Deacons have spent 26 years helping fellow deacons
By Ricardo Gandara
Deacon W.J. Ham is very much at home when he baptizes a child into the Catholic church. “There’s something about wearing the [alb and stole that] people recognize that you’re part of the church community. It’s the happiness of seeing the parents, and as unworthy as I am, I’m bringing these children into the church,” he said.
As a deacon at St. Catherine of Siena Parish in Austin and St. Michael Parish in Uhland, he’s brought children into the church 736 times, to be exact, beginning with Steven Bell in 1991. In a journal, he has chronicled the names and dates of all whom he has baptized, including his grandchildren.
Deacon Ham, 77, is a keeper of lists. Also tucked in his Bible is a daily prayer list. First in the morning is Pope Francis; the afternoon list has fallen Austin police officer Amy Donovan. Deacon Ham presided at the burial of Donovan who was accidentally run over and killed in the line of duty in 2004.
Bishop Emeritus John McCarthy said deacons are ordained into the church and given vital duties of also helping the oppressed.
“Deacons are men of deep understanding of the mission of the church, and of making Jesus present in people’s lives. Jesus taught and lessened the pain. That’s an essential part of the mission of the church and deacons fit in nicely,” he said.
Bishop McCarthy met Deacon Ham and Deacon Larry Hansen more than 25 years when they knocked on his door to pitch the idea of hosting a weekend continuing education conference for prospective deacons from Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas. Bishop McCarthy thought the idea was splendid and gave them $1,000 seed money to get started.
“He advised us along the way and made presentations to the groups,” Deacon Hansen said.
Thus, the deacons formed the Southwest Institute of Diaconal Studies (www.swidsonline.com). For 26 years, they’ve presented the education conference in Austin. Among the many duties, Deacon Ham serves as recruiter of deacon attendees.
“I stuff the envelopes and make the phone calls,” he said.
Deacon Hansen is in charge of signing contracts and securing a hotel and the featured speakers.
“And the important coffee breaks to put on a successful conference,” he said.
Their ride is coming to an end, however. The deacons are hoping to turn over their important work to new blood. They’ve recruited one deacon, Tim Vande Vorde, to take over the conference and are looking for a second. “We’re not stopping tomorrow,” said Deacon Hansen. “But in the next couple of years.”
Deacon Hansen, 68, a trial attorney by trade, served at St. Theresa Parish in Austin but primarily concentrated on the conference in his 26 years of service. Deacon Ham, also an attorney for the state of Texas and a Navy veteran, has also been a deacon for 26 years.
Deacon derives from the Greek word “diakonos,” which means servant. The Bible speaks of the origin of deacons in Acts 6, in correlation with the account of the martyrdom of St. Stephen, himself one of the original seven ordained deacons appointed by the apostles, according to Catholic online (www.catholic.org).
While a pastor focuses on the day-to-day operations of a parish, a deacon is often called upon to perform baptisms, weddings and burials. They visit nursing homes, hospitals, jails and prisons.
A man must be at least 35 years old to become a deacon and undergo about five years of formation and continuing education. Most have fulltime jobs outside the church and families. There are just under 150 actives deacons in the Diocese of Austin and another 60 who are retired but still assist parishes, said Deacon Ron Walker, who is the diocesan director of diaconal ministry.
Deacons are the heartbeat of a church community, performing many community service functions. “He is recognized as a man of prayer and service,” Deacon Walker said.
Deacon Hansen said that in today’s world of disconnect, deacons play a role to rectify it. “We’ve become a culture that doesn’t depend on or know of each other. Deacons are part of the community. Sometimes a priest doesn’t have the time to relate to all people. That’s where a deacon becomes the neighbor and the friend. Deacons are in a position to be intercessors between members of the parish and the church. When Jesus was doing his ministry in villages, he was one of them. When people needed care, like the elderly, Jesus taught us to help. That’s what deacons do,” he said.
Deacons are committed, yes, but so are their wives. Deacon Ham gives his wife of 58 years, Guadalupe, tremendous credit for his work. In fact, wives are required to attend much of the continuing education meetings. Deacon Ham met his wife, “a cradle Catholic,” in 1957. “Our first dates were attending churches so she’s been with me every step of the way. Without a wife’s support, it won’t work,” he said.
Deacon Ham’s decision to pursue a calling stems from a lot of prayer. He recalled a time in church after the Eucharist while sitting in solitude. “I felt a warmth like someone embracing me. Then a lady came up to me after Mass and asked me if I was OK. She said she witnessed a glow around me,” he said. “Maybe God was saving me for this because I was almost killed twice in aircraft carriers in the Navy.”
Deacon Hansen said his interest came from admiration of deacons’ work throughout his Catholic upbringing. Now, he sees his involvement in the continuing education conference as a way to give to the church community. Thus far, more than 4,000 men and their wives have attended.
“The conference is all about making yourself ready,” he said. “How do you give a homily? How do you preside at a baptism? How do you best serve your community? And it’s also a way to support each other.”