They’re married men who feel called to serve the Catholic Church as members of the clergy. Meet three Brisbane men training to become permanents deacons, and the wives praying by their side.
Taking a leap of faith
IVAN and Liliana Ortiz are wrestling with nine-month-old son Jacob in a side chapel at St Finbarr’s, Ashgrove.
The church is the new home for the Latin American community, which has played a rich part in Ivan’s spiritual life for the past 10 years.
It is also the sacred location where Ivan took his first step to becoming a married deacon.
Ivan, a Mexican-raised Catholic, admits he knew nothing about the diaconate when he applied to be part of the Brisbane archdiocese’s program two years ago.
All he had was a piece of paper from his community chaplain with an odd message.
“And the little paper said, ‘If you’re interested in a diaconate vocation, then call this number’,” he said.
In 2014, Ivan got a feeling God was calling him to “something else” besides a demanding full-time career in the IT industry, juggling a marriage and three young boys and serious devotion to the faith.
“And we said, ‘Seriously?’” Ivan said.
The calling was real, and Liliana remembers coming out of prayer with a “strong feeling” to do something.
Whether it was a direction for Ivan or for them as a couple was unclear.
“Sometimes it’s really hard to know what God wants,” she said.
The little piece of paper with a number for the diaconate program was a clear sign.
“This year the Church officially welcomed us into the program which means we have to take more responsibility and study, in my case, starting the study of theology (at the University of Newcastle),” Ivan said.
In four or five years, if the Archbishop sees Ivan fit, he will be ordained a deacon.
“We said to the Archbishop, with a young family it may seem illogical doing this, but we’re really just trying to follow what we’ve been praying for and we believe if it’s meant to be a call from God things will just go ahead and will just happen,” Ivan said.
Following God’s will has been central to Ivan and Liliana’s marriage of 11 years, and will continue to be at the heart of their married vocation even if ordination approaches.
An encounter with Christ in 2006 kept the couple from falling apart.
“We were one of those marriages where the world thought it was destined to fail,” Ivan said.
“But definitely because we were married in 2005, and by 2006 we were in a lot of need of making it work.
“So to us it’s impressive how, I guess, every marriage has a hundred per cent probability of success if you do it God’s way.”
Ordination means Liliana will need to share her husband with a church and a community.
“We might see less and less of Ivan but it is rewarding, and if that’s what God wants from us, who are we to say no,” she said.
Faith and reason unite
Permanent deacons are not new to the Church.
Although the diaconate was only restored as a rank in the sacrament of Holy Orders during the Second Vatican Council, its office can be traced back to the early days of the Apostles.
But between the Middle Ages and the 1960s, it was simply in hibernation, a role conferred onto priests of the Latin Rite in transitional periods, but it was maintained in the Eastern Catholic Churches.
Since its restoration, men have queued up to be deacons across the globe.
There are 15 permanent deacons in Brisbane archdiocese, an estimated 100 in Australia and, according to Vatican statistics from 2015, more than 43,000 in the world.
These deacons are mostly married men who follow a call to be ordained for a ministry of service for the rest of their lives.
Adam and Megan Walk have been married for 16 years, but have not been able to have children.
“It made me reflect on something that I just assumed away,” Adam, co-founder of a boutique consulting firm, said.
“In fact I think a good portion of society spends half their life hoping not to get pregnant and the other half trying to get pregnant having wasted the best years of their reproductive life,” he said.
“And so we assumed that something would happen in due course, and it hasn’t happened in due course.
“And that of course made me think, ‘Well, if I haven’t been put on earth to have kids, what have I been put on earth to do?’”
Becoming a deacon was in the back of his mind.
It was no doubt a subject earmarked in the plethora of books about the faith Adam had read when deciding to become a Catholic 10 years ago.
Adam said his first exposure to the Catholic faith was during his three-and-a-half years training in the army.
He observed the Catholic chaplain and priest while in the group of “other Protestants”.
“You could tell there was something substantial about him,” he said.
When his army career ended due to a back injury, he took an interest in studying economics and finance, eventually earning a doctorate in this field and is now a part-time research fellow at Griffith University.
He also met Megan three months after retiring from the army, and in 1999 the pair wed.
Six years into the marriage, Adam started to wonder about the Catholic Church.
“I guess (it was the) constant contact with the sacramental life of the Church, through Megan particularly, when I was going through this process having to go to baptisms and weddings,” he said.
A natural and professional researcher, Adam hit the books to learn more about the faith.
He liked what he read.
In the Easter of 2006, Bishop John Gerry baptised and received Adam into the Catholic Church at Red Hill, the Walks’ present parish.
In that same year, Deacon Peter Devenish-Meares, who is now based at Red Hill, was ordained a permanent deacon.
The convert was intrigued about this special office, but made no moves about it until a former employee of the Brisbane archdiocese made the staggering suggestion for Adam to apply for the diaconate a few years ago.
