For hundreds of years a man's ordination as a deacon in the Roman Catholic Church was considered a temporary status. It was as a deacon that a future priest could study, learn, pray and reflect as he prepared to be ordained a priest.
The diaconate (order of deacons) has blossomed since the revival of the permanent diaconate after the Second Vatican Council about 50 years ago.
And what its role will be as the church moves into the future is the subject of a soon-to-be-published book by Bishop W. Shawn McKnight, of the Catholic Diocese of Jefferson City.
McKnight, who like all priests and bishops was first a deacon, wrote a dissertation on the permanent diaconate. The research for that dissertation was the genesis of his book, "Understanding the Diaconate: Historical, Theological and Sociological Foundations."
The book is expected to be published in June.
"We're still trying to get a better feel for 'What is it the Holy Spirit wants us to do with the diaconate? Should there be a deacon in every parish?' No, probably not," McKnight said.
But there are many parishes, he said, that really need deacons because of their size or because they serve a melting pot of cultures or because they contain groups who speak various languages.
"The deacons could provide a bridge to assist the pastor in his pastoral care," he said.
The permanent diaconate came about in the earliest days of Christianity; however, it declined over the years. By the Middle Ages, the diaconate remained only to prepare men for their ordination into the priesthood.
The Second Vatican Council, Oct. 11, 1962, to Dec. 8, 1965, resulted in several changes within the church — including creation of better communications with other religions, use of vernacular languages in Mass, revision of the liturgy and restoration of a permanent diaconate. (The council, an assembly of bishops convened to resolve issues within the church, was the second such gathering and came about 90 years after the first.)
About two years after the council recommended the permanent diaconate be restored, Pope Paul VI did so in an apostolic letter.
The deacon is one of three levels of the sacrament of Holy Orders, the others being priest and bishop.
The Jefferson City diocese needs to look at unique ways to use deacons in the church's ministry of charity, McKnight said. A class of 18 new deacons is expected to complete its training in January, he said. Most of the new deacons are likely to serve in parishes, but several are Hispanic and could serve broader roles. One, whom McKnight already has approached, will remain close to the bishop to serve Hispanic people in the diocese and perform other roles.
There's a need for that bilingual ministry.
The current pope — Pope Francis — has drawn attention to the missionary aspects of the church, McKnight said.
"He's drawing us to consider the need to reach out to the periphery," McKnight said, "and to be more — instead of internally oriented — externally oriented.
"I think that's exactly what deacons are all about, to help us fulfill that vision, that goal," he said.
Deacons have one foot in the sanctuary, but they also are important in the communities the church serves.
"They are about connecting — making connections between what we are symbolically doing around the altar and what people are doing in daily life out in the world," McKnight said.
Deacons Ric Telthorst, of St. Peter Parish in Jefferson City, and Tyler McClay, of the Cathedral of St. Joseph Parish in Jefferson City, both were ordained in 2016. At the time they decided they wanted to become deacons, each already was married with children, and they knew they wouldn't go on to the seminary. But they arrived at the decisions by traveling different roads.
The men said they both felt a calling but couldn't put into words the desire they had to serve the church.
"How do you explain a call?" McClay asked. "I don't know that you can."
McClay had just converted to Catholicism.
Some people say they have a clear calling to the church, Telthorst said. Some people go into the diaconate thinking they'll get that sign. He, on the other hand, went in thinking he'd get a sign saying, "No, stop. This isn't for you."
He never saw that.
He was a lifetime Catholic — what he calls a "cradle Catholic." His older brother is a Catholic priest. Growing up, Telthorst's brother was a role model. About 20 years ago, Telthorst went through a program called Cursillo, which is a sort of retreat for lay people that helps them to discover their potential and accept their weaknesses.
Having participated in the Cursillo and having been in the presence of other deacons who where inspirational, Telthorst also felt a calling.
"Being in the presence of those guys and seeing how they served the church and God's people over time was kind of an inspiration to me," he said. "My experience was slowly, over time, being formed into that role (of deacon) and being able to see yourself in that role."
About the time McKnight was ordained a bishop, he put a hold on future classes of deacons in the Jefferson City diocese until the church has a better understanding of what it wants from the diaconate. His book could help inform how the church chooses its candidates, he said. It looks at the diaconate from the need within the church, but also around the world, he said. It looks at people who have charisms (charisma or personality strengths) that help them operate in a realm of moral authority — people who are persuasive or who naturally inform others; people who help others connect with resources or other helpful people.
The goal is that deacons enhance the works of priests and bishops.
As McKnight was preparing to receive his first sacrament of Holy Orders, he said, he posed the question to a professor, "What is a deacon?"
"Go on," the professor prompted.
Well, the only definition available said deacons were ministers of charity, but priests and bishops also are supposed to be ministers of charity. As are lay people, by baptism, McKnight said.
"How's that unique?" he asked the professor.
He answered, "That's a good question."
That question led to his realization that the work of the diaconate helps priests and bishops better perform their roles as shepherds and to better respond to people's needs. Deacons help connect the church with people who have spiritual, material and psychological needs.
That's a role of the deacon — to make those connections.
And the deacon does more.
"Deacons should be identifying to the pastor people who have skills — charisms — gifts that are not being fully utilized in the parish or in the diocese," McKnight said. "And that's what they're all about. In some ways, they are unique promoters of vocation because they're about helping people become actively engaged in the life and mission of the church."
A priority, McKnight said, is to begin a process of educating priests and the people about the diaconate. Once the church has a better idea of what it needs from the diaconate, it will be able to do a better job of selecting candidates. It will have a better sense of how many it needs and what training to offer them.
McKnight and the director of the diaconate program are in discussions about its future, Telthorst said.
"What (McKnight) has already told us — in short form — is that we will be getting out into the community to be his hands and his feet, if you will," McClay said. "Out in the community, visiting prisons, going to hospitals, whatever he can't do because he's got other obligations."
The diocese actually has more deacons than priests right now. As the priests get older, and they have less time for those services because they're performing baptisms, last rites, funerals and other sacraments and duties, deacons can take up part of the load, McClay said.
"They're going to need more help with those kinds of ministries that are maybe more time consuming," he said. "They may not have time to visit someone in the hospital who's sick or to take communion to someone in a nursing home. So, that's what (McKnight's) going to want."
Those who are ordained as permanent deacons are a sort of bridge between the church and the faithful, Telthorst said.
"We come out of that experience, where we're married men with families and secular jobs," he said.
Deacons lead, but in a different way than priests and bishops. They're not primarily about making decisions, but about helping those who do make decisions connect with the people, McKnight said.
He expects to hear from his colleagues once they read his book.
"I'm expecting there to be some good dialogue, a good discussion. Maybe even some debate. That's healthy," McKnight said. "But it begins debate that needs to happen, continues the conversation. And we need to give ourselves the freedom to think differently about the diaconate. We're not enslaved to our current or past forms of it. We need to think creatively about it."