Frank Chavez adopted a simple motto that has buoyed him through 37 years as a deacon and the last 20 as Director of the Diaconate of the Diocese of Orange.
“We take the grace of the altar to the streets and the needs of the streets to the altar,” Deacon Chavez often says.
It’s an aphorism he carries in theory and practice.
Deacon Chavez steps down as Director, after giving his successor, Deacon Tom Saenz a crash course in leading the vital ministry.
In his 20 years at the helm, Deacon Chavez shepherded – “fathered” is an expression that fellow deacons use – 10 classes of permanent deacons through to ordination and postings at parishes throughout the Diocese. Overall, 141 deacons under Deacon Chavez were ordained to carry out much of the church’s most important work.
As he moves on to the next stage, he will remain a parish deacon at Christ Cathedral, and Deacon Chavez says the overwhelming emotion he feels is thankfulness.
“I’m very grateful. I think I have gained an appreciation and knowledge of the goodness of people,” he said. “They’re such good people doing good stuff.”
DEACONS IN CHURCH
The word deacon comes from the Greek diakonos, meaning “servant,” and originated with the selection of seven men by the apostles to assist with the charitable work of the early church.
That tradition extends from the church grounds to the community. It can be serving food to the hungry, working in jails or providing aid to the suffering. It can be assisting priests at the altar during Holy Communion, performing baptisms or presiding over funerals and burials outside the church. From cradle to grave, altar to street, deacons are an invaluable part of church ministry.
Deacons are the foot soldiers in the ranks of ordained men in the Catholic Church.
Pope Francis called deacons “the guardians of service in the church.”
The Pontiff added, “The generosity of a deacon who spends himself without seeking the front lines smells of the Gospel and tells of the greatness of God’s humility that takes the first step to meet even those who have turned their backs on Him.”
Deacon Chavez came to the diaconate when it was in its early stages of returning to church life. The Second Vatican Council recommended reviving the diaconate as a permanent vocation for married men and in 1967 Pope Paul VI re-enacted the practice. At the time, deaconry was transitional: one-year positions for men entering priesthood.
“It was still very, very new,” Deacon Chavez said of the resumption of permanent deacons.
Today deacons spread throughout Orange County offering services and evangelization. According to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, there are around 19,000 permanent deacons in the United States.
In the Diocese of Orange, candidates are nominated biennially by parish priests and interviewed by a board.
More than 90 percent are married men. Single men are allowed to be candidates but take a vow of celibacy.
After acceptance and a period of prayer and reflection with family, those who continue go through a rigorous five-year program with classroom work, including Bible study, theology and canon law. They also provide service to the needy, including working in jails and hospitals. And they spend time developing their personal spirituality, through prayer, retreats and evangelization.
Upon completion, class members are recommended to Bishop Kevin Vann. Deacon Chavez says to date no graduate has been denied ordination.
By that point Deacon Chavez said, “We have really gotten to know that they have the vocation.”
Deacon Chavez remembers a pastor suggested deaconry in either 1979 or 1980. Although he was only in his early 30s with school-aged children, and was considered a callow age for the vocation, the priest saw something.
Born and raised in Orange county in a bilingual family, Deacon Chavez had been close to the church his whole life. A former altar boy, he was baptized in the same church, St. Joseph’s in Placentia, where he and his wife, Mary, now married for 51 years, exchanged vows.
While Deacon Chavez had the credentials of a good and faithful Catholic, becoming a deacon was a completely different order of service.
“I was surprised they took me,” he says. “I say I backed into it. I’m happy.”
As important as the personal decision Deacon Chavez says, was the support of Mary, who became almost an equal partner in the process.
At the age of 37, Deacon Chavez was ordained. He says Mary attended classes and events with him before and after ordination.
For many years, Frank and Mary Chavez were co-directors of the St. Vincent de Paul summer camp for at-risk kids.
Around 2000, Sister Jo Ann Tabor, CSJ, with the Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange, who was director of the Office of the Diaconate for the diocese for more than nine years, remembers thinking the time had come for a change in leadership. Deacon Chavez immediately filled the boxes of what she was looking for.
“Frank was one of the youngest deacons ordained in L.A.,” she said, but also someone with a track record and experience.
Because of the diversity in the church, she wanted someone bilingual, as well as organized, with interpersonal skills and a background in education.
Deacon Chavez’s relationship with Mary and women in general helped put him over the edge.
“He was very respecting of women,” Tabor said. “I knew his wife was supportive and honest and participated. She also added humor to things.”
