Future deacons serve as ‘light of Christ’ in diocese


PROVIDENCE — It’s hard for a priest to know all his parishioners personally or to faithfully carry out his plateful of duties alone. To fill this gap, servant-leaders are often assigned to parishes with the greatest need.
The Greek word “diakonos” means “servant,” and many men throughout the Diocese of Providence undertake this essential calling, serving where they are needed. Deacon Noel Edsall, director of permanent deacons, and Deacon Bud Remillard, director of deacon formation, spoke to Rhode Island Catholic about the functions and formation of a new class of deacons.
At this moment, seven men are in formation to become permanent deacons, set to be ordained in 2026. Three years into their formation, these men are now candidates for Holy Orders, as Bishop Richard G. Henning received them in the Rite of Candidacy this March. Bishop Henning has also recently agreed to the creation of a new class of deacons. Deacons Edsall and Remillard are actively recruiting for a class set to begin next spring.
Deacon Edsall elaborated on the many ways that he has been able to serve the faithful in his ministry as a permanent deacon.
When he was ordained more than 30 years ago, most parishes typically had two priests and two deacons, “but these days, there’s only one priest for multiple parishes or multiple churches, so the deacon is really needed,” he said, of the vital role that lay people can fulfill. “And there are no deacons who are idle.”
Deacons celebrate the Sacrament of Baptism and also officiate at marriages. They proclaim the Gospel and minister to the needs of the most vulnerable, such as distributing Holy Communion in nursing homes or assisted living facilities.
Most perform baptisms, officiate at weddings and many, many funerals. Deacons can be expected to give between eight and 10 hours of service to their parish, be it through education, assisting at Mass or fulfilling other duties.
“I’m doing more now to help the priests with wakes and committals,” noted Deacon Edsall, who is retired from his secular work.
Deacon Remillard spoke about the blessing his calling has been.
“The great thing about being a deacon is you are a gift to the parish you’re assigned to,” he said, noting it is “an opportunity to serve God and if you love God, there’s really nothing that compares with it. It’s a wonderful way of being close to God and walking in the steps of Jesus and being the light of Christ to those you come in contact with.”
Men who might be considering the diaconate should understand that this is “not a job, it’s a vocation,” Deacon Remillard said. “What vocation means in this context is, is God calling you to become a deacon? If he is, you’ll make the effort to get it done.”
Discernment is a two-way process. While men in the early stages of candidacy prayerfully consider whether God is calling them to this ministry, those forming and preparing them for the diaconate – such as Deacons Edsall and Remillard — do the same.
“We don’t see them as a group, we see them as each man, each family,” Deacon Edsall said.
Those five years not only form the candidates “into the mind and heart of a deacon,” but also ensure that each man truly has been called to this vocation.
In the current class, four men are studying online through the Josephinum Diaconate Institute in Spanish, and three are studying at Providence College in English. Both English and Spanish-speaking deacons are needed to aid priests of the diocese. This class is relatively small, but significant in that it is the first class in 25 years to admit more than one Hispanic deacon candidate.
Qualifications to apply for the diaconate are stringent, as men must be over the age of 35, faithful members of the Church and active in their parishes. If married, they must be in stable marriages of at least five years; unmarried men must promise to observe the discipline of life-long and consecrated celibacy. Converts to the faith must have joined the Church no less than five years prior to acceptance into the program.
Formation is challenging, covering four major areas: spiritual, pastoral, intellectual and human formation. The intellectual formation begins in the classroom weekly (or asynchronously, for the Spanish speakers) while other areas are covered in discussions during the monthly meetings, where all seven men come together. Even their wives are welcome to attend classes and monthly meetings, and the two deacons in charge of formation proudly report that all the wives of those in the current class have participated in some way.
Newly ordained deacons might worry that they could be assigned to a parish far away, but Deacon Edsall assures potential candidates that this is not the case. Most are assigned to parishes near their homes.
The bishop commented to Rhode Island Catholic on the important role that deacons fill within the diocese, saying how these men “are an integral part of pastoral ministry and a blessing to the parishes and schools where they serve.”
“They offer first and foremost the witness of a disciple and one who serves others in accord with Christ’s command,” he continued. “They partner with the bishop and the priests in their parish to attend to the spiritual and temporal needs of their people.”
“I am grateful to the current deacons, and I hope that God will inspire more men with the call to serve the Church in the ordained ministry of deacon. Our efforts to invite new candidates for formation intends to further assist our priests and enrich our parishes with this unique and beautiful ministry.”