By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published August 21, 2014
ATLANTA—On the day he was to become a deacon, Elie Hanna was led by two deacons to circle the altar three times as he kissed its corners as a sign “his life revolves around the altar of God.”
As the spiritual leader of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church in the United States presented him with the clothing of a deacon, the crowd in the church shouted in Arabic, Greek, and English, “He is worthy!” Deacon Hanna replaced his white garments with gold vestments, as he took on a new role in the church, one older than the priesthood.
Some 200 people on Sunday, Aug. 10, crowded St. John Chrysostom Melkite Catholic Church, Atlanta, for the ordination to the diaconate, celebrated with Bishop Nicholas Samra, the head of the Melkite Eparchy (Diocese) of Newton, Massachusetts. It was the second ordination since 2012 of a deacon for this church, where most members have family roots in the Middle East.
The congregation heard the bishop’s message that to live as a Christian means a life of service. Bishop Samra said in the early church, first came the apostles, followed by the appointment of deacons, earlier than priests. The deacons’ duty was to care for widows, orphans and all the community.
Bishop Samra said, “To be a disciple of God, you have to serve each other.”
And for Deacon Hanna, it’s what he has done since childhood.
“This is a natural extension and formalization of my dedication to serve the church and God,” he wrote in an email.
Working in the health care industry and a father of two young children, Deacon Hanna spent four years preparing to serve as a deacon. His wife, Dzovag (Zoe), is a financial services consultant and also volunteers at Queen of Angels School, in Roswell, which their children attend. He studied two weeks a year in Massachusetts for a time of prayer and learning about this ancient role. Father John Azar, St. John Chrysostom pastor, also taught him about serving as a deacon.
The faith community, located in the Druid Hills neighborhood, is an Eastern Catholic church, in communion with the Roman Catholic Church. Melkite worship uses the Byzantine rite, where the liturgy is chanted, Communion is always given under the species of both bread and wine, and the celebrant traditionally faces east. It is one of two Melkite churches in Georgia, the other being in Augusta. There are 75 registered families at the parish. There are more than 40 parishes across the country in the Eparchy of Newton.
Icons of Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, and the saints watch over the congregation in a marble atrium courtyard turned church. St John Chrysostom Church is located in the former Candler mansion with its white marble columns on Ponce de Leon Avenue. The former mansion dining room is where the altar stands. A screen of icons separates the holy place from the worshippers.
The bishop admitted ordinations are emotional for him because he is “asking another to take on the role of serving the body of Christ.”
The Gospel reading, which came from St. Matthew, told of Jesus calling Peter out of the boat to walk on water. The apostle faltered and began to sink in the rough waves. Jesus reached him and pulled him to safety.
Bishop Samra compared the story to Deacon Hanna’s new role.
“In a sense, he is walking on water today. He is putting his faith in Jesus Christ. He will begin to walk on water as he begins to serve you,” the bishop said.
Deacon Hanna grew up in Akron, Ohio, but was born in Lebanon. The son of a tailor, he is one of five children of immigrants. The family worshipped in the Melkite church, but would pray at a nearby Roman Catholic church if the family couldn’t make the 20-minute drive to Akron’s one Melkite church. He served at the altar as one of a faith-filled family.
“I remember growing up talking to God directly as a young boy, as my mother taught me to do as often as I could,” he said.
In college at the University of Cincinnati, there were no options beside Roman Catholic worship. Deacon Hanna moved to Atlanta in 1989 and said he was “back at home in the Melkite church” when he found St. John Chrysostom Church.
“Looking back on it, I think that made my faith stronger as I tried to understand how the two were similar and yet different,” he said about the two Catholic traditions. His faith “exploded” at the Melkite community as he explored its historical traditions and faith. In his role as a deacon, he will serve the church where he is assigned. He plans to stay active on the parish advisory council and the altar server ministry but hopes to get involved in the adult catechism program.
St. John Chrysostom has seen two of its members become deacons in as many years. Having new deacons allows a greater service to the community, to visit the sick, lead prayer, and organize works of charity.
Father Azar, the pastor, said the ministry of deacons is varied, according to the parish needs, from administrative functions and social outreach to sacramental instruction. He said the two men serve the church by expanding its ability to care for the community.
In addition, he thinks seeing the new deacons as ministers may spur other men to consider more deeply and respond to their own vocational call from God.