The Deacon's Bench

The Deacon's Bench

Priest’s father will be a Father — UPDATED

This item, out of Baltimore, has to be one of the more unusual vocation stories of this ordination season:

This year, about 440 men will be ordained into the priesthood, including 62-year-old Deacon Greg Rapisarda.

Deacon Rapisarda currently conducts Mass with his son, Father John Rapisarda. Two years ago, Deacon Rapisarda said he had to make a confusing adjustment to his lifestyle.

“I had to get used to calling my son ‘father,’ and then we’ll also share a relationship as brothers — as brother priests,” he said.

That’s a lot of talk about fathers, sons and brothers and who’s who to whom, but that’s how the family tree goes, 11 News I-Team reporter Lisa Robinson said.

“I always say John will do the baptisms, and I will do the funerals for the family,” the deacon said. “On my ordination on June 12, he will vest me.”

That means Father Rapisarda will present his dad with the symbols of priesthood — the special clothing he’ll need to wear during Mass.

“Dad’s love and participation in the church was familiar to us. It was a natural transition,” Father Rapisarda said. “The church was always part of our life — our participation in the parish, prayer at home, and we went to Catholic schools.”

Deacon Rapisarda said he stopped practicing law and moved to St. Mary’s Seminary in 2008, where he is currently studying to become a priest. It’s a journey he said he started after his wife of 38 years, Carol, died from cancer.

“My wife died in 2006. I had no intention of doing anything except living a long life with her, enjoying our grandchildren and traveling and continuing to work,” the deacon said.

While his wife was still alive, he was ordained a deacon, but when she died, he said finding a new mate was out of the question because church law says a widowed deacon must remain celibate.

When asked if he feels his wife has joined him in his journey, Deacon Rapisarda responded, “Absolutely. She was very supportive of me.”

He said he’s blessed to have been married and raise a family but is currently moving on to a new chapter in his life.

“I can’t explain it. In many respects, I feel like the blind man who, when they asked him about the miracles, he said, ‘I don’t know. All I know is once I was blind, and now I can see,'” Deacon Rapisarda said.

Read the rest right here. And God bless him.

UPDATE: The Catholic Review in Baltimore has a little bit more, from CNS:

Gregory A. Rapisarda of the Archdiocese of Baltimore is a widowed deacon with four children, one of whom is a priest. After his ordination, he and his son will be the first father-son priests to serve in the archdiocese since its founding.

Rapisarda is an older member of the ordination class, but he is not the only widowed deacon in the group. Others are James Reinhart of the Archdiocese of Louisville, Ky., who has been a deacon for 27 years and is a father and grandfather, and D. Mark Hamlet of Austin, Texas, a deacon for 15 years, who was married for 37 years and has six children and 11 grandchildren.

Joseph Cretella, 71, who is being ordained by the Archdiocese of Hartford, Conn., has had a long road to the priesthood. He entered the seminary after high school, left after seven years, volunteered in the Peace Corps for two years, was married for 40 years and now has three children and seven grandchildren. His wife died three years ago and he re-entered the seminary in 2008.

With the permanent diaconate in place for several decades now, the church is seeing a growing number of priests with deacon fathers, according to the USCCB. More than one-third of the new priests have a relative who is a priest or a religious.

There’s also a very good profile of the soon-to-be priest at this link, from last year. Evidently, it was Baltimore’s Archbishop O’Brien who asked him to consider the vocation.

Comments read comments(12)
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Mr Flapatap

posted May 14, 2010 at 7:36 am

I know the story of a man who told his wife one time that he wanted to let it be known that if she were to pass before him that he would go into the seminary. She replied: “Why wait until I die?” He is now in his 4th year of formation to become a permanent deacon.

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posted May 14, 2010 at 9:01 am

Dear Deacon Greg,
Do you mean that this vocation story is unusual because the guy’s son is already ordained a priest or because he is a permanent deacon (ordained before his wife died) who is now being ordained to the priesthood? I thought that the ordination of a permanent deacon to the Priesthood must always be a very rare exception, and only for special and grave reasons. Sadly, the article doesn’t get into it so we don’t know what the special and grave reasons are in this case.
The Portrait of the Permanent Diaconate study shows that over the past 5 years 38 permanent deacons have been ordained as priests. While this is still a small percentage of the overall deacon population, it is still probably enough a few media reports every year. I guess I would like understand a little better why those involved believe that ordination is necessary. Why isn’t continuing to serve as a deacon a good choice in this case?
[Mike … others who are more familiar with the canonical intricacies and nuances of this could answer better than I. But, from my perspective, I don’t know that any ordination is “necessary.” An ordination is, among other things, the ratification of a calling — and for whatever reasons, this deacon’s superiors and his bishop came to the conclusion that he had an authentic calling to another vocation, the priesthood. Also: yes, it’s unusual for all the reasons you mentioned. I don’t know of many cases where a father of a priest went on to become a priest himself — or where a permanent deacon then took that step! It is exceedingly rare. Anyone else want to chime in? Dcn.G.]

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Alice Cella

posted May 14, 2010 at 9:52 am

Nice article. We have a father and son priest situation in our diocese too.
For the record, there are two kinds of deacons in the Catholic Church.
A transitional deacon is a man who has been ordained a deacon who is to become an ordained priest the following year.
A permanent deacon is one who is ordained a deacon but will not go further and become a priest.
One small correction, (sentence 2) The deacon does not conduct Mass with his son the priest, he ASSISTS at the Mass celebrated with his son, the priest.
A deacon is an assistant to the priest or bishop. The ancient position of permanent deacon was revived after Vatican II.

