In a Blink of an Eye: A Deacon’s Journey
It is Jesus Christ and his call to marriage and the diaconate that gave me the strength and courage to bear witness to him.
In a blink of an eye. That’s what it seems like. There I was, 25 years ago at Holy Name Cathedral in Steubenville, Ohio, kneeling before Bishop Gilbert Sheldon as he laid hands on my head and prayed the prayer of ordination. At that very moment, the course of my life changed forever as the Diocese of Steubenville ordained its first permanent deacon.
The year was 1995, and, while the fathers of the Second Vatican Council had restored the diaconate to a permanent place in the threefold hierarchy some 27 years earlier, the Diocese of Steubenville had yet to institute a formation program. Though I was only 35 at the time, still a young man, my ordination to the diaconate was long in coming.
My journey began some 13 years earlier when, at the age of 22, I married. Though I was raised Catholic, it wasn’t until I experienced the love of God in marriage that I began to appreciate it as a true vocation, an authentic calling from God. Yet, within this very same call, there was another. It began as a faint whisper and then grew into a strong and steady conversation. At that time, my father-in-law was in formation to the diaconate in the Diocese of Peoria. As I grew to know and love him better, I wondered whether God might be calling me to the diaconate as well.
According to the discipline of the Church, I had well over a decade to wait before I reached the canonical age of ordination. It was at that time, convinced of my vocation, that I set myself on a rather long and arduous path of preparation. After some self-study, I pursued a 13-year journey that would see undergraduate, graduate and postgraduate studies in theology. It would include lay ministry on both the parish and diocesan levels. It would see a remarkable marriage and seven children. Finally, on the solemnity of the Annunciation, March 25, 1995, by the grace of God, I was ordained the first permanent deacon in the Diocese of Steubenville.
At first, I simply viewed my theological studies as a way to better prepare for the diaconate and, in many ways, it did not disappoint. In this respect, I never set out to be a theologian. Yet, I was swept up by my studies to a place I could scarcely imagine. I began to appreciate more and more that theology is, as St. Anselm of Canterbury so succinctly put it, “faith seeking understanding.” From this perspective, I could see that the teachings I studied were not cold dispassionate doctrines, but truths that mediated Jesus Christ.
Theology for me was not simply the search for something but the discovery of someone. It was about falling in love with God. As one formed within the pontificate of St. John Paul II, I was profoundly influenced by his teachings and, in particular, his personalist thought. The nature of personhood as an image of the Trinity and love as a gift of self occupied my thoughts. They permeated my marriage and fatherhood. They penetrated my pastoral and liturgical ministry. They found their way into my teachings, writings and homilies.
Over the last 25 years, I’ve taught at colleges and universities, exercised full-time pastoral ministry and contributed to the theological understanding of the diaconate. I find myself today preparing diaconal candidates for the Diocese of Joliet and editing Our Sunday Visitor’s The Deacon magazine. All of this was made possible — not because of my efforts, imperfect though they are — but because of a profound grace I did not merit.
It is Jesus Christ and his call to marriage and the diaconate that gave me the strength and courage to bear witness to him. Had I sourced my faith in myself, had I looked to my own strength when that strength failed, and many times through the years it did, I would have ultimately failed. I would have ceased to bear witness to the One who bore witness for me as he hung upon the cross and conquered death.
I look back over the last 25 years and give God praise and glory. At the same time, I look forward to the years to come. If this is what God can accomplish in a blink of an eye, I can’t wait to see what he can accomplish in two blinks and, indeed, all the “blinks” that make up eternal life.
DEACON DOMINIC CERRATO, Ph.D., is editor of The Deacon and the director of diaconal formation for the Diocese of Joliet, Illinois. He is the founder of Diaconal Ministries, where he gives national presentations and retreats to deacons and diaconal candidates. Follow him on Facebook to continue the conversation.