By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published February 9, 2017 | En Español
ATLANTA—A dozen men were ordained on Saturday, Feb. 4, to serve the Catholic community of north and central Georgia and also to be devoted “to caring for the poor, the lonely, the immigrant, the disenfranchised and the forgotten” as deacons.
The ordination rite at Christ the King Cathedral followed the ancient ritual, as the men pledged obedience to Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory and his successors and then were ordained as the archbishop prayed over them with the laying on of hands.
Some 30 priests and dozens of deacons joined Archbishop Gregory and Bishop Luis R. Zarama at the ordination, which attracted an overflow crowd.
Archbishop Gregory told the men and the congregation that ordination does not mark a person as “smarter, older, wiser, holier, or more worthy,” but does require the new ministers to be focused on selfless service to the people of God.
“They have heard within their own hearts the Lord’s gentle but persistent invitation to enter this order of Gospel charity,” he said.
During the ceremony, the men were vested with a stole that drapes diagonally across the chest and a dalmatic, the vestment worn during liturgies. The stole was decorated with images of a desert and mountains to represent the men’s journey through formation. A heart-shaped nail was to remind them of the love of family and friends who accompanied them and offered prayers leading to ordination.
The new deacons and their parishes are: Deacon Lennison Alexander, Our Lady of Lourdes, Atlanta; Deacon John Halloran, St. Philip Benizi, Jonesboro; Deacon Charles Iner, St. James the Apostle, McDonough; Deacon Tony King, Sts. Peter and Paul, Decatur; Deacon Ronald Leidenfrost, St. Brigid, Johns Creek; and Deacon John Martin, Our Lady of the Americas, Lilburn.
Also, Deacon Greg Orf, Good Samaritan, Ellijay; Deacon Randall Ory, St. Oliver Plunkett, Snellville; Deacon Pablo Perez, St. Catherine Labouré, Jefferson; Deacon Leon Roberts, St. Matthew, Tyrone; Deacon Erik Wilkinson, Immaculate Heart of Mary, Atlanta; and Deacon Bradford Young, Cathedral of Christ the King, Atlanta.
There are now 270 active permanent deacons in the Atlanta Archdiocese. Their ministry touches many lives, from preaching and assisting at Mass and preparing couples for marriage to visiting the sick, prisoners, and even assisting travelers at the Atlanta airport.
Deacon King said his years of study taught him how the ministry of a deacon is focused on people.
“This goes well beyond serving at the altar and there is such a great opportunity to further the causes of social justice. Looking back, I really underestimated the size and potential of this role,” he said.
Family first for new deacons
In his homily, Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory encouraged the deacons in the new roles, but he said the men’s “primary obligations will continue to be with your families and in the workplace.” All 12 are married.
He reminded them how serving as a deacon would be more fruitful “if you keep your family life as the unquestioned priority within your hearts.” He spoke of the unflagging support of their wives and urged the men on their ordination day to “renew within your own hearts your wedding promises to them and reaffirm your love for the children and grandchildren with whom God has blessed you.”
As part of their ministry, Archbishop Gregory said deacons must devote themselves to care for those on the margins of society and the church. The men have taken on a “very serious obligation to work from this day forward for charity and justice always within the tradition of our church,” he said.
The marginalized are found in every community, speak every language, and are found in every race, he said.
“As a deacon, you must make it your highest calling always to seek them out, to welcome them to the heart of the church, to offer them the same compassionate care that they would find from Christ Jesus himself,” he said.
As preachers, Archbishop Gregory said sharing God’s word isn’t lecturing or entertainment. “Preaching is the spoken word that invites a conversion of heart and a deepening of hope in the promises that God makes to his church,” he said.
Prayer will be vital to them as they fulfill their duties, he said.
Come to serve from different backgrounds
The deacons, from 12 different parishes, represent a diversity of backgrounds, from those nearing retirement to others in mid-career. Three were born outside the United States, in Trinidad, the Dominican Republic and Colombia. Some work in blue-collar industries, while others have backgrounds in engineering, finance or technology.
Four of the new deacons are in their 40s. At 45, Deacon Wilkinson is the youngest.
He was first exposed to the vocation as he became active at his parish, Immaculate Heart of Mary Church. It was the contemporary history of the ministry that spoke to his heart.
“When I understood how tied the restoration of the permanent diaconate was to the priests who survived Dachau and the Holocaust, and how the notion of ‘Christ the Servant’ was missing from that time, I was hooked. I said yes to exploring the vocation,” he said.
His vocation was strengthened by seeing deacons in “quiet and unheralded ministries.”
Deacon King, 48, felt inspired to ask his pastor about the diaconate when he was in his 30s. The decision was made to put it off for several years.
“That’s the thing about God’s invitation, you never know when, where or how it will come. He is always reaching for us. We just have to be still and obedient enough to receive and act accordingly,” he said.
In the past, Deacon King said a priority was simply being a regular Mass-goer. “However, God saw me through a tough time and I made my promise to him during that time that I’d be a better servant. I also knew that there was a need for a new generation to step forward and to serve in the diaconate.”
The new deacons are excited to be of service to the community, reaching out to groups or individuals with Jesus’ message.
“I get excited about working collaboratively with folks in our parish and the wider community to find new ways to dialogue with, and serve, those who are among the least,” said Deacon Wilkinson.
Leading with their hearts
After the ordination Mass, Charlie Hicks waited in crowded Kenny Hall at the cathedral for the newly ordained deacons to appear.
“He’s an all-around good guy,” said Hicks about his brother-in-law, Deacon King. “He’s a very likable guy. He’s got a kind heart. He’s extra good with kids.”
John Harris has attended men’s Bible study on Wednesday mornings at the Cathedral of Christ the King for some 10 years. He has seen Deacon Young carry out leadership tasks.
“He’s got a great sense of humor. He’s very learned in Scripture,” Harris said.
The new deacon, who is 55, has a talent for looking at historical events and applying insights from them to modern life, he said. Harris said his friend would be a good deacon with his deep desire to serve.
Amelia and Veronica Martin surrounded their older brother, Deacon Martin, after the conclusion of the Mass. The family later would go to visit their father, whose age made coming to the ceremony too challenging. The family grew up in Colombia, South America, and Deacon Martin, 54, who works as an insurance agent in Tucker, will serve at the Spanish mission of Our Lady of the Americas.
“He has a big heart and loves to serve people,” said Veronica Martin of her brother.
Amelia smiled as she remembered her brother as a bit of a troublemaker. “For us to see him like this, is ‘Wow!’” she said.
In the United States, Deacon Martin grew closer to the church, especially at his former parish, St. Pius X Church, Conyers, where he got involved with people and service, Amelia Martin said.
“It was a beautiful ceremony. My heart raced. When I hugged him, I said, you are closer to God,” she said.