FOREST CITY — In the late 1970s, Andy Cilone took a job promotion in the plastics industry and moved to North Carolina from the Northeast with his wife JoAnn and their five children, all of whom were younger than 14. They settled at Immaculate Conception Church in Forest City, where they have helped to build up the Church in many ways – most notably with him becoming one of the diocese's first permanent deacons.
A cradle Catholic who was always active in his parish, Deacon Cilone remembers the challenging transition from a highly Catholic area to the "Bible Belt" in which Catholics were a minority. He wanted to know more about his faith so he could better articulate it to all the non-Catholics he encountered.
The Cilones quickly became active in parish life. When Deacon Cilone lost his job in 1979, he leaned on his faith to get him through and found another job to provide for his family within a month.
"I was so thankful," he said. "I started with a plastics company in Shelby. There was a great feeling of thanksgiving."
That same year, Father John Murray, pastor of Immaculate Conception Church, approached him and asked him to consider applying for the inaugural class of permanent diaconate candidates that was being formed.
"He said, 'Don't worry, Andy, you can do it!' I thought it would be a great way to enhance the knowledge of my faith, to learn more about it. Also, I was pretty involved in the Church anyway, so I went ahead and put my application in."
And the rest, as they say, is history.
He was accepted along with 20 other candidates. For the next three years they received intense formation and training, and on May 29, 1983 – Trinity Sunday – they were ordained as the diocese's first permanent deacons.
Deacon Cilone describes what it was like to be one of the "original" deacons ordained that day nearly 30 years ago.
"It was quite a celebration. It was like a wedding," he said. "With the large class we had, it was in Ovens Auditorium (in Charlotte). It was a great day. All my family came in from all parts of the country. They surprised me with my baptismal godmother from my hometown."
The first class was ordained by Bishop Michael Begley, the diocese's first bishop; also in attendance was Monsignor Anthony Kovacic, who helped launched the permanent diaconate; and Mercy Sister Mary Thomas Burke, who served as the director of deacons' wives.
Reflecting on nearly 30 years as a deacon for the diocese, Deacon Cilone said, "It has been a constant growing, learning more. You develop your ministries as you go along."
You can see what he means by all the ministries he serves in at his parish of 37 years. He cantors at Mass. He also serves as the director of religious education, works in prison ministry, makes visits to the hospital and to the homebound and brings Holy Communion to Catholics in the community who cannot attend Mass because of illness or infirmity.
He also serves as the diocese as the vicar of the Hickory Region for the permanent diaconate. He assists 21 deacons and four deacon candidates in that region, assisting in the formation of the permanent diaconate candidates.
In addition to those responsibilities, he and his wife JoAnn enjoy spending time with their 10 grandchildren. "My wife is just as active as I am!" he added.
Deacon Cilone has advice for men who may be considering the diaconate:
"If their desire or goal is to grow in the faith and to serve the Church, it's a great way to do it. What I tell most people about what is special about the permanent deacons is that the greatest thing you do is to make a commitment to do various things in ministry...that's the difference.
"You make a commitment to serve the Church. Commitment is one of the greatest attributes needed in pursuing the permanent diaconate."
— SueAnn Howell, senior reporter
The Permanent Diaconate in the Diocese of Charlotte
Think deacons have always been part of your parish? Think again.
The diaconate is a relatively recent revival of the ancient ministry the Apostles established when they ordained Stephen and six other worthy men to assist them in caring for the needy in the early Church in Jerusalem. The word "deacon" comes from the Greek "diakonia," which means "service.
Over the centuries the diaconate developed as a seminarian's step towards the priesthood rather than as an ordained ministry unto itself (one of three types of holy orders: deacon, priest and bishop). During the Second Vatican Council, however, the Church encouraged restoring the diaconate to its unique and ancient sacramental role.
"Permanent" deacons – so named to differentiate them from "transitional" deacons, who are on the path to becoming priests – serve as ministers of the Word, the altar and charity. They can proclaim the Gospel, assist the priest at the altar and give homilies during Mass; they can witness at weddings and officiate at burials, administer the sacrament of baptism and assist in distributing Communion; and they engage in works of charity for their parish and the diocese. As the Church in western North Carolina has grown over the past 40 years, the 91 deacons presently serving in the diocese have become invaluable help in our 92 parishes and missions.
But it wasn't always this way. The diocese's first deacons were ordained in 1983 – less than 30 years ago.
In 1968, Pope Paul VI approved the U.S. bishops' request to revive the permanent diaconate in this country. The first deacons in the U.S. were ordained in 1971.
In Charlotte, work got underway in the spring of 1978, when the diocese's Presbyteral Council appointed a planning committee to study the potential for a Permanent Diaconate program.
Bishop Michael Begley appointed Father Richard Burton, Father Thomas Walsh, Father Frank O'Rourke, Deacon Ted Krizman and his wife Crystal Krizman to the committee. Father Joseph Kerin served as chairperson. After the committee met for the first time on April 11, 1978, Bishop Begley expressed his wish to establish the permanent diaconate here.
Like many other dioceses, Charlotte had a lot to learn about the restored ministry and how best to set up a program, select and train candidates, and define the duties and role of deacons in the diocese. Diocesan clergy and laity worked on these issues over the next two years
In 1980 the Permanent Diaconate program was officially established by Bishop Begley. He appointed Monsignor Anthony Kovacic, pastor of Sacred Heart Church in Salisbury, as its first director. Twenty-two men were accepted into the inaugural class. Classes began in September 1980, with the first session being held at the now-closed Sacred Heart College in Belmont.
On May 29, 1983, 19 men were ordained to the permanent diaconate at Ovens Auditorium in Charlotte – marking the culmination of three years of intense preparation. Jim Collins and Kurt Fohn, the other two candidates, were ordained later, and they went on to be ordained as priests for the diocese.
These 22 men were the diocese's first "ministers of service" – mature men of faith who, ordained by the laying on of hands, gave a permanent visible witness of their "yes" to God, who called them to share in the sacramental ministry of Jesus Christ by serving His Church.
Said Monsignor Kovacic in his address to the candidates at their ordination, "We look confidently to the future ... Deacons, you have your pastors and above all, with our generosity, your spirit of service and initiative you will always have abundant grace to which you are entitled by the sacrament you received."
— SueAnn Howell and Patricia L. Guilfoyle