Program #0048 for Monday, May 16, 2011: Deacon Dan Burns

May 16, 2011

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Today’s host(s): Scot Landry

Today’s guest(s): Deacon Dan Burns, director of Permanent Diaconate Formation for the Archdiocese of Boston

Today’s topics: The permanent diaconate

A summary of today’s show: Scot talks with Deacon Dan Burns about the permanent diaconate in the Archdiocese of Boston, his own calling to holy orders, the process of discernment and formation involving the men and their wives, and the future of the diaconate in the Church.

1st segment: Scot welcomes all to the show. Yesterday was the World Day of Prayer for Vocations, and while we should pray for vocations to the priesthood we should also pray for all forms of service to the Church, including the permanent diaconate. The ministry of the permanent deacon was restored at Vatican II. There are about 36,000 deacons in the world, with about half in the US. Boston has 247 permanent deacons, which ranks the archdiocese 12th in the US. How are deacons formed for ministry? How does their family take part in the discernment process?

2nd segment: Scot welcomes Deacon Dan Burns to the show. He was ordained to the diaconate in September 1998. He was 42 when he was ordained and started formation when he was 38. He was active in his parish with marriage prep, choir, confirmation retreats. The vocation sprung from that service and a mid-life crisis, in a sense. There was another man int he parish in formation for the diaconate who suggested to Deacon Dan he might have a vocation.

His wife initially thought he was crazy, which is a fairly common reaction. She said he was already very busy and how would it fit into the family. Healthy skepticism is good for discernment. But she saw he had a call and one of the parish priests reinforced the call. It’s very important to realize that this is a vocational call, not just a promotion for someone who helps out in the parish. There are already many ways to serve the Church. The discernment must come fro ma very deep prayer life, to feel the Spirit drawing you in this direction.

There were a number of hurdles and he didn’t get over all of them until his ordination. But the basic hurdles are considering how it would fit into family life, how he would fit it into his working life. He asked why would God be calling me? You tend to look at your own flaws and weaknesses and try to put it off because God “couldn’t be calling me into this.”

The Church speaks of the deacon’s ministry in three areas: Deacon of the Word, Deacon of the liturgy, and Deacon of charity. Deacon Dan felt his call was broad-based, but many feel called to a particular more than the others. All three of those are important parts of being a deacon. What is an average week in the life of a permanent deacon like?

He’s involved in Sunday Mass, to proclaim the Gospel in any Mass he’s at, maybe one or more times in the week. He might have to do baptisms on Saturday or Sunday. Might be connected to religious education program in some way. For service, he’s found himself ministering in hospice settings for the terminally ill.

One part of formation was a summer internship in a hospital and he had been deathly afraid of hospitals, but his work has shown that it is a gift of grace to be invited to minister to the ill and their families.

Scot asked how he balanced his various responsibilities? It was very difficult. He was wife was a great help to him to tell him he needed to say no to certain requests. Men called to the diaconate have a servant’s heart and have a tendency to say yes to all requests. While the Spirit gives us gifts to do many things well, it doesn’t mean we can do them all.

What are the things priests do that deacons can do and not do? In formation, they focus on who the deacon is, not on what he does. The Church did fine without deacons for 1,500 years. The diaconate was restored to be a symbol to the Church and the world that we are all called to serve one another in Christ’s name. That said, Deacons can perform baptisms, marriages, graveside services. They cannot celebrate Mass or hear confessions or the sacrament of the sick.

Which one does he find himself enjoying more than others? Without question, it’s baptisms, welcoming babies into the family of Christ. As a parent, he flashes back to when his own kids were baptized and the recognition of the beauty of life in these children. You find ways to bring all of the family into a celebration of that sacrament.

3rd segment: There are 247 deacons in Boston, but that includes senior deacons who are over 75 and taking care of some ministry. In Boston, about 94% of deacons are married and there are some who have annulments.

Discernment takes place in the whole family. The wife is involved in the first year which is called aspirancy. The wives are closely involved and hear and see everything so they can both determine if it fits within the family structure. The average of those entering formation are in late 40s or early 50s so in many families the kids are older, maybe in college, and the couples are empty-nesters. Deacon Dan is hopeful that they can invite men with younger families as well. They see in the Latino communities men who are younger and they need to find ways to involve the children in the process as well.

If the wife doesn’t consent, then the husband will not be allowed to enter the program. After aspirancy there is a formal process called candidacy during which the husband and wife have to sign a handwritten letter. They both have to sign before ordination as well. Married men have a primary vocation to their marriage and families.

Deacons are called to bring the presence of Christ to the world and the wives are involved in that. There are sacrifices involved. That includes the husband serving in the Church for a number of hours. There is grace involved as well. There is a sacrifice of realizing that the husband is now in the public sphere, you are now very public people in a public role.

