There are more than 17,000 permanent deacons in the United States. They are the only married clergy in the Catholic Church. They are the men who bring the experiences of family and career to their preaching and ministry. The simplest way to describe a deacon’s service to a parish is to list his functions—he proclaims the Gospel at Mass, he preaches and teaches in the name of the Church, he baptizes, witnesses weddings, and conducts wake and funeral services. However, a deacon’s value to a parish and the Church goes beyond a mere laundry list of specified duties.
Deacon Frank Chavez, Director of the Office of the Diaconate for the Diocese of Orange, says the most important quality for an effective deacon is humility, explaining that deacons are formed in the image of “Christ the servant.” He says that “the deacon takes the grace of the altar to the street and brings the needs of the street to the altar.”
Deacon Frank describes having these married men in the clergy as “an exciting thing for the Church. It’s a real gift.” He concedes that, although it has been 50 years since the Second Vatican Council restored the permanent diaconate and permitted married men to be ordained, “there is still some adjusting to the concept.” He notes there are still people in the pews who have trouble accepting that the man standing before them in vestments at Mass, reading the Gospel and preaching a homily, is someone with the same everyday cares of a family, a job and a mortgage as themselves.
There is adjusting for the deacons themselves, too. “He should be in a good, holy, sacramental marriage,” Deacon Frank says. It also takes an “assertive, strong woman to be the wife of a deacon,” to not only deal with the changes in her life resulting from her husband’s ministry, but also to share in the five-year formation process leading to his ordination.
Deacon Frank notes that in cases when a man’s calling to the sacrament of marriage precedes his calling to the diaconate, the Church does not want this ministry to be a burden to his marriage or his family. An inability to achieve that happy balance is a main reason why many men are not accepted into the formation process or do not complete it.
So what type of man succeeds in becoming a permanent deacon? There are 125 permanent deacons serving in the Diocese of Orange and 15 were ordained in October. One of these new deacons is 52-year-old Tim O’Donoghue.
Deacon Tim has been married to his wife Michelle for 22 years and they have two children, 20-year-old Haley and 18-year-old Matthew. He has worked in the Tustin Unified School District for 29 years as a teacher, coach and principal and is in his tenth year as principal at Hillview High School in Tustin.
He has taught Sunday school and had served on the pastoral council at La Purisima Church in Orange when Deacon Tony Bube and then-pastor Father Vincent Pham urged him to consider the diaconate. “I gave it some thought and was pretty sure that God was calling me to this vocation,” Deacon Tim recalls.
“I remember I was driving with my son Matthew, who was 13 at the time, and asked him what he thought about me becoming a deacon. He replied ‘Dad, don’t you get it? God is calling you to be a deacon!’ At that point I knew it was meant to be,” he says.
The formation process for the diaconate meant a considerable re-budgeting of time in his already busy schedule as a high school principal. “[A]nd in some cases that means not sleeping as much,” Deacon Tim says. “There was a bit of stress on the family, especially Michelle, because she was home with the kids alone two times a week while I was attending class. She saw the bigger picture and we all survived.”
The people skills developed over three decades as an educator is expected to be a great asset to Deacon Tim’s service as a deacon. “As a school principal I have dealt with virtually every situation that could impact a family, so I should be a good resource for folks, or at least [be able to] point them in the right direction,” he says.
“Servant leaders” is the term Deacon Tim applies to both deacons and principals, putting the needs of others first and foremost. “On my desk at school I have a quote from Saint Francis of Assisi that reads, ‘Preach the Gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.’ I try to be a role model for all of those I come in contact with, so being a deacon will be no different.”