Deacon Robert Burns holds his son Isaac before his ordination in December 2023. Photo by Dave Hrbacek, The Catholic Spirit

How to Address the Church’s Biggest Challenge

Inviting young married men to become deacons

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Young families are leaving the Church every day, which is one of the biggest challenges the Church is facing. An important lifeblood of the Church is driven by the continued growth of young, inspired families who thrive in their Catholic faith. The domestic church is a phrase made popular by the Second Vatican Council and used often by Pope St. John Paul II. The idea is that the family is a “little home church,” because the members of the family are united in love through the grace of the Sacrament of Matrimony.

A young married deacon and his family can be a brilliant beacon for young sacred families sitting in the pew, who might find it difficult to relate to older deacons and priests.

The Church needs young married deacons to inspire young couples who are raising children, juggling demanding jobs and supporting the family’s spiritual, emotional and financial needs.

God calls men of all ages to the diaconate, and those who accept become invaluable soldiers for his kingdom. The canonical minimum age for ordination of a permanent deacon is 35. We should always be open to inviting men of any age, single or married, to consider the diaconate. An unmarried man who is ordained as a permanent deacon assumes a celibate life. All men are invited to hear and discern the call of the Holy Spirit to the order of deacon. We should promote the diaconate for the good of the Church.

How to Invite

As deacons, we have a tremendous opportunity to invite young married men to become deacons. We should inspire these men to realize that Jesus desires them, the Church desires them and those young, beautiful, little home churches desperately need them. The words and actions of a young, married deacon and his family will resonate profoundly with other young families.

To better fulfill our vocation, we should share why we were inspired and motivated to accept the call. We were ordained to proclaim the Gospel, preach, teach, counsel and give spiritual guidance. We baptize, witness marriages and preside at wake services and funerals.

These young men will obviously have questions and concerns, just like we ourselves did when we first considered the diaconate. Concerns are usually focused on time, small children, work, traveling and the financial demands of house, education and retirement. The wife may have concerns about her husband taking his focus off the family and not continuing to earn enough money to support their short- and long-term financial needs.

I was aware of the call in my 30s, but I rationalized I did not have time for a full-time ministry at that point. I accepted the call and was ordained later in life. I still work full time for my marketing and sales consulting business. I have four grown children living outside our home, and five grandchildren, ranging in age from 5 to 15, all close to home in Cincinnati. My wife and I are extremely involved in their lives.

When first ordained, I did not get my wife’s agreement on the time I devoted to my ministry. This strained our relationship. She worried I would not stay focused on earning income and would reduce my family time. Once I realized the problem I caused, we candidly discussed it and agreed on prioritizing commitments for family, work and ministry.

It is exceedingly difficult to balance three full-time jobs: supporting wife and family, working full time in business, and ministry as a deacon. The only manageable approach is to set priorities and make sure that wife and husband are aligned. Once my partner was on board, the tension between us was reduced. I also sat down with my pastor and had an honest discussion about the time I could devote to my ministry and what I was not able to do. I got his agreement, and we became aligned.

Deacons and spouses should sit down with these young men and their wives. We should openly confide in them that we, too, had questions and concerns. The most effective approach is to honestly explain how we dealt with these issues, the mistakes we made, the difficulties we had, and how we and our wives worked together successfully. And, more importantly, how we are doing now in our ministry and the blessings the Lord has showered on our marriage, family and ministry.

There are older married deacons who admit they felt the call early, when they had young families, but decided to stay focused on family and work. These men entered diaconal formation once their children had grown up, their work situation changed and/or they retired from work. There are also married deacons who felt the call early and accepted it when they were younger, despite having small children and working full time.

Thriving Ministries

Here are a variety of reasons their ministry thrived. They had very flexible and understanding jobs. Some were already working in various capacities for the Church. Their wives were completely committed to their ministry and realized their calling, besides raising their family, was to support their deacon spouse. Their pastors provided full support for their ministry, granting them the flexibility they needed.

If husband and wife are willing to accept the call now while still raising a family, we should reassure them God will give them everything they need. They will also receive the support of the diaconal community. Our ministry is his ministry. He will help us provide for family, work and ministry. This requires complete surrender to his will, which is far more a process than an event.

Married deacons and wives will admit entering the ministry requires sacrifices. Once priorities are discerned and committed to by deacon and spouse, God reveals the correct path. Living out the Sacrament of Matrimony and raising children in the Faith are significant contributions young married deacons can make, which will be inspirational to young families.

Addressing a Challenge

This can help us address one of the Church’s biggest challenges, as mentioned at the outset of this article, which is young families leaving the Church. These precious families need to be inspired so they can thrive in their Catholic faith. A young married deacon and his family will have a positive impact because those little home churches will relate best to a young married deacon and his family.

A married deacon can preach in a way that the congregation can understand because of his experience as a spouse and a parent, a man who takes his faith very seriously and continues to work full time in a demanding professional career. Married permanent deacons become models for the laity in a way that celibate priests and bishops cannot. Their witness is vital for the life of the Church. We need to step up and invite young married men to become deacons.

My brothers, if we would accept the challenge of inviting three young married men in the next six months to enter diaconal formation, and be prepared to address their concerns, we could bring thousands of new young married men to the diaconate for Christ in the United States in 2024, and help inspire the domestic church to thrive in the Catholic faith.

DEACON JOHN O’MALEY is ordained for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. He is chaplain for the local Knights of Columbus, Legion of Mary, Our Lady of Hope Veterans, Mental Wellness Ministry and Prison Ministry. He is also a Procter and Gamble alumni and a veteran, captain, U.S. Army ranger and West Point graduate.


Perspective: Appropriate Age of Deacons

In his column “Discerning the Appropriate Age for Ordained Ministry,” (The Deacon, November-December 2022), Deacon Steve Kramer wrote: “The presupposition is that a deacon’s ‘real ministry’ is what he does sacramentally or within other Church activities. However, this is exactly why we should look at younger men for ministry. I began diaconal formation at age 32 and was ordained in 1994 at age 38. Our two youngest were born during formation. The children were ages 3, 4, 6 and 12 at the time of my ordination. Our family grew with the community. When there were horrific accidents, suicides or other difficult moments, I was able to minister to those in the community. When my children’s school or sports teams had events, I was not only the deacon from the church but also a fellow parent. When a drug epidemic took the lives of several of our students, parents and community leaders sought my counsel.

“A young deacon’s journey will be vastly different from a 55-year-old candidate. It is up to him and his wife to ascertain how his ministry will unfold. Every diaconate family is unique. My hope is that we are able to recognize a possible vocation in some of our young men and ask them to discern the diaconate. Help them, mentor them, listen to them. Remember what God says to Samuel when he is sent and anoints young David — ‘God does not see as a mortal, who sees the appearance. The Lord looks into the heart’ (1 Sm 16:7).”


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