81% of permanent deacons in the US are white, 14% Hispanic, 2% African American, and 2% Asian. Deacon Dan said it’s almost the same in Boston. The current aspirancy class is multicultural: 16 Latino, 7 white, 1 Brazilian, and 1 Vietnamese. The multicultural experience is very enriching. The Church in the US in the future will have a much larger Latino presence and this is true for the Archdiocese as well.

4th segment: What are the attributes the Church looks for in a candidate for the diaconate? Deacon Dan said we’re looking for is men who already deacons, in a sense. Looking to hone the men who are living a diaconal life, men who are supported by the parish through the priests and parishioners; who are serving their parishes. In Scripture, the deacons are chosen from among the community. Deacon Dan looks for the depth of their spiritual life. If they are deeply rooted in prayer with Christ as their foundation, then everything will go smoothly in formation. Of course, they will grow during formation.

How do you assess how they can live the public aspects of the diaconate? Deacon Dan said it can be hard to project those things. There are men who don’t show the attribute right away and can grow into them. A deacon is called to these three works of Word, sacrament, and charity, but you don’t have to be experts in all of those. For those who are not outstanding in one area, they can take part, but concentrate in a different area.

The minimum age for ordination is 35, so they would start the program in their early 30s. The maximum at ordination would be 65 because they enter senior status at 75. They also determine whether he can handle graduate level studies. It doesn’t mean you have to have a college degree, but you have to have the ability to handle it.

There is no limit on the number of aspirants per formation class size. In the last three years: 18 in 2009, 34 in 2010, 19 in 2011. Class sizes tend to be between 12 and 16. In general, there a few men each year who withdraw, whether they discern for themselves or the Church decides.

If you know someone who might have these gifts, invite them to consider it. The Holy Spirit often speaks through other people to plant the seed. For men considering it, do some reading on the USCCB web site or the book The Emerging Diaconate: Servant Leaders in a Servant Church. Talk to deacons you know. The office has a program each fall for men and women to hear about what’s involved and then there a discernment retreat to help them take the next step.

5th segment: The first year of the program is aspirancy. In years 2 through 4, they get into a lot of the work of study and formation. There are pillars of formation: pastoral, intellectual, human, and vocational. In the first year, they take 2 courses in Scripture and a series of seminars on the issue of discernment. The first semester is discerning from a spiritual perspective, how to pray to learn God’s will. The second is focused on discernment of the diaconate life in particular. In the three years of candidacy, they take four courses each year. It parallels the Master of Arts in Ministry program and this fall men could use their courses toward an academic degree. There are also pastoral experiences, including in the second year working with the poor in an immersion program at Stonehill College, living there for 3 days serving people in the Brockton area. There’s a summer internship between years 3 and 4 in a hospital chaplaincy, about 100 hours. They meet two evenings per week, 7-9pm, and one Saturday per month, 6-7 hours, mostly spiritual formation. Fall retreat for the men only and a spring retreat for couples.

They recently added a second location in addition to the Pastoral Center in Braintree, at Merrimac College in North Andover. This September, the incoming college will be at the Pastoral Center for 4 years and in 2012, that class will meet at Merrimac.

After ordination, they receive a pastoral assignment. Historically, men would be assigned to their home parish or a local parish, near their homes. In the future, with the demographics in the priesthood, we have to break through the idea of parochial view and have a more diocesan and global view of the Church. Future deacons could find a diocesan-based assignment, such as hospital chaplaincy. As deacons, they serve the needs of the bishop and so they work where the Cardinal sees the need.

As a deacon, they are part of the clergy in the Archdiocese of Boston. Does it limit their ability to move out of the diocese as needs arise? There is an expectation that they are ordained for the Archdiocese, but the reality is that they have to make a living. Or someone retires and wants to spend part of their year in another place. In a new diocese, they could ask the local bishop to serve there. At age 75 they become senior deacons. They can continue to serve as their health allows, but they are not officially assigned to a particular parish. Deacons don’t retire, they are ordained for life, just like priests.

The neighboring diocese of Worcester has put their diaconate program on hiatus to update their program and to pray about whether the pastoral planning underway in Worcester will affect the number of deacons they’ll need down the road. We’ve already gone through a similar process in Boston. The program went on hiatus for a year after a new set of guidelines came out from the US Bishops’ Conference, to ensure that they’re still working according to the highest standards.

Deacon Dan says there would ideally be one deacon per parish to effectively show the servant nature of the Church.

To those who are thinking about, listen to the promptings of the Holy Spirit in your heart. Do not be afraid, as Bl. John Paul told us. We all will think we’re not worthy, but God uses us anyway.

That will conclude today’s presentation of The Good Catholic Life. For recordings and photos of today’s show and all previous shows, please visit our website: You can also download the app for your iPhone or Android device at to listen to the show wherever you may be. We thank our guest, Deacon Dan Burns. For our Production team of Rick Heil, Anna Johnson, Justin Bell, Dom Bettinelli, and George Martell, this is Scot Landry saying thank YOU for listening, God bless you and have a wonderful evening!

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