Catholic Herald staff
“It was a very rewarding experience,” Deacon Chester Ball said of his three decades of religious vocation.
“It’s life-changing,” added Deacon Jerry Drahos. “I don’t think any of us expected our lives to change that much.”
In 2016, the Diocese of Superior’s first class of permanent deacons celebrated 30 years of service.
Among the 12 ordained in 1986, Deacon Ball is one of only a handful who are still active; he serves the parish of St. Anthony de Padua, Park Falls.
Deacon Drahos is retired, but, as he observed, “You never stop being deacons.”
Restored in 1967 by the Second Vatican Council, the permanent diaconate returned the church to its original, three-level ministerial structure. Deacons, priests and bishops are the first, second and third degree, respectively, of the clergy.
Among their many roles, deacons witness at weddings and preside at baptisms and funerals. They preach, teach, catechize, lead RCIA programs, conduct communion services in the absence of a priest, do charitable work and serve as parish life coordinators.
Ultimately, deacons strive to serve their parishes, priests and bishops. Theirs is a threefold ministry of word, liturgy and charity and justice.
In 1980, the first 14 inquirers entered the Diocese of Superior’s newly formed permanent diaconate formation program.
Twelve – they jokingly referred to themselves as “the 12 apostles” – were later ordained: Dick Heckman, Howard Zuch, Dick Brockbank, Jerry Drahos, Dr. Hugh Mayer, Pete Huntowski, Chester Ball, Tim Kuehn, Phil Martineau, Stan Mercier, Roger Cadotte and Tim Byrnes.
Fr. Dennis Mullen, who is now retired and living in Rice Lake, directed the program.
Some of the first class of deacons have died, and some have moved away. According to Deacon John Grek, diocesan director of Diaconal Life, two are retired and four are active.
‘A super bonus’
In 1966, two years into their marriage, Deacon Drahos and his wife, Jan, moved from Chicago to Tony. The couple was soon active at St. Anthony, teaching confirmation classes to teens only a few years younger than themselves.
Having considered the priesthood before choosing marriage, he was interested in serving the church as a permanent deacon, and he entered formation when the opportunity arose.
One of the couple’s biggest surprises was meeting so many lifelong friends, Deacon Drahos said – other deacons and their wives, but also priests and fellow parishioners.
“It was just a life-changing experience, that’s for sure,” the deacon added. “That’s a blessing that you probably don’t even think of … that was certainly a super bonus.”
The Drahoses had five children, plus they were raising their niece. Fortunately, the oldest children were able to watch their younger siblings, so their parents attended classes together.
Balancing work, family life and a religious vocation was tricky at times, “but we brought what we could back to our children,” he said. His vocation also complemented his career with a private nonprofit social services agency – both roles were community- and service-oriented.
“It’s a wonderful thing,” he said of the vocation.
A vocation for two
Unlike the priesthood and religious life, the permanent diaconate is a cooperative commitment.
A married candidate is required to have been in a stable marriage for at least seven years, and he must have the “expressed consent and support of his wife.”
Children must be “of such an age and adjustment as not to be unduly affected by their father’s pursuit of a life that involves special apostolic commitments.”
Deacon Ball and his wife, Marie, celebrated 60 years of marriage last year; half of their life together has been with the diaconate.
Learning about Jesus, striving to follow him and lead others by example, enriched their relationship, the deacon said.
“My wife and I grew closer together, and that will happen when you do things together like that,” Deacon Ball added. “She certainly is proud of what I’m doing, and she’s been very supportive and helpful.”
Filling sacramental gaps
Back in the 1980s, there were some growing pains in the Church as deacons were integrated into the traditional parish structure.
Deacon Roger Cadotte, who serves the five-parish Catholic Community of Bayfield cluster, also worked for the Diocese of Superior for 20-plus years. At first, he said, Catholics didn’t really know how to respond to the permanent diaconate.
“I don’t think it was a really accepted ministry in the church, because it was so new,” he added.
In the Diocese of Superior, the ordination of the first class was delayed by a year, as Deacon Drahos explained, because neither the bishop nor the deacons knew exactly what they would be doing liturgically or programmatically.
Although the first deacons expected some resistance from their parishes, Deacon Drahos was pleasantly surprised.
“It was amazing. We were very, very well accepted,” he said. “That was wonderful. That was a surprise.”
At all times, the bishops have been very supportive of the vocation, Deacon Drahos observed: “Without it, we wouldn’t have much of a diaconate.”
As the number of priests has decreased, the need for deacons to fill “sacramental gaps,” as Deacon Drahos put it, has correspondingly increased.
“Now there are many, many priests who are looking for the deacons to assist and help them,” Deacon Ball said. “I preach frequently at Masses, and do quite a few funerals, and a lot of Word and Communion services.”
Deacons Drahos, Ball and Cadotte are all proud to have witnessed the weddings and baptisms of family members. Deacon Ball frequently provides homilies for memorial services.
“The part I enjoy most is visiting people and bringing Communion to those in the nursing home, the homebound, that kind of thing,” Deacon Cadotte said.
Deacons Ball and Drahos devoted much of their service to youth ministry, whether by teaching religious education and confirmation classes or by teaching in the Catholic school and interacting with parish youths.
Deacon Drahos and his wife taught confirmation classes together for more than 40 years.
“I love teaching, I love teaching in the school,” Deacon Ball said.
Ordained in the Diocese of Trenton, New Jersey, in 1984, Deacon Bernie Lyngdal also served a parish on Long Island, New York, before moving to Tomahawk.
Although not a member of the diocese’s first class of deacons, he has been ordained longer than any other deacon in the diocese.
In all three parishes, he has observed vocations to the priesthood, permanent diaconate and religious life “don’t just fall from the sky” – those who are called must also be groomed by their parishes.
“A parish is responsible for its own ordained and vowed people,” he said.
“I don’t think that as a whole, we emphasize vocations and the fact that it’s not just the response of the person who is called, but it is the response of the entire parish to seek out and encourage people who might be on the fence,” he added. “I think the whole church fails to recognize that while the vocation call comes from God, the encouragement has to come from the whole parish.”
Having a heart for service, being interested in one’s fellow man, being concerned about others – all of these are characteristics of someone suited to the permanent diaconate.
He describes the calling as an “itch.”
“If you’ve got the itch, you’ve got the calling,” Deacon Lyngdal said. “Once you’ve got that call, God does not settle for anything but that response.”
A vocation starts with the one who is called, but the deacon also believes in the importance of invitation. If Catholics know of someone who would make a good deacon, they should “by all means, raise the issue with that person,” he advised.
Answering the call requires sacrifice, Deacon Lyngdal acknowledged.
“There are things that you have to be reconciled to missing,” he said. “It’s a heavy investment … that has to be recognized going in, or you are going to be severely disappointed.”
Still, self-sacrifice begets its own blessings. Ordained nearly 34 years, Deacon Lyngdal has only ever heard of one deacon getting a divorce, “and that’s definitely far off the national average.”
Overall, he said, it strengthens your family life.
“It’s like taking castor oil,” he added, chuckling. “It’s good for you, in spite of how it might be.”