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 | By Mary D. Dillard

The power of service

50 years of the permanent diaconate in the diocese

This May 27 will mark the 50th anniversary of the permanent diaconate in the Diocese of Birmingham in Alabama. Although the program has experienced somewhat of an “ebb and flow” over the last 50 years, the men who have dedicated their lives in service to the Church have been, and continue to be, a true blessing to the people of the diocese.

It was Pope St. Paul VI who restored the permanent diaconate on June 18, 1967, with the Motu Proprio “Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinum.” The permanent diaconate originally existed in the early centuries of the Church; however, it eventually morphed into a transitional state towards priesthood.

The late Bishop David E. Foley, the Third Bishop of Birmingham, explained the origins of the permanent diaconate restoration in an issue of the One Voice newspaper in 2000. He told the story of priests and bishops who survived German concentration camps during World War II. In the midst of all the suffering, there were “groups of men noted for their service to others.” These men “would sacrifice in every way so that others might survive,” becoming “servants of the rest.”

When the Second Vatican Council began in 1962, the same priests and bishops who witnessed such selfless service in the concentration camps shared their stories of the men who “exemplified the servanthood of Jesus Christ.” According to Bishop Foley, it was these men who called for the order of the permanent diaconate to be re-established.

Shortly after the Motu Proprio in 1967, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops sought permission to restore the order in the United States, which was given by Pope St. Paul VI in August of 1968. Following the approval, “mature men of deep faith whether married or single” who had been recommended by their pastor and had “a desire to serve others through the Church” could be considered for the permanent diaconate.

When the Diocese of Birmingham in Alabama was created in June of 1969, Bishop Joseph G. Vath was installed as the First Bishop of Birmingham. The bishop appointed a young and enthusiastic Father Frank Muscolino as the fledgling diocese’s director of vocations. Looking back, Father Muscolino remembers Bishop Vath wanted “to build a diocese faithful to the vision of Vatican II.” As a result, the bishop directed Father Muscolino to pursue the possibility; hence, the discernment began.

The young priest, along with Benedictine Sister Treva Heinberg, headed to the first National Workshop on the Permanent Diaconate in December of 1970. When the two arrived home, the enthusiasm was palpable. Bishop Vath requested that Father Muscolino present the possibility of the program to the Presbyteral Council, a group of priests representing the priests of the diocese and assisting the bishop in the governance of the diocese. Unanimously, the council endorsed the program on Nov. 10, 1971.

Following the endorsement, Father Muscolino was named the director of the new program, and Ray Dunmyer, a recent seminary graduate, was hired as associate director in July of 1972. Additional help came from Benedictine Sister Virginia Rohling as coordinator of the program for wives and Benedictine Sister Heinberg as psychological consultant.

The excitement surrounding the permanent diaconate was significant around the world, but especially so in the United States. Alabama was definitely no exception. As the program was still being designed, Father Patrick Murphy, then pastor of St. Jude Catholic Church in Scottsboro, urged Bishop Vath to accept Jerome Paul Raispis as a candidate for the diaconate.

Without hesitation, the bishop accepted Raispis into the program and instructed that preparation begin immediately. The preparation began with the associate director traveling to Scottsboro one night a week. Remembering those days fondly, Father Dunmyer recalls: “I would arrive in time to have dinner with the family, and I would meet with Mr. Raispis for three hours of study. I would assign homework for Mr. Raispis, and I would return to Birmingham the next morning. It was a special blessing for me to come to know the Raispis family.”

In the fall of 1972, more than 100 men from throughout the Diocese of Birmingham inquired about the program. The diocese began the interview process, and 19 men were eventually accepted into the first diaconate class with instruction beginning in January of 1973. Behind the scenes, Dunmyer was completing the formal document required by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops for a diocese to have a permanent diaconate program.

Anticipating the program’s approval, Bishop Vath ordained Raispis as the first deacon of the Diocese of Birmingham on May 27, 1973, at his home parish, St. Jude.

Less than two years later, 10 of the original 19 men accepted in 1973 were ordained in 1975: two at their home parishes on Feb. 28 and eight at the Cathedral of St Paul in Birmingham on March 2.

After the ordination, Bishop Vath, in his weekly One Voice column, “The Bishop Chats,” noted: “The presence of four black deacons and four white deacons being ordained in the Roman Catholic Cathedral of St. Paul was indeed an historic occasion. ... our deacons know that we expect them to go out and develop Christian community in the areas where they will be serving the needs of God’s people. I have asked them, and I ask you, the people of the diocese, to accept them as official ministers of the Church. ... I hope this chat gives you some idea of why and how our permanent deacons can be a source of great unity, strength, and community in our diocese.”

Father Muscolino would go on to oversee two more classes of men, first with the help of Father Dunmyer, then with the help of Benedictine Sister Heinberg as associate director. The second diocesan class was ordained in 1977 and another in 1981. Almost two decades would pass before the Diocese of Birmingham would ordain another permanent deacon.

The hiatus ended under the direction of Bishop Foley. The Presbyteral Council expressed interest in the development of a new diaconate formation program to address pastoral needs, especially ministry to Hispanics, to African Americans, to the incarcerated, and to those in the most rural parts of the diocese. On Jan. 13, 1997, the bishop officially announced the new program under the supervision of Deacon J.S. (Sam) Anzalone, the newly appointed director of diaconate formation.

