New director of Diaconate Formation
Since the early 1970s, the Jesuit priests were tasked with the formation of permanent deacons for the Diocese of Rapid City. As documents from various Vatican congregations and the USCCB were published, the program underwent changes. In 2005, the USCCB published the first edition of The National Directory for the Formation, Ministry, and Life of Permanent Deacons in the United States of America, commonly referred to as the National Directory. After the publication of this document, the Jesuits running the diaconate formation program, made additional changes.
In 2017, the Jesuits turned over the diaconate formation to the diocese. Bishop Robert Gruss appointed Father Brian Christensen, who was returning from an appointment at the North American College in Rome, as the Director of Diaconate Formation. He is the pastor of Cathedral of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Rapid City. Deacon Greg Sass, of Our Lady of the Black Hills, Piedmont, was hired as the Assistant Director of Diaconate Formation, along with other roles. Bishop Gruss directed Father Christensen and Deacon Sass to build upon the strengths of the current formation program and facilitate a greater adherence to the norms established in the National Directory.
When a new class of candidates finished aspirancy, they were ready to begin the three-year candidacy portion of formation. Within a couple of months, the decision was made to utilize the diocese’s Veritatis Splendor Institute catechist formation program as the basis of the diaconate formation, as many of the requirements listed in the National Directory were already covered in VSI. On the VSI class weekends, the candidate couples attended additional formation specific to the diaconate, which extends the formation weekends through Sunday afternoon. The first deacons formed under this revised formation program were ordained in October 2020.
In June 2022, the USCCB’s second edition of “The National Directory for the Formation, Ministry, and Life of the Permanent Deacons in the United States of America” went into effect. It was at this time Father Christiansen made a request to Bishop Peter Muhich. Father Christensen said, “with other duties and responsibilities pressing upon me, it is a good time to step down.” The promulgation of the second edition of the National Directory, he continued, “will require a continued renewal of our formation program. I’m confident that Deacon Greg Sass and his formation team will continue to build upon the good work that we have begun.”
In August, Bishop Muhich announced to the clergy Deacon Sass’s appointment as a Director of Diaconate Formation, in addition to his role as Director of the Permanent Diaconate and Lay Ministry Formation. Deacon Sass said, “Father Brian’s experience at NAC forming priests, was very beneficial in reviving the diocese’s diaconate formation program, as my background and experience information was limited to being formed as a deacon. I learned a lot about formation from him.”
He continued, “the first several years required a lot of collaboration between us, weekly meetings, laying out the three years of classes, ensuring we covered all the requirements from the National Director, developing lesson plans, finding instructors, and coordinating with theVSIstaff. It was a lot of work.”
In the future, Deacon Sass will be relying more on the members of the Deacon Review Board to help with evaluating candidates for the permanent diaconate and also with updating the program based on the second edition of the National Directory and assisting with formation weekends. He said, “with the help of the board, deacon couples, and many others, the Permanent Diaconate Formation Program, will continue forming deacons to meet the needs of the diocese.”