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posted May 14, 2010 at 11:38 am

Maybe I should have asked, “Why is this ordination prudent in this case?” I can only speak for myself, but if I was taking a course of action in the church that was considered an exceedingly rare exception and that required serious and grave reasons for taking it, I would feel the need to concisely articulate my rational. As this report stands, the casual observer is left with a funny tidbit about who’s who to whom and the impression that when a permanent deacon’s wife predeceases him, the natural thing for him to do is to become a priest. But that is exactly the opposite of what the church is trying to promote. Right?

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Deacon Norb

posted May 14, 2010 at 12:06 pm

I’ve been a deacon over 32 years and I have met three men who were permanently ordained deacons who went on to become priests — one of whom was a classmate of mine in diaconal formation. That deacon who was my classmate was celibate at the time of his diaconal ordination. He had a secular job he eventually retired from and then was encouraged to move on to the priesthood by his bishop. The other two I knew were widowers. One of those — who has since gone to his eternal reward — after he was ordained a priest, worked as a “contract chaplain” at a military base here in the midwest and LOVED to talk about his grandkids in his homilies.
Now, let’s be realistic, out of over 16,000 permanently ordained deacons now in ministry here in the United States — and probably a similar number who have died — having something less than 100 widowered deacons who are currently in ministry as Catholic priests sounds pretty rare to me.
In this case, as in most things clerical, the local bishop has a great deal to say here. I know of another friend on mine who was a married deacon who became a widower maybe six or so years ago. Within a year of his wife’s death, he was contacted by no less than a dozen bishops and religious orders who asked if he was interested in becoming a priest. He turned them all down.

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posted May 14, 2010 at 12:34 pm

Interesting story. My question, obviously not being a Catholic…why must a widowed Deacon remain celibate? He can be a Deacon as a married man. He is not allowed to remarry after the death of his wife? Aren’t Catholic men and women whose wife or husband has died allowed to remarry?

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posted May 14, 2010 at 12:46 pm

He [the deacon] is not allowed to remarry after the death of his wife?
Yes, not without Papal dispensation. Once a man receives the sacrament of Holy Orders, he is impeded from validly entering the marriage covenant, and the dispensation of this impediment is reserved to the Holy See. Of course, if the cleric has already entered the marriage covenant before receiving Holy Orders, the marriage endures. Once the marriage terminates (at death), if the surviving spouse is the man, he cannot remarry (enter a new covenant) due to the impediment of orders.
This corresponds with the practice of Eastern Christianity (both Catholic and non-Catholic). Married Eastern clerics cannot remarry if their spouse dies.
Aren’t Catholic men and women whose wife or husband has died allowed to remarry?
Yes, except for clerics.

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posted May 14, 2010 at 12:53 pm

I just realized I didn’t answer your question, pagansister, except to say, effectively, “them’s the rules.”
Inability for clerics to remarry, under normal circumstances, has been the tradition of both Catholic and Orthodox Western and Eastern Christianity. It was probably an early tradition as well, considering what Saint Paul has to say: “Deacons may be married only once and must manage their children and their households well.” 1 Tim. 3:12.

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posted May 14, 2010 at 1:17 pm

Thanks for your insights Deacon Norb. I would just like to point out that the relevant population is not the 16,000 active permanent deacons, but the 4% of those who are widowers plus the 2% who were never married or about 1000 permanent deacons nationwide. So if there are about 100 priests in the US who were previously permanent deacons that is 10%. That could be the low end of the estimate given that many of the 1000 may be too old or in too poor health to pursue the priesthood.
More to my point, however, isn’t the example of your friend who became a widower quite concerning? Is that what usually happens when a permanent deacon’s wife dies? Do no less than a dozen bishops and religious orders have serious and grave circumstances that require an exceedingly rare exception or are they just ignoring the idea that ordination to the permanent diaconate be permanent?

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posted May 14, 2010 at 5:06 pm

The Archdiocese of Washington ordained last year a Permanent Deacon: Fr. Michael Briese.

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Deacon Norb

posted May 14, 2010 at 5:13 pm

To be honest, I do not have a clue how to answer your last paragraph. The stories of these 100 men would absolutely be fascinating if you could pin them down. I have no idea whether the example of my friend is at all typical — I just know it happened.
The issue of just how desperate some bishops are may be answered if you take a look at the the number of new priests each year in each US diocese. There are an amazing number of dioceses who have NO new priestly ordinations at all. What could prove even more interesting is trying to determine the average age of active priests here in the US; the average age of new priestly ordinands; and the ratio of active priests to active parishioners. At least one midwest diocese is now thinking in terms of one active priest/pastor for every 10,000 lay parishioners.
The idea that an ordination to the permanent diaconate is permanent is accurate enough. The problem is that our church’s “conventional wisdom” is that ordination to the priesthood requires some “time-in-grade” as a deacon. There are theologians who are trying to understand what the future implications would be if that ordination link was severed. I’m not sure I like that idea. I’d rather have some better catechesis on the diaconate as a ministry given to priestly-seminarians. Maybe, then, they can take pride in the fact they have served as a deacon first. I’m note sure which one it is but a fairly large religious order does require its men to serve three years as a deacon before ordination to the diaconate.

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posted May 14, 2010 at 8:36 pm

Thank you, Paul, for answering my questions about deacon’s and remarriage. Appreciate it! :o)

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