By STEPHEN O'KANE and ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writers | Published February 17, 2011
Sixteen men were ordained to the permanent diaconate, adding another large class to serve the growing church of North Georgia. At a Mass witnessed by their spouses, family members and friends, the deacons were welcomed with great enthusiasm and excitement.
The new deacons are: Fernando Barrueta, William Bohn, Leonard Chambliss Jr., Robert Grimaldi, Richard Kaszycki, Norman Keller, Kenneth Lampert, Curtis Marsh, Scott Medine, Jose Trinidad Merlo-Quintero, Bill O’Donoghue, Gary Schantz, Steven Shawcross, Mark Sholander, Dave Thomasberger and Lawrence Welsh.
The people who filled the Cathedral came equipped with cameras and tissues. A reverent procession began the Mass with the wives of the deacon candidates leading the way, highlighting the role family plays in the deacon’s journey. It was also a moment of realization for the men.
“It was a surreal moment, almost like a dream unfolding before me,” Deacon Medine said. “Seeing an army of priests and deacons present and in procession with the bishops was extremely moving, but even more so was the gathering of family and friends in the Cathedral for the celebration of the sacrament.”
“We were sequestered. It was a good thing to help us pass through the anxiety,” Deacon Chambliss said about the moments right before the line of candidates came down the center aisle.
Deacon Chambliss is one of two members of the class who joined the Catholic Church as adults. He and his wife, Rhonda, and their son and daughter entered the church at St. Jude Church, Sandy Springs, in the early 1980s. He ranks his ordination up there with his wedding day and the birth of his children.
“That’s the impact it has had,” said Deacon Chambliss.
Family Life Models Love, Sacrifice
During his homily, Archbishop Gregory also commented on the importance of family in the life of the diaconate.
“No matter how many years you have been married, you continue to discover that love is always a journey that takes you to new and more wonderful ways of giving of yourselves,” the archbishop told the candidates. “Your marriages have given life to your children and some of them in turn have given life to your precious grandchildren.”
“Love always attempts to surpass itself in giving,” he continued. “And so that same spirit of love that you live in your family life must henceforth animate your service as deacons—always striving to include more people within your circle of love. Love never exhausts its capacity to expand and embrace others.”
There’s a moment in the rite of ordination before the laying on of hands when the candidates lie on the marble Cathedral floor as the congregation prays for them through the Litany of the Saints. That experience for Deacon Merlo was a highlight.
“I felt like a little, little one and the greatness of our Lord,” said Deacon Merlo, 42, who will serve at St. Joseph Church, Marietta.
“I’m still excited. I’m still dreaming. What happened to me is beautiful,” he said.
The intercessory prayer was also a humbling moment for Deacon Medine and brought back strong memories of his parents.
“The Litany of the Saints was, by far, the most moving part,” he said. “My mother and father both passed away while I was in formation. Both wanted to see me ordained, and I could feel their presence with me at that point.”
After the litany each candidate approached the archbishop and knelt before him for the laying on of hands. Archbishop Gregory closed his eyes and placed his hands on the head of each man in silent prayer. The candidates then knelt before the altar as Archbishop Gregory prayed the prayer of consecration aloud. Then, assisted by a priest and a fellow deacon, the newly ordained were invested with the stole and dalmatic, the vestments of the deacon.
The new deacons come from a wide range of parishes of all sizes, said Deacon Steve Swope, the associate director of diaconate formation.
“During formation this group of men demonstrated prayerful discernment to the vocation of the diaconate and a great willingness to serve the people of God,” he said.
Deacon Hopes To Reach Hispanics
Part of Deacon Merlo’s ministry will be teaching the Hispanic community about the role of deacons in the church. People from Latin America call him “Father Deacon,” he laughed.
“We are not fathers. We are here to serve on the altar, assist the priest, visit the sick,” he said.
Deacon Merlo said his desire to serve the church took root in 1988 in his native Mexico, including a four-year stint in the seminary, which he left to take care of an ill mother and brother. He later married his wife, Blanca, and they have been together for 16 years.
Since then, church ministry has been a part of his life. From reading Scripture as a lector to working with youth groups, Deacon Merlo has been active both in his native country and since moving to Atlanta in 1996. He has worked at Catholic parishes across North Georgia reaching out to new Hispanic immigrants to remain in the Catholic Church as other Christian churches responded with Spanish worship services. He sees his new role in the same light: service.
