A community of deacons is an idea still in formation.

That is despite the diaconate's long history. The office is almost as old as the church itself. The Acts of the Apostles describes how seven men 'acknowledged to be deeply spiritual and prudent' were chosen to serve neglected widows.

The diaconate, which in the medieval church faded to a step on the way to priesthood, was revived as an office for married men after the Second Vatican Council. The Archdiocese of Portland ordained several permanent deacons in the 1970s and 80s. Larger classes began entering ministry in the 1990s. There are now almost 50 permanent deacons in Oregon, including more than a dozen in the rural central and eastern parts of the state.

In the U.S., there are more than 15,000 permanent Catholic deacons. Only Germany has more.

The U.S. Catholic bishops recently released guidelines for the education and formation of deacons, unifying what before had been a patchwork of diocesan policies.

Deacons, ordained especially to serve those in need, also preside at baptisms, weddings and funerals. They give homilies and workshops. Spanish-speaking men have been entrusted with the spiritual care of Hispanic Catholics.

Newly formed in the archdiocese is a conference of deacons, created to offer interpersonal support for the men and their wives. Plans call for regional groupings of deacons who meet regularly.

'I think there is a strong effort to help foster these deacon communities,' says Deacon Chris Anderson, who serves at St. Mary Parish in Corvallis. Ordained in 1997, he is a professor of English at Oregon State University and leads retreats and scripture studies at the OSU Newman Center.

Every few months, he and wife Barb (a pastoral associate at St. Mary's) meet with other 'deacon couples' from the area to discuss faith and life and pray over it all. The common experiences of the couples - especially the travails - draw them together naturally.

The most common challenge is trying to balance ministry with family.

Barb Anderson recently gave a retreat for the wives of deacons, who can feel left with more than their share of tending to family and household.

In essence, a deacon takes on a 20-hour-per-week volunteer job. The couples rarely get to attend Mass together. If there are young children, the wife tends them alone during church and other meetings. Time management, Barb Anderson explains, is an 'enormous' problem.

'There are no models for being the wife of a deacon,' she says. 'Even for those wives who are strong Catholics, it's completely different.'

In many cases, men embrace the diaconate in their middle age, after children are grown. Just when wives expect to see their husbands more and get more help around the homestead, ministry keeps them as busy as ever.

Often, the wives have become just as theologically astute as their husbands. Some went through formation with the men and yearn for more.

Each couple, Barb Anderson says, needs to come up with its own solutions. At the same time, a community of deacons and wives is essential for sharing good ideas and giving support.

'It is relaxing to be around people who understand exactly what you're going through,' she says.

Deacons whose main job is not in the church grapple with conflicts between belief and work.

Anderson has written a book about being a Catholic faculty member of a secular college - Teaching as Believing: Faith in the University.

While always open with students about his role as a deacon, he honestly explores his pre-existing positions and the ways they effect his view of the world. Most students are new to what a deacon is, until they meet their professor.

'Being deacon is kind of an odd thing,' says Anderson, who teaches the Bible as literature and Christian classics. 'But I am kind of past the stage when I am worried about how people view me. I just feel blessed to be in the situations I am in. People don't see me one way or another. I am just part of the community. We are just who we are.'

Anderson and other deacons say they feel supported not only by parishioners and the forming deacon community, but in general by priests and bishops. In addition to requesting Saturday's informal meeting at The Grotto, Archbishop Vlazny led a recent retreat for deacons. Auxiliary Bishop Kenneth Steiner has also been a strong backer. Anderson says he is grateful for his pastor, Conventual Franciscan Father John Henderson.

Deacons are included in clergy conferences and are listed alongside priests in the Oregon Catholic Directory.

During the gathering at The Grotto, Archbishop Vlazny thanked the couples for their service and reminded them that they are called to be 'heralds of faith' by living out the Gospel publicly.

'It's your ministry of charity that will speak most loudly,' the archbishop said during a Mass, shortly before sitting down to supper with the group.

Deacons Del DeSart and Brett Edmonson, ordained in November, have felt a warm welcome from the deacon community.

De Sart says that when he wants advice about a homily, for example, he always gets what he needs. The two men and their wives mingle freely with the veteran couples.

Deacon Owen Cummings, a professor at Mount Angel Seminary, has published articles and books about the diaconate. He's been ordained for 17 years.

While the community of deacons differs from that of priests or religious, it is not worse, Cummings contends.

'There is a genuine desire to be mutually supportive,' he says.

That support comes mainly in two areas - theology and family life. Deacons, aware that they have not had the intense theological training priests go through, are great exchangers of information. As for marriage, the men know how hard ministry can be and keep an eye out for deacon couples in trouble.

'It is hard to find time when we can get together,' says Deacon Don Ciffone, ordained for nine years and serving at St. Rose of Lima Parish. 'But we're asking how we can we serve each other as well as the Church.'