Fortieth Anniversary of the First Ordained Permanent Deacons in the Diocese of Rochester
Dec 27, 2021
Deacon Edward Giblin
In 2022, the Diocese of Rochester will happily celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the first class to be ordained to the permanent diaconate. The 24 members of the class were ordained on April 17, 1982. Those ordinations, however, did not include the first local ordination to the restored order. Following the restoration of the permanent diaconate at Vatican II, and keen to implement the Council’s vision, Venerable Bishop Fulton J. Sheen on June 1, 1969 ordained to the permanent diaconate Michael Cole, a former Anglican clergyman. Deacon Cole was the first permanent deacon ordained in the United States, a distinction of note for our Diocese.
In his November 1975 pastoral letter, You are Living Stones, Bishop Sheen’s successor, Bishop Joseph L. Hogan, expressed his desire to have the permanent diaconate operative within the Diocese as soon as possible. He envisioned deacons serving in urban ministry, in rural areas, and in particular ministries such as hospital ministry, prison ministry, and youth ministry. In his pastoral letter, Bishop Hogan asked St. Bernard’s Seminary to take a leadership role in forming the deacons, and from the beginning until now Rochester’s permanent deacons have been formed at the Seminary or its successors, formerly St. Bernard’s Institute and now St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry.
After much hard work by a task force established for the permanent diaconate led by Bishop Dennis W. Hickey and Rev. Sebastian A. Falcone, the first class began formation in 1978, under the direction of Monsignor George Cocuzzi and Sister Hilaire Gaelens, R.S.M. Those classes, unlike formation classes today, were residential, so the men and their wives, and occasionally their children, traveled to Rochester for weekend classes at the Seminary. Over the years, the location of St. Bernard’s has moved, and advancing technology has created new opportunities. Succeeding classes have studied and been formed at the former SBI campus on South Goodman Street in Rochester, and now at the SBSTM campus on French Road in Pittsford, supplemented by locations around the region that have leveraged technology and allowed students to attend class remotely rather than having to drive to campus from the far reaches of the Diocese.
Formation for the permanent diaconate focuses on four pillars – human, spiritual, pastoral, intellectual – and the current program lasts five years, thus requiring a tremendous commitment not only by the students but also by their wives and families. The graduate course of study at SBSTM leads to a Master of Arts in Pastoral Studies degree, or a graduate certificate for those students without an undergraduate degree. Along with the rigorous academic program there is a requirement for three field education experiences, exposing the future deacons to ministry in a direct care situation such as in a homeless shelter or meal program, an institutional setting such as a jail or nursing facility, and a parish, which is the typical base assignment for a permanent deacon.
Since 1982, Rochester’s permanent deacons have served faithfully in parishes, to be sure, but have taken their call to witness the Servant Christ to prisons, hospitals, county jails, and college campuses. They have served in shelters for women and children, acted as pastoral administrators, comforted the dying as hospice chaplains, worked with couples preparing for marriage or those in a troubled marriage. Deacons have served as spiritual directors, held leadership positions in interfaith ministries, served as administrators in schools and social service agencies, and led retreats for the deaf and hard-of-hearing community. Deacons have been active in witnessing for life and have facilitated prayer vigils to re-hallow the ground after a homicide. They have baptized new members of our community, witnessed marriages, and buried the dead. They’ve proclaimed and preached the Word of God not only in the Sunday assembly but also in the marketplace, the classroom, the board room, and the living room.
Their ministry has been carried out with the support not only of Bishop Sheen, who ordained the first permanent deacon, and of Bishop Hogan, whose vision initiated the permanent diaconate locally, but also of Bishop Matthew H. Clark, who ordained that first class, and Bishop Salvatore R. Matano, who continues this vision today. Bishop Clark and Bishop Matano have embraced the diaconal community with prayerful support and guidance, allowing the ministry to go, in the words of Pope Francis, “… to the peripheries…,” where the presence of the Church and the peace of Christ the Servant are so needed.
In speaking with one of the remaining members of that first class, as sadly many of the men and their wives have returned to the Lord, I was reminded by him that the milestone should not mark individual notoriety but the presence, vitality, and witness of the diaconal community for four decades in the Diocese of Rochester. We have been blessed by the ministry and mission of so many dedicated deacons and their wives and families who have taken to heart our Baptismal call to service. We thank the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council and Pope St. Paul VI for listening to the Spirit in calling for the restoration of the permanent diaconate, and we thank Almighty God for sending workers to the vineyard in our deacons, their wives and families, and their collaborators in ministry who come not to be served, but to serve.