NEW ORLEANS — Compared to Eastern European countries such as Lithuania, where Christianity is measured in terms of many more centuries, New Orleans is a babe in arms.

That cultural juxtaposition was brought into clearer focus during the 2018 National Diaconate Congress, a gathering of 1,300 permanent deacons from across the United States and other parts of the world who came to New Orleans July 22-26 with their wives and children to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the restoration of the permanent diaconate by the Second Vatican Council.

The diaconate has thrived in the U.S. for a half century. With 18,500 active permanent deacons, the U.S. has more than half the worldwide total of 30,000.

In Lithuania, which was baptized Christian in the 14th century, the head start in faith has not resulted in a flourishing of the diaconate — until, maybe now.

Among the conference participants was Deacon Benas Ulevicius, who joined four other married men in 2017 as the first permanent deacons ordained in Lithuania for the Archdiocese of Kaunas, a centrally located diocese in a country, he said, “you can cross by car” in two and a half hours.

As Ulevicius surveyed the wall-to-wall deacon landscape in the grand ballroom of the New Orleans Marriott, he had both a sense of awe and an appreciation of his own, youthful, hope-filled vocation.

“This is why I love being in the United States,” said Ulevicius, 43. “It’s a country of great hope and optimism. The people in the United States and the Church in the United States love to try new things, especially if they work. So, the number of deacons probably is an indication that the diaconate is important in the Church, and it really works. Otherwise, the United States wouldn’t continue the permanent diaconate.”

Ulevicius was essentially hand-picked by Kaunas Archbishop Lionginas Virbalas to consider entering the inaugural formation program. Ulevicius is dean of the faculty of Catholic theology at Vytautus Magnus University — named for Vytautus the Great, the esteemed Catholic Lithuanian ruler who died in 1430.

The deacon was active in his church — Resurrection of Christ Parish, the second-largest in the archdiocese — and also had a rich background in Catholic theology and in the Catholic charismatic renewal. He also was in position to influence many of the young adults he teaches at the university.

“I’m the type of man that, well, I don’t like a lot of responsibility,” he said, smiling, “but I have observed in my life that when I take on responsibility, the best things happen in my life. This is how I got married 17 years ago, and I’m very happily married. We have a daughter who is 3 and a half years old. For many years, we couldn’t have children, but the miracle happened, and we have a daughter.”

“I think the archbishop was looking for some men who were already doing something of the diaconal type in the Church, and he thought I was one of them,” Ulevicius told the Clarion Herald, newspaper of the Archdiocese of New Orleans.

In a country where the permanent diaconate is a newly lived experience, he said priests and parishioners have been supportive. He also realizes he and the other four in the first class of deacons have a weighty responsibility.

“We are being given credit in advance,” he said. “The priests respect the diaconate in a sense – not on the basis that it really works well but on the basis that it probably might work well. No one still knows what it’s going to look like in, let’s say, five years. So, it’s an experiment. That’s one of the reasons it is important for me to be here to get the feel and context and to bring it back.”

His pastor has been wonderful in delegating sacramental duties, he said, and giving him many opportunities to preach.

“I was really surprised, in a good way,” Ulevicius said. “I have even more respect for what priests do because we have a big parish, and there are thousands of people, and it could be very exhausting if you are not good in delegating tasks or trusting people. He feels that having a deacon at Mass is a sign that’s important. He also understands my situation with my job and ministerial life and family. The people love having deacons around.”

Even as a veteran communicator in the classroom, Ulevicius said he has had to adapt his style as a homilist.

“The genre I was familiar and comfortable with was the university lecture,” he said. “In the beginning, it was much easier to make a one-hour lecture than an eight-minute homily. It took me a few hours to prepare to make my main points in eight minutes. Hopefully now I’m getting better. I’m less stressed.”

He has performed one baptism — a surprise when the priest suggested on the spot that he preside.

“The priest said he would be beside me and guide me through it,” Ulevicius said. “It was kind of like learning how to drive when the instructor brings you right onto a very busy highway.”

He also has witnessed one wedding, that of his niece.

“I’m very much in love with the elements of the liturgy and how the symbolism works and what is the biblical meaning,” he said. “I could be a bit relaxed at the wedding, but I was still a bit tense, I would say. I believe in marriage. I actually believe that I’m witnessing a miracle of Trinitarian love.”

Still, he feels the pressure of remaining faithful to his calling. It’s not just about him but about the next class of five deacon candidates, recently announced.

“Being the first feels great, but it also comes with a great responsibility,” Ulevicius said. “We knew it really depended on how we were as deacons if they would announce the next group of candidates. So now that they have been named, I feel more peaceful. If we ruin something, the next class may still redeem that.”

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Finney is executive editor/general manager of the Clarion Herald, newspaper of the Archdiocese of New Orleans.