“Deacons bring the Church to the poor and the poor to the Church,” Deacon Dave Kushner told the First Friday Club of Cleveland at its March 1 lunch meeting at The City Club in downtown Cleveland. His presentation, “Honoring Our Deacons,” coincided with the 50th anniversary of the permanent diaconate in the United States. He said the poor refers those who are poor in mind, body and spirit – not just the poverty stricken.
Kushner, who was ordained a permanent deacon May 2007 by Bishop emeritus Richard Lennon, is director of formation for the permanent diaconate in the Diocese of Cleveland. He has served at St. Mary Parish in Collinwood since his ordination. Kushner earned a master’s degree in theology from Saint Mary Seminary in 2016 and is a candidate for a doctor of ministry degree from Saint Mary’s in May. His doctoral project is “The Development of a Field Education Program for the Diocese of Cleveland.”
He was introduced by his classmate, Deacon Bruce Battista, who described Kushner as “a student of the history and the future of the permanent diaconate.” Battista said Kushner “has an infectious passion for his ministry, for his love of Christ and his love of Church.”
“We are always deacons,” Kushner said, “But we are not the leaders of the parish. That’s the pastor. We are servant leaders. We are there to serve the people.”
And that service doesn’t include just menial tasks like cleaning up the church after Mass. If that was the case, Kushner asked, “Why would the diocese invest five years of a man’s time in formation?”
He said the most important thing is who a deacon is, not what a deacon does.
“He is the icon of Christ the servant – the one who comes to serve and not to be served,” Kushner said. He noted the role of a deacon may change within the Church, depending on the need at the time. The Greek word diakonia refers to that essential part of the mission of the Church, he said, adding that the deacon’s service often takes place outside the physical walls of the Church.
“We’re out there getting the smell of the sheep on us,” he said.
Although Kushner said there is no formal written history of the diaconate, pieces of its legacy exist and its role changed throughout the early years of the Church. “We don’t really know what they did, but it shouldn’t shackle us in. The needs of the Church changed and so did the role of the deacon,” he said, noting that at one time it’s believed deacons heard confessions and took bread and wine to the homebound, among other things.
“We were advised to choose our priests and deacons wisely,” he said. One bishop wrote that a deacon should be ready to be sent where needed and should be willing to serve. That bishop also indicated that deacons should be of one mind with the bishop.
But Kushner said two different Church councils, Arles and Nicea, prohibited deacons from celebrating the Eucharist. And he cited one interesting tidbit: at one time, deacons were paid more than priests.
He said deacons offer the Prayers of the Faithful or the Universal Prayer at Mass because they are the representatives of the needs of the Church. As the number of priests grew, he said the role of the deacon diminished. However, it started to grow again in the 20th century with the formation of deacon circles, consisting of highly trained professional men, including doctors and lawyers, who would perform acts of charity.
After Vatican II, in 1971, he said “homegrown” formation programs were established for deacons. Within a few years, basic guidelines were established and distributed from Rome. These were revised again between 1984 and 1998. Between 1995 and 2015, Kushner said basic norms for formation were established and in 2005, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops developed a national directory for the formation of ministry and life of permanent deacons in the U.S., with a plan to update it regularly.
Pope St. John Paul II said a deacon should be involved in all three ministries: liturgy, the Word and service, “or his ministry is severely deficient,” Kushner said, referring to the threefold ministry of deacons.
He said the diaconate is experiencing many of the same issues as the priesthood, including aging and declining numbers. Most deacons are married and many have a college education. If a deacon is single when ordained or widowed after ordination, he is expected to remain celibate, Kushner said. A man must be at least 35 in order to be ordained a deacon and in the Diocese of Cleveland, there is an expectation of at least 10 years of active ministry after ordination.
Kushner said there are 209 deacons living or serving in the diocese, with 146 on active status. Sixty-eight parishes do not have a deacon.
Formation for a deacon follows the same four pillars as a priest: human, spiritual, intellectual and pastoral. “It’s not what a deacon does, it’s who a deacon is,” Kushner repeated. “They are men of God, but they are fathers, grandfathers, husbands, uncles and more. They are humble servants who are not looking for recognition.”
Kushner said a deacon stands at the altar to prepare the gifts with clean hands, but he also stands were there is a practical need and he gets his hands dirty.
Northeast Ohio Catholic magazine focuses on the permanent diaconate in the March/April issue, which will be arriving in homes beginning next week.
Contact Kushner at 440-943-7652 or firstname.lastname@example.org for more information on the permanent diaconate.
Sister Maximillian Marie Garretson, O.P, will speak on “Shrouded in Love, Veiled in Hope: Experiencing Christ’s Resurrection Through an Encounter with the Shroud of Turin” at the April 5 First Friday Club luncheon program. For more information, call 216-598-9852, email email@example.com, or visit the website, firstfridayclubcleveland.org or Facebook.com/FirstFridayClubofCleveland.