Jim Bohnert leaned on the railing of a boat, looking out over the Sea of Galilee. He and his wife, Teresa, were on pilgrimage to the Holy Land. He imagined the apostles Peter and Andrew, out on the same waters in their fishing boats; ahead, the mountain where Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount rose in the distance.
Then, a voice: “It’s time.”
“I thought, 'OK, I guess it’s time to get moving along,'” Bohnert said. “But I turned around, and there was nobody there. Nobody had spoken.”
The voice, Bohnert came to understand, was an answer to his prayers of discernment: It was time to start formation to become a permanent deacon.
“I had gone to an information night a few years earlier, but it was one of those things where — I think it was me — saying now’s not the time. I think I was the one trying to drive the car,” Bohnert said. “But since then, I had been praying about it.”
Bohnert, 62, is one of 18 men in the Archdiocese of St. Louis to be ordained to the permanent diaconate on Saturday, June 4.
While transitional deacons eventually will be ordained to the priesthood, permanent deacons are ordained to be deacons for life and may also be married. Men discerning the diaconate undergo a rigorous five-year formation process, which includes weekly classes, annual retreats, workshops and hands-on ministry experience.
The archdiocesan Office of the Permanent Diaconate also offers continuing education for recently ordained men and ongoing support to all permanent deacons in the archdiocese. The Office of the Permanent Diaconate is supported by the Annual Catholic Appeal.
There are around 200 active deacons and 100 retired deacons in the archdiocese. Permanent deacons are called in a special way to Christ’s ministry of service through liturgy, word and charity, said Deacon Chris Ast, director of the archdiocesan Office of the Permanent Diaconate. “Some deacons are primarily parish focused. Some are primarily ministry focused, like some whose main ministry is reaching out to those in prison or chaplaincy in a hospital,” he said.
The men come from all backgrounds and all corners of the archdiocese, said Deacon Dale Follen, associate director of formation in the archdiocesan Office of the Permanent Diaconate.
“There are guys that already had master’s degrees in theology,” Deacon Follen said. “We have everyone from blue-collar workers and truck drivers to heads of multimillion-dollar companies. We have a very diverse group of people.”
Since many of the men in formation have wives and children — some of them still young — the formation process includes the candidates’ families. Wives are invited to attend classes and other formation events and must give permission for their husbands to be ordained before the sacrament can take place. Several men have brought their babies to class when needed, or included school-age children in lessons to give them a glimpse into the subject matter, Deacon Follen said.
“(Deacons) have a dual vocation, to their marriage and to the Church,” said Deacon Follen. “The formation should be something that enhances their family life, rather than a disruption.”
Bohnert has seen the fruits of sharing the formation process with his wife, Teresa. They met in second grade at St. Mary Magdalen School in south St. Louis and have been married for 38 years. She and their two children have been extremely supportive throughout Bohnert’s formation, he said.
“Teresa is my rock. She comes to classes with me — she’s been a great partner to have through this whole process,” Bohnert said. “We bounce things off each other about what we heard in class, and we have great, lively discussions. And I know her faith has deepened through this formation process as well.”
Before retiring and entering formation for the diaconate, Bohnert served a long career in law enforcement, first as a St. Louis County police officer and then in the U.S. Secret Service, which took him all over the world as he served as part of President Bill Clinton's and President George W. Bush’s security details.
Throughout his career of service to the government, Bohnert always had the idea of service to the Church in the back of his mind. Now, as he prepares to be ordained to the diaconate, he’s looking forward to ministering to the people of the Church in a new capacity.
“I view (permanent) deacons as kind of a bridge. We have one foot in the secular world — most of us have jobs, have families, have kids and maybe grandkids. So we know all of the anxieties, all the ups and downs, all the trials and tribulations and joys that go with that,” Bohnert said. “And then we have the other foot in the spiritual realm, in the sense that we are an outward sign of the Church to the community.”
Interested in the permanent diaconate?
Permanent deacons are ordained clergy who exercise a ministry of liturgy, word and charity. Deacons serve in parishes, hospitals and archdiocesan agencies, among other areas. Many work full-time jobs and balance their family lives and professions with their ministry as a deacon.
The archdiocesan Office of the Permanent Diaconate will next hold information sessions on the diaconate in September and October, with the next formation cohort beginning in September 2023. The program takes five years to complete.
To learn more about the requirements, visit archstl.org/permanent-diaconate or contact Deacon Dale Follen at [email protected] or (314) 792-7433.