For Deacon Chavez, accepting the job was no slam dunk. He was successful in business and had to consider finances. Luckily, the Diocese of Orange is among about 42 percent of dioceses that make the director’s job a full-time position.
One of Deacon Chavez’s first tasks was to strengthen the process of formation for deacons. When Tabor became director she said there wasn’t even a handbook for
becoming a deacon.
“There was a good foundation but it still needed development,” she said.
Under Deacon Chavez, the curriculum and process grew and became more rigorous. He likes to joke that he’s glad he didn’t have to undergo formation under the process he developed.
“The time had come for a deacon to become the director,” Tabor said. “I was happy with my choice.”
This year, Deacon Chavez was allowed to hand-pick his successor, with the approval of the Bishop, and raised some eyebrows.
Deacon Saenz, was only ordained in October with the newest class of ordinates.
“He has a beautiful spiritual life,” said Deacon Chavez, who also noted Saenz’s bilingual skills and business acumen as factors in his favor.
No one was more stunned than Saenz who was approached by Deacon Chavez in June and asked about his interest.
“It was quite a surprise,” he said. “I wasn’t even ordained. From there the conversation began and I talked it over with the bishops.”
After prayer and discussions with his wife, Bianca, Saenz said, “It seemed like a calling, even though it wasn’t part of my plan. I had a different vision of what the diaconate would be.”
SUPPORT OF PEERS
Descriptions of Deacon Chavez from fellow deacons are overwhelmingly positive. Those who went through ordination under Deacon Chavez share many of the same words: kindness, humility, attentiveness, calmness, peace, empathy.
Deacons Matt Calabrese and Ramiro Lopez were both members of the first class to be ordained under Deacon Chavez in 2003.
“We called them mom and dad,” Calabrese jokes about the Chavezes. “He was like a father to our group and subsequent groups.”
“I am glad we were his first class,” said Lopez, 71, of St. Polycarp. “He was willing to give of himself and learn and help us out. He never failed to lead me in the right direction.”
“He was very compassionate and interested in what we had to say,” recalled Calabrese, 74, a congregant at St. Simon and Jude in Huntington Beach. “And that wasn’t just me. He was definitely inspiring.”
To Monsignor Stephen Doktorczyk, to whom Deacon Chavez has reported since 2018, one of the head of deacons’ overarching qualities is his calmness.
“He’s very patient and level-headed. He doesn’t over-react. He understood the challenges a deacon can have,” the monsignor said.
He said Deacon Chavez is good at recruiting, teaching and placing deacons where they will have the best success.
“He has good instincts. If there are concerns, he will address them,” Msgr. Doktorczyk said.
He gives credit for Deacon Chavez’s success and length to Mary Chavez.
“It’s not uncommon for his wife to be involved in parts of his ministry,” Msgr. Doktorczyk said. “It helps them relate to couples. It’s the whole package.
One observation that Calabrese had about Deacon Chavez occurred one day when the deacons were gathered in Deacon Chavez’s daughter’s backyard, which was planted with olive trees.
“I had an image of Psalm 128,” Calabrese said of the Song of Ascents in the Bible that tells of the rewards and fruits bestowed on man who is obedient and a good and faithful servant.
Those who work for Deacon Chavez have high praise as well.
“He’s just the best boss I’ve ever had,” said Lucy Dominguez, who has been Project Manager for the Diaconate for nine years with Deacon Chavez. “He’s a servant leader and attentive to the needs of others.”
Dominguez, who broke into tears when she learned Deacon Chavez was retiring, said he has always encouraged her in projects and classes she has undertaken. For example, she received encouragement and guidance to create a ministry for the wives of deacons.
“It’s been really successful, and we’ve helped open them in other dioceses,” she said. “Because of his kindness, he has allowed me to grow in ways no one had allowed me to be. I learned about my gifts and talents.”
She said Deacon Chavez is a major force in her life.
“Deacon Frank married my husband, Oliver, and me and baptized my son, Francis,” she said. Dominguez added that Deacon Chavez allowed her to take a month to walk the 500-mile Camino Santiago de Compostela, in Europe where she met Pope Francis.
“I’m not sure another boss would have given me the time off,” she said.
When Deacon Chavez reflects on his time as a deacon, he said he has been touched and humbled in the ways people have allowed him to be part of the most personal and profound moments in their lives: whether it’s the joy of marriage or baptism, or difficult times of sickness and death.
About it all he said simply, “I get to enter into people’s lives in very personal ways — what an honor.”