Over the last 10 years, the number of deacons in the Los Angeles archdiocese has more than doubled, increasing from about 160 in the early 2000s to 347 this year, including 14 deacons ordained last weekend.
And there’s only one deacon in the county – and possibly the state – involved in politics, Downey Councilman Mario Guerra, who celebrated his 10-year anniversary as a deacon on June 3 at St. Raymond Catholic Church in Downey.
When he addressed the crowd the day of his anniversary, he took the time to describe the office.
Priests are priests, he said. Deacons are something altogether different.
“I wear a lot of black but not because I want to look like a priest,” he said. “I wear it because I’m fat and I want to look thinner.”
Guerra’s road to becoming a deacon wasn’t a smooth one. His family came to the United States as exiles from Cuba when he was a child. As a boy, he was interested in his faith, but he wasn’t very active as an adult.
Then in 1979, his brother and a few of his family members died in a plane crash as they tried to fly to Catalina Island.
Guerra was supposed to be on the plane, but he stayed behind to coach a Little League game.
He wondered why a good god would take away his brother, and he almost completely lost interest in his faith. For 14 years, he stayed out of church.
After he got remarried in the 1980s, his children and his wife attended church every Sunday while he stayed home to watch football.
One day his son had a question.
“Hey dad, don’t you believe in God?” his son asked.
Guerra said he did.
“How come we go to church to thank God, and you don’t?” his son asked.
Guerra soon started attending church with his family.
As he became more involved, he considered becoming a deacon. He prayed and thought about it for year, and then he and his wife Ann began going to school on Saturdays to learn what being a deacon was all about. Guerra was ordained in 2002. The whole process lasted five years.
The man in charge of the county’s deacons said there’s no archetypical personality attracted to the position.
“We really look at their attitude of service, especially to the poor,” said Manny Martinez, the director of deacons in ministry for the archdiocese. “There’s no one typical person who does it.”
In the Bible in Acts 6, deacons are assigned to look after widows and the poor in order to free up the evangelists to go out and preach.
The word comes from an ancient Greek word that meant “servant.”
In Christianity, the office of a permanent deacon lasted for about 1,000 years, then faded away. Instead, the office of deacon became a short-term designation for a man working toward priesthood.
During the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, the church decided to reinstate a permanent deacon position, which gave married men the chance to minister in an official capacity.
“They’re not to replace priests,” Martinez said. “They are a distinct office.”
Deacons can baptize people, conduct marriage ceremonies and funerals, and participate in services, but they cannot do everything a priest can, such as hearing confession or praying for the communion bread to become the body of Christ, which is called consecrating the host.
Their main duty is to serve the needy, Martinez said.
At St. Raymond, the deacons are involved in giving Christmas gifts to children whose parents are incarcerated. The church also supports an orphanage in Mexico and coordinates a Sandwich Program, which is headed by Guerra’s wife, Ann.
Most deacons minister as couples, and their wives often attend the training sessions and take on much of the work at the local parishes, Martinez said.
They also submit to the church.
Guerra had to ask then Cardinal Roger Mahony permission to run for the Downey City Council, Martinez said.
And if a deacon’s wife dies, he is to remain celibate.
Because the position of a permanent deacon was dormant so long, a lot of what deacons do is still being determined, Martinez said.
“It was repressed for 11 centuries, so we are so we are still figuring a lot of it out,” he said.
Even so, the office is very popular. Most of the county’s 288 parishes have a deacon, and some have several.
“It’s growing leaps and bounds,” Martinez said.
Worldwide, about 30,000 deacons serve a church with over a billion members.
In Los Angeles County, deacons don’t get paid.
At its heart, the position was created to make sure people were being cared for, Martinez said.
“Because the pastor and the priests are concerned with all the sacraments and priestly duties, the deacon is the one who really can look to the ones at the margins,” he said. “They are the ones meeting the people and finding out what they need.”