Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

Co-Directors Named To Lead Deacon Formation

By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published January 17, 2013

ATLANTA—New formation leaders are overseeing the growing permanent diaconate in the Atlanta Archdiocese. And in a rare appointment, a woman now shares the responsibility for shaping the future deacons.

Penny Simmons, a retired bank executive and spiritual director in the deacon formation program, is one of the few women across the country to lead a formation program.

Simmons will team with Deacon Jose Espinosa to share the duties of the permanent diaconate formation.

The way Simmons sees it, deacons are going to minister to women and men, so why not have a woman in leadership in the formation process.

“It is a ministry to be able to form men who will be brought into ordained ministry,” she said.

Penny Simmons
Photo By Michael Alexander

The associate co-directors will be responsible for academic, pastoral and continuing formation of deacon candidates and deacons.

Permanent deacons are increasingly serving Catholics in the northern half of Georgia. Since 2010, 41 men have been ordained, with another dozen planned for Feb. 2. There are 153 active deacons in the archdiocese. Deacon Dennis Dorner is the overall director of the permanent diaconate.

The two new directors succeed Deacon Steve Swope, who stepped down after five years as the associate director of formation for the permanent diaconate. He wanted to spend more time with his family.

Deacon Swope was asked early in his time as associate director to update the local formation program and bring it up to national standards set by the U.S. bishops. His duties were later expanded, from managing the archdiocesan Catholics Come Home campaign and serving on the Year of Faith steering committee to overseeing the sizable bequest from the Joseph Mitchell estate, including cash, furniture, historical items and half the literary rights to “Gone With the Wind.”

Deacon Swope isn’t completely cutting back from all duties. He’ll continue to serve as the president and CEO of GWTW Partners LLC, which oversees management on behalf of the Atlanta Archdiocese of their share of the copyright of the famous novel. The archdiocese is expected to receive between $100,000 and $200,000 a year from the “Gone With the Wind” bequest, he said.

The national formation program now guides deacon candidates’ preparation. Deacon Swope said it was implemented so men in training study from a national curriculum. It’ll help them understand the vocation to the diaconate and the unique characteristic of their service as deacons, he said. The classroom studies and work in parishes show the men how they are to be “living icons of Christ, the servant.”

The vocation to the permanent diaconate has grown because the idea of service is attractive to people, he said. Also, there is the ability for deacons to bridge the worlds of being clergy while also sharing “real experience that mirrors the people we serve,” said Deacon Swope, who serves at St. George Church, Newnan.

Men study for five years and undergo days of reflection and prayer to ensure they have a vocation.

An area of continual work is ensuring that the diaconate looks like the Catholic community, Deacon Swope said. He is “keenly aware” of the need to ensure men across racial and ethnic lines are aware of the program and invited to explore this vocation. Men from the black, Vietnamese, Korean and Hispanic communities need to be invited, he said.

It’s a sentiment shared by the second new co-associate director, Deacon Espinosa.

To attract more Hispanic men, Deacon Espinosa said, will take a cultural shift and education.

“I believe this is a cultural thing since in our countries the figure of a deacon is still unknown. Only in the major capital cities you may find some deacons,” he said in an email.

Deacon Jose Espinosa
Photo By Michael Alexander

The work of looking for more deacon candidates from the Hispanic community has already begun and the goal is to continue seeking more candidates, he said. It is a joint effort between the staffs of the diocesan vocations office and the permanent diaconate office, as well as the archbishop and bishops and pastors, he said.

Deacon Espinosa was ordained in 2009. A native of Venezuela, the 58-year-old works for General Electric. He serves at Transfiguration Church, Marietta.

Penny Simmons retired from SunTrust bank where she was a vice president for residential construction. And as the economy soured, her experience as a spiritual director and counselor came in handy in unexpected ways. She said some developers and builders who faced bankruptcy would show up at her office door. Behind closed doors, they would chat.

Now 65, Simmons became interested in spiritual direction after making a Cursillo weekend in the early 1990s. She studied for two years to earn a certificate from the Haden Institute in North Carolina. She has long been a lay leader and spiritual director in the Atlanta Catholic Cursillo. Simmons has been involved with the diaconate training program for about five years, leading spirituality classes and assisting people who are exploring their vocation to decide whether to become deacons.

She worships at St. James the Apostle Church, McDonough, where she’s been involved with many ministries. She once chaperoned 32 young people to see Pope John Paul II at World Youth Day in Denver. It was a 30-hour bus ride. “I’d do it again in a heartbeat,” she said.