ORLANDO | I thought it was about what I wanted. I learned it was about what God wanted.
My first inkling that I might have a vocation to the Permanent Diaconate occurred in my early thirties. My wife and I had happily settled into our vocation of marriage, but there was a tug on my heart that God was calling me to something more. I was aware of the Permanent Diaconate, so I researched this possible vocation. When I saw the minimum age to be ordained was thirty-five, I set my sights on that target age, unaware that the steps towards realizing this vocation were lengthy and not fully within my control.
While a diaconal vocation must be grounded in an internal call that a man feels he has received from God, that alone is not enough to automatically result in an invitation to enter the six-year formation program, much less a clear sign that one is called to Ordination. Many men express this call as a desire to serve God and the Church in a greater way. However, the call to service is not exclusive to the diaconate, as it is constitutive of our Baptism.
As in the early Church, being called forth by the community is a more profound sign of the vocational call, greater than simply a man’s desire. The Church, through the man’s pastor, the formation team, and the Bishop, ultimately makes that discernment.
When I first expressed interest in the diaconate, my pastor encouraged me to get more involved in serving my parish and the community outside the walls of my parish so they could assist in discerning my call. It was five more years before the pastor recommended me for formation.
The formation process is long and rigorous, challenging a man to grow in the human, spiritual, and pastoral dimensions of his character. There is also a necessary academic component to ensure the man is well grounded in the teachings of the faith. There were times during this process that challenged my understanding of how God was calling me to serve. To paraphrase St. Paul, I needed to surrender my will wholly to God, so it was no longer me, but Christ the Servant within me, who served.
Ultimately, my call to Ordination only resulted from that surrender of self, of ego, and of my desires. The deacon is called to be grounded in humility, obedience, and docility of spirit, offering all he is back to God. None of us do so perfectly, but that humble surrender is at the heart of formation and ministry.
“Be it done to me according to your will.”
Are you or someone you know being called to become a deacon? The Diocese of Orlando, Office of the Permanent Diaconate is calling on the Church community to bring forth reputable men, servants, filled with the Spirit, to discern a call to the permanent diaconate. Men seeking to discern this call are encouraged to attend a Diaconate Discernment Night. Six discernment sessions will be held throughout the diocese in September and October. For more information: https://www.orlandodiocese.org/diaconate-discernment/
Part Two: Ordination day
ORLANDO | On Ordination day, I felt like I was part of a reality show that each week narrows the field down to the two finalists. Perhaps an irreverent comparison, but with a formation cohort that started with 12 men, only two of us would stand before the bishop that day.
During the five years of formation, some had discerned this was not their calling, others left due to life challenges that demonstrated it was not the right time, and others were unable to complete formation requirements. While it is expected between 25-50% of those who start formation will not make it to Ordination for one of these reasons, it was surprising only two of us were vested.
At times formation can seem like it will never end, but in the final days before Ordination, all I could think of was I needed more time. It was daunting to consider that by 10:45 a.m. that Saturday morning I would be ordained and configured to Christ the Servant, called to daily serve the People of God.
The most poignant moment of the Ordination ritual was when we lay face down on the floor in front of the altar during the Litany of the Saints. As the smell of the well-worn carpet filled my nose, I embraced my own unworthiness for this ministry. At the same time, the voices singing the invocation, asking for prayers from all the angels and saints, reminded me God’s grace would be enough. I arose from the floor confident God would guide me to find strength in my weakness.
An ordained servant is called to serve and not to be served, and I jumped right into service that weekend. The parish invited me to assist at and preach all the Masses. So that afternoon I left my family and friends at my Ordination party and got to work. I even experienced the joy of baptizing my first baby.
The hours and days immediately following Ordination were exhilarating! Perhaps it was the joy of no longer having to attend countless classes, write papers, and fulfill parochial internships. Perhaps it was the warm reception by my parish to my new ministry. Most likely, though, it was because I was more fully living the mission God had for my life.
The grace of Ordination can provide an exhilaration that fuels a veritable ‘honeymoon period’ in the months following the Sacrament. I had great dreams of where God would take my ministry. God’s dreams, though, were far greater than I could have ever imagined.
