to pledge to the Annual Catholic Appeal at Masses for the Fourth Sunday of Lent, March 29-30.

Theme of this year’s appeal is “Open Your Heart to Christ,” based on John 9:1-41. It brings to mind a quote attributed to Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, who dedicated her life to serving the poorest of the poor India: “Give me your heart … that I may receive Jesus and you did. And go in haste to give him to others.”

Blessed Teresa’s quote seems appropriate for how Olliver views the diaconate, which is “to serve the people.”


Thorough formation

Proper training is vital for today’s deacons, according to Deacon Hal Jopp, director of the Office for Deacons, who was ordained in 1980.

“While my formation got me off to a good start, expectations of diaconal ministry have grown substantially over the intervening years, and are likely to expand further in light of the shortage of priests,” he said. “Solid formation – spiritual, human, doctrinal and pastoral – is essential.”Jopp was ordained after a two-and-one-half-year formation program. Since 1980, the Vatican and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops have each published guidelines on what diaconate formation should include. Among the key improvements, according to Jopp, are a “more solid academic formation, greater emphasis on spiritual direction, and the enhancement of pastoral formation with a year-long pastoral project.”

In 2009, the diocese partnered with St. Meinrad Seminary in Indiana, which provides instructors for the diaconate formation classes. Classes are held once a month at St. Joseph’s in the Hills, a retreat center in Malvern, Pa. After their third year of formation class, deacon candidates go to St. Meinrad for a week of homiletics, aimed at helping them develop and present homilies.

Moran, 44, is in his second year of formation, studying such topics as Christology, an introduction to spirituality, the foundations of theology, the Old Testament and a history of the diaconate.

“I went into it thinking ‘I’m a cradle Catholic; I know this stuff,’” he said. “I found out how much I didn’t know.”

He is among nine men scheduled for ordination in 2015.

Olliver and Peterson are among 25 men ordained since the diocese partnered with St. Meinrad, and they were in the second class to attend the homiletics program in Indiana.

Peterson, 56, felt uncomfortable at the thought of preaching before a packed church before he went to St. Meinrad’s. “I came out of my shell,” he said, citing “the way they teach you. I find myself going up there and being relaxed.”

Deacons at Holy Cross usually give the homily once a month. Peterson said he will work on a homily for about two weeks, researching the Gospel reading and its context, writing the homily, and then fine tuning it.

The preaching segment, combined with practice rituals for baptisms, marriages and funeral rites, and a strong theological foundation, have helped Peterson since he was ordained last year.

“It very well prepared me,” he said.