“I want you to be saints. And I will work hard for you until you reach sainthood,” he told his Bible group before his ordination.
Deacon Chambliss said he wants to use his experience as a convert in evangelization, reaching out to Catholics who have left the church and to those without a church home.
His lived experience helps him understand the differences between Catholicism and other Christian denominations. The deacon, a 61-year-old Mississippi native, said it also makes him feel comfortable connecting with people from a variety of faith traditions.
His interest in becoming a deacon took root as he became more and more active in ministries at his parish of St. Philip Benizi, Jonesboro. He felt a stronger desire to serve.
“Every time, I always said there’s got to be more,” he said.
His wife, Rhonda, is active in the parish too, teaching parental baptism classes and serving as a sponsor for candidates and catechumens joining the church.
At the ordination, she recalled thinking, “Leonard was thinking his journey was ending when, in fact, it was just beginning.”
A man discerning the diaconate must be unselfish in giving his time, Deacon Chambliss said. Also, he needs to be well rounded in parish life, interested not just in the ministries he belongs to, but all groups.
“You really have to let the gentle wind of God to be at your back and allow the push,” he said.
‘Rely On Nothing But Faith’
Deacon Medine also had some advice for those discerning a call or entering formation as a deacon.
“They need to open their mind and truly give themselves to God and trust in the entire process,” he said.
“The process is one of deconstruction and reconstruction, and it is a hard process as you are stripped down and torn apart and made extremely vulnerable,” he said. “Doubt creeps in, and there are times when you have to rely on nothing but faith; you have to believe when it defies all logic and reason.”
For Deacon Sholander, the ordination was “nothing but joy.”
“It was absolutely fantastic,” he said.
Deacon Sholander said he tried to relish every moment of the day.
“I was savoring the moment and remembering how special each part of the Mass is,” he said.
His brother, Father Tony Sholander, a Jesuit priest, helped him don his vestments, along with Deacon Mike Landis. Deacon Sholander then assisted his brother as he celebrated Mass on Sunday, Feb. 6, at Holy Trinity Church.
Peggy Sholander watched her husband with pride take the steps to become a deacon.
“I had never been more happy for him,” she said.
When the idea of her husband serving as a deacon first surfaced, Mrs. Sholander said it jettisoned her thoughts of traveling the world during retirement. There were times of doubt, she said.
But she sees service as a deep part of her husband. He donates blood. He rolls the trashcan of an elderly neighbor to the curb. He does handyman work for neighbors.
“What I did not know was how the formation program would change him. God loves to take the bad and turn it to good. Our love for each other has deepened, and I have never felt as close to him as I do now,” she wrote in an e-mail.
“He is also very approachable, very down-to-earth. He is a man of integrity, a man of his word. He has much to share with the Church and God’s people,” she said about her husband, whom she first met 38 years ago on a blind date.
‘Love Those . . . Difficult To Love’
Deacon Swope got to know the candidates during their formation and could relate to the struggles and triumphs of the process he himself experienced in 2008. It is always encouraging to see the men reach the ordination Mass, he said.
“The ordination Mass on Feb. 5 was holy, wonderful and exciting. The wives of the new deacons were able to sit together as a group and the joy radiating on their faces as the men were ordained was heartwarming. Their support of their husbands has been an integral component of the discernment process,” he said.
“While every ordination is an occasion of happiness at the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the ordinands, I have heard from many priests, deacons and laity that this ordination in particular was distinctive for its beauty. . . . We are most grateful to God for calling these men into his service.”
There are currently 47 men in formation for the permanent diaconate of the archdiocese, including 11 candidates each in 2012 and 2013. There is no class of 2014, but 25 men are working toward ordination in 2015 and 2016. Beyond that a number of men are in inquiry sessions.
The 2011 class includes men from many walks of life and varying cultures, but all of them are focused on serving their families, their parishes and the larger community in their new roles.
The archbishop hopes his words will ring in their ears as they begin this new phase of their journey.
“A deacon always reminds the Church of our responsibility to love those whom the world often finds difficult to love,” Archbishop Gregory said during his homily. “A deacon is always in search of those whom Christ sought out: the hungry, the sick, and the people that the world often considers unimportant and a deacon brings them into the circle of the Church’s love and compassion.”
“The spirit of love is the primary reason that we all seek to love God and indeed can love God,” he said. “Our candidates for the diaconate must be men who love God with all of their hearts and souls.”