Each day in the Diocese of Buffalo, permanent deacons assist priests and participate in the liturgy in parishes throughout Western New York. Last month, Deacon Timothy Chriswell, who was appointed the head of the diaconate program in the diocese on Sept. 1, spoke about the role of deacons in the Catholic Church, as well as what differentiates the unique vocation of deacons from that of priesthood.
Deacon Chriswell, although a lifelong Christian, grew up in an Episcopalian family and then became Catholic later in life. Earlier on, his family grew up as "Christmas and Easter-type people," although it was meeting his now-wife, Mary, which inspired him to become more active in the faith. For their second date, he invited her to lunch on a Sunday, but she told him that she always went to Mass then.
"I said, 'Well, I'll go to Church with you,' and she's like, 'Sure.' So, my introduction to the Catholic Church was on my second date with my wife," he remembered. "I hadn't been to church very much prior to that, and so we started going to church together. We'd go to lunch, and then within about six months, we were engaged. Two years later, we were married, and she asked me if I wanted to become Catholic."
Initially, he was reluctant to become Catholic, but he recalled that he promised he would raise his children in the faith. After the couple had their first daughter and Mary was pregnant with their second child, he came to the realization that he did not want his children to do something he would not do himself.
This feeling led Deacon Chriswell to want to do more for the Catholic Church. He became a deacon in 2009 and was at Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament, now St. Martha Parish in Depew for his first five years. For the past three years, has served at Our Lady of Peace Parish in Clarence. He worked for 32 years as a customer service manager for a manufacturing company before he took on the job of director of deacons. At first, he served as a part-time director of formation and post-formation director of deacons for the diocese, but these two positions merged into a full-time one, which has beneficial for the program.
A deacon's role, according to Deacon Chriswell, is to assist priests in a parish. He is able to do baptisms and funerals outside of a Mass. He also visits the sick, distributes the Eucharist, assists the pastor at weddings and wakes, and visits the sick. Permanent deacons, unlike priests, are allowed to be married going into their formation, but they take a vow of celibacy in the event their wife dies after their ordination and cannot remarry. Transitional deacons remain deacons only until they are ordained to the priesthood.
"There are men who are single who become deacons as well. Some people will say, 'Well, why don't they become a priest?' Well, it's because they have a vocation working in the public sector and they like that job, but they want to serve the Church also, so they do that twofold ministry of having a full-time job and ministering to people," Deacon Chriswell said. "A very important part of the deacon's role is going out and doing what we call field ministry, and that is ministering to the sick and homebound."
This field ministry, which is not connected with the parish to which a deacon is assigned, may include service at a hospital or nursing home. They may visit or participate in Communion services without a priest. Deacons are also assigned to migrant communities. About 130 permanent deacons serve in the Diocese of Buffalo, with an additional 20 men going through formation at Christ the King Seminary in East Aurora. The permanent diaconate is a five-year formation program.
"You are encouraged, if you already have a college degree, to get your master's degree in pastoral ministry out at the seminary," explained Deacon Chriswell. "Some people don't have a college degree, so they can audit classes or get an advanced degree. They need the theology, because a lot of these men would be preaching, teaching and ministering to (the congregation), so they need that theological background, but being aware that not everybody is going to get a master's degree, and you don't need everybody to have one."
For four years of formation, the men come out to the seminary for one weekend a month for nine months out of the year. They spend the weekend working on homiletics, developing their spirituality and completing formation for a permanent state. "When you receive Holy Orders, this is not something you do on weekends, or take time off. This becomes your permanent state of life," Deacon Chriswell explained.
Although becoming a permanent deacon is a big decision, it was the right one for Deacon Chriswell, he noted. "Every day I wake up, and I realize what a blessing it is to serve the Church in this capacity," he said. "There are so many little, small things that happen in your life that you see when you keep your eyes open. It's a lesson that God is always working through you to help other people."
"If that's something you are encouraged to do, that you want to minister to other people, having God in your life on a regular basis, I fully encourage people to get involved. The biggest thing about the diaconate is that most of our men are married coming into it. The wife plays a very important role in the deacon's life. Without her consent, he cannot move forward and become a deacon. It changes your life, everything you do and how you approach life. It's a big difference, so the support from your wife is very important."
For more about the permanent diaconate formation program in the Diocese of Buffalo, contact Deacon Tim Chriswell at 716-652-4308 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.