Deacon Dave Schaefer knows when to take a hint. But in this case, it involved more than approximately two dozen hints that led him to see God was calling him to the permanent diaconate.
“I had people I knew — friends — and people I didn’t know at all who mentioned the diaconate to me for some reason or another,” he said. “Each time I kind of blew it off as, ‘That’s crazy.’”
Years ago while attending a Cardinals baseball game with his best friend from high school, he asked him: “What’s that Catholic thing when you look like a priest but you’re not?”
“You mean a deacon?”
“Yeah, when are you going to do that?”
That random moment came out of left field — well, actually right field, where they were seated at the game — but it was one of many that pushed Deacon Schaefer to take a closer look at the diaconate.
Deacon Schaefer was ordained in 2018. Formation to be a deacon consists of five years before ordination and an additional five years post-ordination. A second collection will be held in the Archdiocese of St. Louis Oct. 2-3 to relieve some of the financial obligations for men in diaconate formation.
Deacon Schaefer retired in 2013 from a career at National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, and now serves as a part-time pastoral associate at Assumption Parish in south St. Louis County, where he has been a parishioner for 31 years. He also previously was involved as a catechist with the Parish School of Religion and with scouting for nearly 50 years.
Service to others drew him to the diaconate, along with the support of his wife, Patty. “Each and every day as a deacon, I’ve learned what it is to be a deacon, something new. Every day I ask, what is it today” that God wants him to learn.
At Assumption, Deacon Schaefer assists with sacramental preparation, meets with individuals, and brings Communion to the homebound. He’s also present on weekends, assisting the priest at Masses, and helping to distribute Communion, among other duties.
“The part that brings the most joy to my heart is finding and seeing Christ in others,” he said. “Each and every day, whether they are crying, or going through a painful (annulment) process, Christ is there. I see Him looking back at me through their eyes. I get to see Christ every day.”
Service with true joy
“Are you the pope?”
It was probably good that Deacon Dan Henke was wearing a face mask to contain his smile at the question posed by a second-grader. It was the first night of Holy Infant’s Parish School of Religion, where he recently greeted students as they met their teachers.
Deacon Henke is a regular fixture at PSR, helping with everything from traffic duty to teaching lessons. His presence is one small but significant way in which he’s cultivated relationships with families at the Ballwin parish.
Deacon Henke and his wife, Cara, joined Holy Infant in 1995, when their three boys were young. A few years later, he attended a Christ Renews His Parish retreat. The experience led him to become more involved in the parish. “That kind of thing can light the fire,” he said, “but you need to know how to keep it going — how do you tend it?”
That led to a full plate of activities, including a weekly eucharistic adoration slot at 2 a.m., and helping with the RCIA program and Stephen Ministry. The idea of the diaconate arose around the time his mother-in-law passed away in 2008.
One evening, he stopped at the parish to read the Word for an RCIA meeting. Another deacon at Holy Infant, Deacon Ken Clemens, asked him there: Have you thought about the diaconate? The idea stuck with him, and he was ordained in 2014.
Deacon Henke balances his diaconate service with a full-time career as chief information security officer with Mercy Technology Services. That sense of service as a deacon carries over into every facet of life, he said.
“To be a deacon, you’ve got to be humble and practice humility. I have to look at what does this parish need, and how can I support that? I want to show true joy to others — even when you’re happy or sad, that’s what I want people to see in me.”
The greatest gift
On a recent weekday morning, Deacon Bill Twellman stood behind the altar at St. Norbert Church in Florissant, giving instructions to seventh- and eighth-graders who signed up to be altar servers.
“This is the greatest gift you can give, to serve Jesus,” said Deacon Twellman, as he shared his own experiences being an altar server in grade school and high school. “This is a wonderful opportunity to serve the Lord. And we need you.”
Deacon Twellman considered the priesthood in high school, but, as he put it, his immaturity held him off from the idea. He instead pursued an accounting degree, got a job with the family business and set up a successful career for himself.
At the time, faith wasn’t a priority in his life. But when Pope John Paul II visited St. Louis in 1999, he volunteered to organize bus rides to the events and managed to snag a ticket to the youth rally.
The rally was electrifying, with some describing the presence of the Holy Spirit as the now-saint spoke to thousands of young people, igniting them on fire for their faith. Deacon Twellman counted himself among them. “I felt as if he were speaking directly to me,” he said.
The following year, Deacon Twellman’s father passed away. By then he had returned to the church, and saw a note in the parish bulletin about the permanent diaconate and decided to look into it. His first day of formation class was Sept. 11, 2001.
Deacon Twellman was ordained to the diaconate in 2005. Because he was not married at the time of ordination, Canon law prohibits him from marrying in the future and he is expected to live a life of celibacy. He currently serves as a full-time pastoral associate and director of religious education at St Norbert, while also serving as parish life coordinator of St. Francis of Assisi Church in Portage des Sioux.
Service at the altar is a priority for permanent deacons, which entails assisting the priest during the sacrifice of the Mass so that the priest may focus his attention on the prayers.
But there’s one other area in which Deacon Twellman places his priority — bringing people closer to the Eucharist, just as he had experienced more than 20 years ago.
“The role of our priests and deacons is to be an example, to hear people and bring them into the fold,” he said. Like the Bible passage of the lost sheep, “I think we should go out and find them. We can’t just be sitting here waiting.”
>> Interested in the diaconate?
There currently are 211 active deacons ordained for the Archdiocese of St. Louis. Permanent deacons are ordained ministers who exercise a ministry of liturgy, word and charity. Some also may earn faculties to preach homilies at Mass.
Deacons serve in parishes, hospitals and archdiocesan agencies, among other areas. Many continue to 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 of 2022, with the next formation cohort beginning in September of 2023. The program takes five years to complete.
To learn more about the requirements, visit www.archstl.org/permanent-diaconate or contact Deacon Dale Follen at [email protected] or (314) 792-7433.
>> Collection for deacon formation
A special collection for the formation of permanent deacons will be held at Masses the weekend of Oct. 2 and 3 at parishes in the Archdiocese of St. Louis.
The collection relieves some of the financial burden for studies to become a deacon, which consists of a five-year formation before ordination, plus five more years of post-ordination formation.
“The call to be deacon is to serve,” Archbishop Mitchell Rozanski wrote in a letter promoting the collection. “They offer their time, talent and energy to strengthen our Church in St. Louis and do not receive compensation for their work. Their service extends into many areas of parish life, including the proclamation of the Gospel, liturgical functions, administration and charitable works.”
Since 1977, 487 men have been ordained as permanent deacons in the archdiocese. There currently are 44 men in formation.
To make an online offering, check with your parish’s online giving program.