Dorina Pena describes herself as a “church lady supreme.” A founding member of the young adult ministry at St. Vincent de Paul parish in Philadelphia, 38-year-old Pena has served on her parish council, art and environment committee, bereavement committee, and a parish think tank devoted to overcoming racism. She also sings in the choir and does multimedia work, streaming Masses and making flyers and posters as needed. “If I’m not at some parish meeting at least three or four nights each week, it must mean I’m sick,” she says. After two decades of active parish life, Pena’s varied ministries crystallized around a clear vocation: a call to the diaconate.
“In September 2021, my pastor told me about Discerning Deacons,” she says, referring to an organization dedicated to engaging Catholics in active discernment about women and the diaconate. “I started doing more with them. I had a dream that Mary came to me and said ‘Dorina, you know you’ve always been called to leadership. You didn’t have a word for what that is. Now you do.’ ”
Pena’s faith journey has taken her somewhat by surprise. Though she was baptized Catholic, her family faced exclusion from her parish after her parents’ divorce. After attending churches of different Christian denominations throughout her childhood and adolescence, she rediscovered the Catholic faith as an undergraduate at the University of Pittsburgh, when she began attending St. Paul Cathedral and getting involved in their robust young adult ministry.
Pena decided to complete the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults program and received her first communion and confirmation on the same day she got engaged to her cradle Catholic husband, Mike. “Mike never pressured me to enter the church. I did it because it just felt right. But doing Bible study and Pre-Cana together helped our relationship grow,” says Pena. The couple married at St. Paul’s, their wedding Mass accompanied by the same choir in which Pena sang for years.
When Pena and her husband moved to Philadelphia in 2015, they discovered St. Vincent de Paul, where they instantly received a warm welcome. “Catholics in Philly call St. Vincent the ‘safe church.’ We have people from all walks of life, and my identity as a queer woman of color is seen as a gift to the community,” she says.
After much prayer and discernment, including a daily recitation of the Liturgy of the Hours, Pena finds that her vocation is becoming clearer. “I was a Sunday school teacher in my Protestant churches; in college I went to a lot of campus ministry stuff,” she says. “I’ve joined all these leadership positions.
I’m also a lay leader of prayer and petition leader. I’m always looking for more I can do. I believe I am called to be a deacon.”
Pena sees her vocation as a deacon as deeply grounded in her vocation as a parent. “Sister Thea Bowman says it doesn’t take a village to raise a child—it takes a church to raise a child. Our kids, our young adults—we have to support them,” she says, noting that when she had her daughter, Janine, five years ago, she was the only active parishioner with a baby.
“We used to joke about baptisms—people would come to have their babies baptized, and we’d say, ‘I wonder if we’ll ever see them again.’ But I was already established in the church when I had Janine,” she says. “The presence of a newborn was warmly welcomed and helped me connect to more people in the parish. We also started bringing in more young people. Now, we have about 10 or 15 kids in my immediate group.”
As fruitful as Pena’s active parish ministry has been for her and those around her, she acknowledges that it does bring challenges, particularly in terms of intergenerational understanding. “The progressive older people who have done a lot of work in the civil rights movement don’t realize it can be harder for younger people,” she says. “The death of George Floyd helped prepare people to have hard conversations. There’s also an uptick of people becoming aware of how hard it is for queer folks to be in the Catholic faith. The #MeToo movement and child abuse scandals have made people more able to bridge the gap due to these conversations taking place on a global scale.”
Pena urges older people to avoid making assumptions about young adults seeking involvement in parish life. “Something a lot of church elders get wrong about young adults is that we’re all progressive, that we don’t want to kneel, or that we don’t want to pray the rosary. I think it’s the opposite. A lot of us have done RCIA. We want to do adoration, retreats, penance services,” she says. “We are very spiritually hungry. Many of us had faith when we were young but didn’t fully understand it. A lot of people get lost in the 18–35 range because there isn’t real guidance for them; their parents and grandparents lived the faith differently. Having a strong young adults’ group is key,” she says, adding that she is very excited to lead a group of young people on a delegation to World Youth Day 2023 in Lisbon, Portugal.
A member of the Black Catholic Congress, Pena sees her parish involvement as deeply connected to the life of the global church. She strongly supports Pope Francis’ mission of centering the voices of the marginalized and applying faith to one’s life outside the church. “The key to keeping people—particularly younger people—in the church is to be open to doing things differently. Maybe your parish needs a new website or online programming; maybe evangelization can take the form of a community-wide cleanup event. Showing people that we are walking the walk—getting involved in government, advocating for safer communities and better schools—is so important,” she says.
Pena believes firmly that the time for women in the diaconate has arrived. “Women already have a strong role in the church that is not recognized and seen,” she says, adding that at a time when many parishes are merging, more deacons are needed. “In Romans 16, Paul refers to Phoebe as a deacon. Having women deacons doesn’t go against church teachings, and the synodal process has made the need apparent. Universally, people are crying out for women’s roles in the church to be recognized and lifted up.”
The prospect of women serving in the diaconate strikes Pena as a natural extension of the work women have been doing all along. “I have heard deacons called ‘priests in the streets,’ ” she says. “We all know our aunties and grandmothers who volunteer and do so many things to help the church run smoothly. There are many voices and people with spiritual gifts who feel the call, even if they don’t have the words for it.”
Though not all Catholics feel called to the diaconate, Pena says discernment and a strong sense of vocation are important for everyone. “Just being a Catholic, you are an activist.” she says. “There are very specific needs of the church that can only be addressed by helping the poor and outcasts. Where was Jesus? He was with those people. That is where we all need to be.”
This article also appears in the August 2023 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 88, No. 8, pages 45-46). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.
Image: Jeannine M. Pitas