He consulted his wife and his books.
“Before I put my application in I read a few books about being a deacon, what a deacon is, what they do, where they come from, where the ministry comes from,” he said. “I try to make decisions with my eyes open. That’s in my day job so I should do it in my life too.”
Megan’s only question was her role as a future deacon’s wife.
“I guess I’ve just said to Adam that if it’s something you want to do then you have to do it, I can’t say no to you,” she said.
“I certainly don’t want him to look back on life and have any regrets.”
With eyes wide open, Adam took up candidacy for the diaconate program at St Brigid’s Church, Red Hill, last weekend.
The journey from “nothing” to Catholic to future deacon has taught Adam to buckle up and let God take the driver’s seat.
“For once in my life, I’m not going to pre-judge the answer or the destination, or where it ends up,” he said.
“I’ve done that a lot and maybe it’s worked out and in some ways it hasn’t.
“But in this case, the destination is unknown as the Archbishop could kick me off at anytime, including the day before ordination – all I can do is open myself to the experience.”
Ready at the onset
Deacons are not substitutes for priests. They are part of the sacrament of Holy Orders, along with two forms of priesthood – episcopacy and presbyterate.
During the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI restored the sacred order of the permanent deacon “as a proper and permanent rank” among the clergy in the Latin Rite.
The restoration is most notable in Paragraph 29 of Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution of the Church, which calls on the restoration of the permanent rank of the diaconate to fulfil works of charity and liturgical service.
In scripture, deacons receive a mention in the Acts of the Apostles, and further reference in one of numerous letters written by the zealous apostle of the gentiles, Paul.
Andrew O’Brien first met a deacon in the early 1980s while preparing to marry wife of 33 years Colleen.
“That was fairly unusual 30-odd years ago,” Andrew said.
The pair invited him to be part of their nuptial ceremony with three other priests, but told him they had already arranged one of the priests to proclaim the Gospel.
“He said, ‘Thanks, but I will decline’,” Andrew said.
“It’s only now that I’m in the program I realise why he said that – because it’s a deacon’s job to proclaim the Gospel.
“It’s now dawned on me why he took that view and quite rightly.”
Andrew’s exposure to the diaconate in North West Queensland coincided with a successful management career as chief executive officer of the Mt Isa City Council.
After working in the corporate sector for most of his professional life, Andrew made a conscious decision to work for the Church five years ago.
He also started a degree in Theology out of pure love for the subject.
The two deliberate moves prompted discernment of the diaconate.
“There was an opportunity to explore if that call was there, and I’d say it was in the last three months where I’ve said, yes, the call is there,” Andrew said.
He said the call to be a deacon was the fruit of a lifelong journey as a Catholic.
Growing up in “a seriously Catholic environment” in Toowoomba, his closest neighbours were a church and two convents of two different religious orders.
He married Colleen 33 years ago and together they have three talented sons.
“My life’s been blessed with both economic and spiritual abundance,” Andrew said.
“Whilst I feel obliged to share that, the reason I’m doing the diaconate is because I want to share it.
“There’s different ways of sharing that but for me the diaconate is one way to share that proclamation is what really drives me, and the goodness of God which I’ve experienced.”
Andrew thinks Pope Benedict’s first encyclical Deus Caritas Est (God is Love) sums up the diaconate nicely.
“It’s about serving in the liturgy, proclaiming the Word, and being a minister of charity,” he said.
But one misconception he does want eradicated is that deacons are a solution to the decline of priests.
“The deacons aren’t a solution to anything in particular, but they can add another dimension to ministry which is really valuable,” Andrew said.
“There’s been deacons for 20 years in the archdiocese.
“As it becomes bigger and broader I think it will be really effective.”
Andrew’s wife Colleen said the journey towards the diaconate had been “a big unknown right from the start”.
But seeing the life and energy it gave Andrew confirmed it was a true calling.
“I could see his discernment was a questioning time I suppose,” she said.
“And that’s probably what has had the biggest impact on me, that Andrew has a life and energy about this that’s more than I’ve seen before.
“And to me that says that Andrew’s on the right journey.”
The journey will be taken one step at a time, hand in hand.
“In terms of the future, it’s very much unknown and it will unfold in front of us,” Colleen said.
“I fully support Andrew in this journey but the key thing for me is it’s Andrew’s journey.
“There are no pedestals in this house.
“We’re holding hands on this journey together.
“He’s not going to be on a pedestal because he’s a deacon.”
Andrew took his candidacy for the diaconate last weekend, but with his study components out of the way, he will be ready for ordination by the end of next year.
“I’m waiting for that bolt of lightning that I hope will not throw me out of the car,” he said.
“My driving’s bad enough as it is.”
Until then, Andrew is sticking to his regime of prayer and discernment, his eye on a particular scripture from the Psalms.
“‘Commit your life to the Lord, trust in Him and he will act’,” Andrew recites.
“That’s my little motto … for this week.”