At a time when COVID-19 face masks hide our true identities, four men have been ordained as deacons to reveal the face of Christ through fidelity to God’s word, charity, and service to the Church.
The face coverings have become a metaphor for the ministry of Pedro (Bong) Estoque, a retired engineer; Francis Lau, a former financial planner; and Wayne Provencal and Steven Defer, who are both employed by the Edmonton Archdiocese. Provencal serves as financial administrator and Defer is on leave from the Office of Life and Family.
“Life supplies such ‘masks’ in abundance, via the various forms of suffering that come our way,” Archbishop Richard Smith said in his homily during the July 21 ordination Mass.
“Very often we hear it said that pain and anguish lead people to doubt God’s love or even to question His existence. In other words, the face of Christ, which reflects fully the mercy and love of God, can become obscured from view when misery besets us. We look to our new deacons to keep the face of our Lord ‘unmasked’ by means of their threefold ministry to Word, altar and charity.”
For the deacons themselves, the ordination Mass was the culmination of four years of study and decades of discernment before that. Their shared sentiment was that the ceremony was transformational.
“Absolutely I feel different. Words escape me. I can only describe it as gratitude, and that’s not adequate. It’s a surreal joy,” said Deacon Steven Defer. “I have to figure this out now. This is who I am. It’s a bit like, now you’ve climbed the mountain to see the peak, but the peak is much further yet. It’s beautiful.”
As part of the ordination, each man was vested with a stole and dalmatic, the long, wide-sleeved tunic distinctive to the diaconate. Asked what was going through his mind when he donned the white liturgical vestment, Defer said “I hope it fits! I hope they didn’t give me Bong’s.”
Defer is about two feet taller than Deacon Bong Estoque.
“You could really feel the outpouring of the Holy Spirit when the Archbishop lays his hands on you,” Deacon Estoque said. “It’s a different feeling. I don’t know how to explain it, but it goes to your nerves and your heart.”
Due to pandemic protocols, the deacons wore masks during the ceremony at St. Joseph’s Basilica and only a limited number of guests attended in person. More that 700 viewed the ordinations online.
The ordinations bring the number of active deacons in the Edmonton Archdiocese to 30. Another nine are retired or on leave. The deacons preach, teach, and provide outreach.
“His ministry might be serving the poorest in the parish or maybe a ministry to unwed mothers or whatever it might be,” said Deacon Lynn Pion, who coordinates the archdiocesan diaconal formation program.
“It might be serving in prisons or going into the hospital. Because of that sacrament of Holy Orders, there’s a special grace bestowed there, the gift of the Holy Spirit, to help him.”
While deacons serve in a variety of settings, the newest ones will all serve parishes in the Archdiocese. The deacon is ordained to be a servant of the Church and to collaborate with the bishop, other deacons, and the lay faithful.
In interviews, the new deacons only half-jokingly said that their job is to do whatever their pastor asks of them – a reflection of their new ministry of service.
“If a pastor has his deacon or deacons beside him to help meet some of those needs and to sometimes be his right arm to get things organized for him, then the two of them working together can do a lot of good things,” Deacon Pion said.
“He usually ends up being loved in a big way. It’s a wonderful ministry of service to the Church and the people. That ongoing collaboration between the priest and the deacon is vital for parish.”
Archbishop Smith added: “Deacons are configured to Christ the servant, who came among us not to be served but to serve. In caring for the poor and needy, deacons, in virtue of the gift of the Spirit received at ordination, sacramentalize, make visible, the face of Christ the servant.
“Love, then, as Christ loved; serve as he served. Strive to know the people entrusted to your care. Be not distant from their hopes and fears, their joys and sufferings. May they know each of you as a man willing to give himself fully to help them experience the love and mercy of Christ.”
The diaconate is a part of the sacrament of Holy Orders which has three levels: bishop, priest and deacon. The word deacon itself comes the Latin diaconis which means service.
A deacon can preach the Gospel, baptize, preside at funeral vigils, and witness marriages. However, that’s not to overlook a deacon’s role in social justice in the individual parish, Deacon Pion said. In addition, the deacon provides a Catholic presence in the community where a priest can’t.
“In a lot of different ways in the community he serves, and offers different outreach to the poor and the disadvantaged, deacon should be at the forefront of that,” Deacon Pion said.
“Because some of our deacons are still working in a secular job, they’re able to be deacons rubbing shoulders with people in the work world or wherever. It does allow the deacon to have one foot around the altar, one foot in sacristy, and another foot out in the world. It’s kind of a bridge job.”
Deacon Pion noted that the diaconate is not an entry-level position. Candidates must demonstrate that they are already serving in their parish and community. Candidates need to be between 35 and 60, baptized and confirmed. Married applicants must have been married at least seven years, while single men will be required to make a solemn public commitment to the celibate life.
Aside from that, Deacon Pion said he’s looking for candidates to have generosity of time, an understanding of the Church’s mission and, most importantly, humility.
“It is probably the number one thing that we look for, because the role of the deacon is about service,” Pion said. “If he didn’t have an ample dose of humility as one of his virtues, it would be a tough vocation to do well. Humble service is the call of the deacon.”
The diaconate formation is a four-year program covering academic, pastoral, human, and spiritual aspects. The new deacons say it’s a rigorous academic study, but there’s a bond that forms between them. Key to their formation is the support of family, in particular their wives.
“The ministry that they assume today represents a significant change, indeed a sacrifice, for you as well as for your husbands,” Archbishop Smith said. “But I know, as do all of us gathered here, that it is a sacrifice made out of love. We are grateful for the support you will continue to give your husbands as they fulfill their diaconal role in this local Church.”
The wives say they’ve become family, so much so that have committed to gathering regularly throughout the year.
“How do I feel today? Just very humbled and grateful for being part of this journey with my husband Wayne but also with these other fine men and their wives,” said Mary-Ann Provencal. “I feel very renewed in my faith and ready to serve alongside them.”
Her husband Wayne agreed, saying he was “spectacularly humbled” by the entire experience.
“There was just a calming and a peace. I just closed my eyes and let the Spirit move.”
Mary-Ann Provencal said she’s looking forward to strengthening relationships after supporting Wayne through four years of study, including taking some of the courses and sessions herself.
Nancy Defer said she’s known for years that her husband Steven, a former lay chaplain in the Canadian Forces, would be on the journey to the diaconate.
She said the biggest adjustment, if any, was to sort out the accommodations that had to be made for the ordination Mass to protect against COVID-19. “It was very intimate compared to others we’ve been to. It’s not what we thought it was going to be, but it was wonderful.”