Archdiocese’s permanent diaconate candidates in midst of challenging formation process
By ROB HERBST
The Catholic Week
MOBILE — The candidates for the Archdiocese of Mobile permanent diaconate all possess varied backgrounds, but there’s one absolute requirement needed to be a deacon in the archdiocese.
A servant’s heart.
“We’re not looking for theologians. What we’re looking for is service,” said Deacon Ronnie Hathorne, director of the archdiocese’s permanent diaconate.
Earlier this year, 19 men were officially installed as candidates for the permanent diaconate. God willing, they’ll be ordained deacons in 2022.
In the meantime, candidates and spouses are sacrificing one weekend a month for classwork, study between monthly classes and are continuing to discern if God is calling them to the diaconate.
“It’s a life-changing decision,” Deacon Hathorne said “We’re open and honest with them. This is a life-changing decision you’re making and it’s a total commitment.”
The candidates come from all corners of the archdiocese, but all come to Mobile on the second weekend of the month for classes. According to Deacon Hathorne, they arrive around 6 p.m. Friday evening, usually at the Little Sisters of the Poor. They begin the session with evening prayer and have a scripture study class before calling it a night about 8:30 p.m.
Saturday begins with morning prayer at 7:30 a.m., followed by several classes taught by priests and deacons of the archdiocese and doesn’t wrap up until just before 8 p.m. Morning prayer begins at 8:30 a.m. Sunday. There’s also one more class before the weekend closes with 11 a.m. Mass.
For those candidates who have long treks to Mobile, housing accommodations are worked out. Candidates will likely spend the weekend at the home of a deacon, another candidate or friend. During classes Oct. 11-13, a few spent the weekend housed at the Carmelite Monastery.
The monthly classes take place from August to April and the candidates have a weekend retreat in May. While June and July don’t include classes, there’s still summer assignments to do.
“It’s a commitment,” said Todd Martin, a parishioner at Christ the King Catholic Church in Daphne. “But so far the right doors have been opened and haven’t been shut down.”
“And the reading is a lot. I would say right now we’re drinking from the firehose. We haven’t drowned, but you would not want any more.”
Of course, nobody claimed it would be easy.
“The studying, the reading, the assignments, it’s difficult,” Deacon Hathorne said. “I know, because I went through it.”
‘I just want to help’
Why make such a commitment?
Because as Deacon Hathorne said, they have a servant’s heart.
“I just want to help,” said Mark Thompson, a parishioner of St. Mary Catholic Church in Mobile. “I’m very serious when I say this – if I need to sweep the floors, I’ll sweep the floors. I just want to help and to serve.”
All have their own stories of how they’ve become candidates for the permanent diaconate, but many were encouraged in some way.
For Mark, it began while living in Hattiesburg, Miss., about 15 years ago when an elderly woman asked him if he had thought of becoming a deacon.
He hadn’t, but said “Lord if you really want me to do this, I need you to ask me again.”
About four years later, after the family had moved to Mobile and St. Mary Parish, Mark was taking notes during Mass – “like a religious journal.” According to Mark, pastor Msgr. Warren Wall talked to him after Mass.
“He said ‘are you taking notes or practicing to become a future deacon of our parish’ or something like that,” Mark said. “It floored me. ‘Wow, the Lord has asked me again.’”
Todd Martin had a similar experience as two parishioners asked him if he was a deacon. Then he said Christ the King Parish Deacon Bill Robinson asked him if he had thought about it.
“So I went to a meeting to get more information because there’s no such thing as too much information,” Todd said.
Most of the candidates are married and are fathers. Mark is the father of three, with two not yet college-aged. Todd is the grandfather of four and father of four, with two who haven’t reached college years yet.
Their families play a pivotal role in the discernment process, especially their wives who are “strongly encouraged” to attend the monthly weekend sessions with their husbands.
“About six months before ordination, the wife has to consent — ‘I agree for my husband to be ordained.’ Otherwise it stops. You and your wife have to be on the same page,” Deacon Hathorne said.
Mark admitted he hadn’t initially told his wife, Ashley, about the permanent diaconate discernment being on his heart.
“That probably wasn’t a good idea, looking back on it,” Mark chuckled.
He added: “So when (Msgr. Wall) brought it up, I was ready, but I hadn’t told Ashley, so she wasn’t. We had to discern another three or four years. Then we decided to pursue it and enter this class.
“There was no way I’d be able to enter it without her saying yes. Whatever decisions I make I have to take how it affects our marriage and then how it affects our family. No matter how much I thought God wants me to be a deacon, it has to be us. This is going to affect her too, and our entire family.”
The candidates also have a new family in a sense – 18 new brothers as they go through the discernment process together.
“The bond is incredible,” Todd said. “We’ve got friends for life now. These guys, you would get in a fox hole with them.”
‘He’ll qualify you’
Those who are called to the permanent diaconate and ordained in 2022 will be assigned to a parish, but are expected to minister beyond the altar. Most are assigned to various ministries in the archdiocese, making their time on the altar only a fraction of what they do.
“If you’re here just to preach and teach, you’re in the wrong place,” Deacon Hathorne said. “But if you’re here to serve God’s people at the table, wherever needed, you’re in the right place.”
While 2022 can sometimes seem like a long way away, life does have a way of moving quickly these days.
“I don’t focus on it, but I do think about it,” Mark said. “The other day I tried to calculate how much longer we have, but for the most part I’m just focused on now. I know a lot of things can happen, if that’s God’s will.”
And during the discernment process, the candidates may not always feel worthy to serve.
But Todd said something has stuck with him throughout the entire process.
“We started class and one of the instructors said ‘the Lord doesn’t call the qualified, he qualifies the called.’ That was really something that just resonated in the back of my mind. I don’t feel qualified at all, but I can’t get that out of the back of my mind. I’ll leave it in His hands.
“You have to be open and willing to learn, but if it turns out to be the right thing, He’ll qualify you.”