Part Three: The first year as deacon
ORLANDO | Deacons in their first year are often called “baby deacons.” The term can be appropriate, as it recalls the tentative first steps of a child learning to walk, who then quickly learns to run, all the while expressing unbridled enthusiasm and energy. After a new deacon’s initial cautious and deliberate steps in ministry, he often races forward embracing all the ministries with which he is presented.
After Ordination, I quickly embraced not only a full liturgical schedule of assisting at multiple Masses on a weekend and preaching once a month, but additional opportunities to be involved in sacramental prep, invitations to teach adult and youth formation, lead days of reflection, and continue my ‘outside the walls’ ministry to homeless teens on the streets of Colorado Springs. Two months into my ministry I was surprised when the Director of Deacons invited me to join the formation team for the new cohort beginning that Fall. As a professional instructor, as part of my consulting practice, I accepted this invitation. Educators know the maxim that the best way to learn something is to teach it, and I found myself embracing the deeper understanding of all I had learned during my formation through this new role. Perhaps God knew that I would need even more formation for the new challenge ahead!
Only six months after Ordination, Bishop Richard Hanifen called me into his office and told me that he believed God was calling me to work for the Church full time. He had a parish on the outskirts of the city whose pastor needed to retire due to diminished health. With four less priests than parishes in the diocese he needed to invoke Canon 517.2, entrusting the pastoral care of this parish to other than a priest. He believed that God was calling me to leave the business world and accept the role of Parish Director. Although a retired priest would be assigned to say Mass, hear Confessions, and administer Anointing of the Sick when requested, I was to be the full-time pastoral presence at the parish. I was dumbfounded by the request, but after a long walk with my wife along Monument Creek, followed by a couple hours in prayer before the tabernacle at the designated church, I agreed to the bishop’s request.
As this was a new model of leadership for this parish, further complicated by my inexperience as a deacon, the final six months of my first year as deacon were marked by “learning the hard way”. And yet, by the end of that year I had learned more about how to live as Christ the Servant ministering to God’s People than I would have by any other path.
I still had much need for growth, but in that first year God had reinforced the need for me to surrender to His will.
Part Four: Perspective is 20/20
ORLANDO | Five years of formation preceded my Ordination. The reality is, though, formation never ends.
As I reflect on my diaconal ministry having entered my 20th year of service, it is easy to see how God uses each moment to deepen my understanding and ability to serve the People of God.
It was easy to see how I continued to be formed while serving as parish director at Our Lady of the Pines in Colorado for seven and a half years. It was less apparent, but equally important to see, how that formation continued during my five years working on board cruise ships. Despite not being hired as ‘deacon,’ God used those years as a human resources manager to teach me how to better ‘serve the servants,’ especially those with little power or privilege, far from their homes. When I arrived in central Florida in 2016, it was clear to me that the more I had grown in ministry, the more I knew I needed to grow.
At the start of 2019, I was asked to take on the role of director of permanent deacons for our diocese. I had turned down a similar request twice when I was in Colorado, but like Samuel, when I heard the call the third time I needed to respond, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” Trying to support our 190 active and 60 inactive deacons in the various opportunities and challenges in their ministries and lives is a humbling experience. At the same time, it is a great honor to walk with these men and their families.
An equally sacred trust is the responsibility to lead the discernment and formation of the men seeking Ordination. Our goal is to help them understand the profound nature of this ordained ministry, which is far deeper than the idealized portrait with which most of us start our formation. Sometimes the candidates push back, convinced that we focus too much on the challenges that may be faced. The reality is that it is in the face of those challenges we may provide our most Christ-like service and encounter the deepest grace.
Like most new deacons, I had looked forward to the joy of Baptisms and Marriages. Yet, my greatest service has been to families who have lost loved ones far too young, or who have been broken in other tragic ways. Being present in those moments is where we best live our ministry.
Many ask me what is the ideal number of deacons for each parish to have? I respond that the answer lies not in the quantity of the deacons, but in the quality of diaconal service. True diaconal service must be grounded in humility, docility of spirit, and complete surrender of our will to God’s.
It’s not our will, but God’s that must be done.