“In the Year of the Real Presence, I’m blessed to be at a parish where we have deacons who serve at nearly every Mass,” said Father Eugene Ritz at the opening of the Annual Convocation of Deacons, Sept. 18 at DeSales University. “Getting to work with them is a joy.”
Father Ritz is the director of the Diocese Office for Permanent Diaconate Formation and priest in residence at St. Joseph the Worker, Orefield. He welcomed permanent deacons and their spouses to the convocation, whose goal it was to provide “a refresher with the sacred” by focusing on the role of the deacon at Holy Mass.
Keynote speaker was Father Thomas Dailey, O.S.F.S., the John Cardinal Foley Chair of Homiletics and Social Communications at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, Philadelphia. Presenting on “The Spirituality of the Mass,” Father Dailey said “the liturgical character of the Mass is not about the celebration of the event. It’s about the event that’s being celebrated.”
Such things as “environment, music, preaching, art and candles” are simply “staging” for “the celebration of the event of redemption,” he said.
A former professor of theology at DeSales, Father Dailey elicited laughter when he told the deacons that, at Mass, “It really doesn’t matter what you do – in a good sense. You can’t mess it up because it’s God’s doing.”
Still, since symbols like the sign of the cross can “facilitate people’s experience of encountering Jesus,” Father encouraged the deacons to be mindful of their use. “For symbols to contribute positively to people’s experience, they have to be sensed.”
That is why, admitted Father Dailey, “Somebody asks me to baptize their child, I’m soaking him,” and when using incense at Mass, “I set off fire alarms.
“It’s good to fill the place with smoke, symbolically. People need to see and hear and sense because it’s the very nature of experiencing God.”
Father Dailey noted that the Second Vatican Council’s exhortation of the faithful to “full, conscious and active participation” is essentially a call to “be attentive to what’s happening.”
He encouraged the deacons to “attend to the words” of the Mass, asserting that the words “have an effect if we listen to them.”
The second session, “Embodying Service at the Liturgy: The Deacon’s Roles” was given by Monsignor Michael Heintz, Academic Dean at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary, Emmitsburg, Md.
Sessions for the deacons’ wives centered on Proverbs 31, and were facilitated by Maggie Riggins, Director of the Office of Young Adult and Campus Evangelization.
The day concluded with a Vigil Mass celebrated by Bishop Alfred Schlert and dinner.
Since 1982, a total of 166 men have been ordained to serve the Diocese as permanent deacons. Applicants for the class of 2027 are currently being interviewed.
While vocations to the priesthood have been declining nationwide, ordinations to the permanent diaconate have been increasing. In the Allentown Diocese, the largest class of permanent deacons in the country – a total 47 men – was ordained in 2015.
Father Dailey speculated on the reasons for the surprising growth in vocations to the permanent diaconate.
“It may be that men who have had some ‘success’ in a career now see success as service to the Lord. On the other hand, vocations to the priesthood typically come from younger men whose lives are awash in future possibilities. This may make a vocational decision less certain.”
Father Dailey suggested prayer and personal invitation to increase vocations. “Challenging someone to make a decision about life in light of God’s will for them may be the gentle ‘push’ that a person needs to answer the call.”