Bishop Foley would go on to ordain 18 men on Dec. 2, 2000. At the time, it was the largest class in the history of the diocese. Writing in the One Voice, the bishop remarked: “When the diocesan Church gathers at the Cathedral, it is always a splendid and powerful moment. Last Saturday, at the ordination of our 18 permanent deacons, the thrill and the enthusiasm were beyond expression. It was a treasured moment in the history of the Birmingham diocese.”

Five years later, Bishop Foley would ordain another 15 men to the permanent diaconate. When Bishop Robert Baker was installed as the Fourth Bishop of Birmingham in October of 2007, he followed his predecessor’s support of the program. On Dec. 7, 2013, Bishop Baker ordained 18 men new permanent deacons; however, the diocese saw its largest number of men ordained to the permanent diaconate in 2018 when Bishop Baker ordained 24 men.

On Jan. 7 of this year, Bishop Steven Raica accepted 18 men into the aspirancy phase, or the second stage, of the Permanent Diaconate Formation Program under the direction of Deacon Christopher Rosko. Speaking of the new class, Deacon Rosko implored the people of the diocese to “keep these men, their wives and families, and the entire formation team in your daily prayers as they continue on their journey to potential ordination as a permanent deacon in service to Jesus Christ and His Church in the Diocese of Birmingham.”

As we mark 50 years since the inception of the permanent diaconate in the Diocese of Birmingham, may we echo Deacon Rosko’s plea and offer prayers of thanksgiving for all the men, as well as their families, who have served, are serving, and will serve the Diocese of Birmingham as faithful servants, fulfilling their call to follow Christ’s example of putting oneself at the service of others.


The man who helped bring the diaconate program back to the diocese

“The Church finds in the permanent diaconate the expression and, at the same time, the impulse to become itself a visible sign of the diakonia of Christ, the Servant in the history of mankind.” — Pope Francis

From late 1996 to the end of February 2020, Deacon J.S. (Sam) Anzalone faithfully led the permanent diaconate formation program of the Diocese of Birmingham.

His journey started with his wife, Carolyn, and their shared involvement in the Cursillo movement after being invited to a weekend in the mid-1970s. Becoming deeply involved, the two started attending the Leaders School, which was really a “formal Scripture study program.” The deacon attests that the prayer, study, and action experience was “an introduction to what evangelization is all about.” Although active in their parish, it was the Cursillo movement that affected “a great spiritual reawakening.” Over the next eight years, he and his wife would deepen their spirituality individually and as “man and wife praying together.”

Their involvement in lay ministry was noticable, and when the Archdiocese of Atlanta organized a diaconate formation program, his pastor recommended him as a candidate. After three years of formation and with the support of his wife, he was ordained a deacon for the archdiocese in 1987. He would go on to assist the diaconate formation team in Atlanta until he transferred to the Birmingham diocese in 1996.

As is required when moving to another diocese, the deacon was interviewed by Bishop David Foley. During their meeting, the deacon observed the absence of a diaconate formation program and offered his help. The bishop took note of the deacon’s offer and “moved quickly.” By the fall of 1996, a new program had been approved, and Deacon Anzalone had written a three-and-a-half-year plan to ensure the class would be ordained by the end of the Holy Year 2000. On Dec. 2, 2000, Bishop Foley ordained the first class of permanent deacons since 1981. The rest, as they say, is history. Deacon Azalone would go on to spend almost 24 more years at the helm of the permanent diaconate formation program for the diocese, which would result in 75 ordinations.

Looking back at his many years of service, the deacon acknowledges a sense of pleasure from the affirmation of the faithful that he has, through his service, manifested the Church’s ministry of servant. True to his servant’s heart though, he stresses the most rewarding aspect of his ministry has been knowing that his fellow deacons have been supported greatly by “priests who want to see deacons and see them as helpers.” He professes that “dearest to his heart” are not only the priests who have been pastors to deacons, spiritual directors to deacons, and “fathers to deacons in their own ministry” but also the wives of deacons who have demonstrated profound support for their spouse in diaconal service.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes the ministry of the deacon this way: “Deacons share in Christ’s mission and grace in a special way. The Sacrament of Holy Orders marks them with an imprint (‘character’) which cannot be removed and which configures them to Christ, Who made Himself the ‘deacon’ or servant of all. Among other tasks, it is the task of deacons to assist the bishop and priests in the celebration of the divine mysteries, above all the Eucharist, in the distribution of Holy Communion, in assisting at and blessing marriages, in the proclamation of the Gospel and preaching, in presiding over funerals and in dedicating themselves to the various ministries of charity.” (1570)


The Diaconate Formation Phases


An invitation to a church’s members who may be qualified to serve as ordained ministers of the Church.


A program that provides for a thorough discernment of a diaconal vocation.


The occasion for continued discernment of a diaconal vocation and immediate preparation for ordination.


Through the ministry itself, this is a time to responsibly address the various aspects of a deacon’s ministry, the development of his personality and, above all, his commitment to spiritual growth.