BY SCO Admin | May 25 | comments icon 0 COMMENTS     print icon print


Priests and deacons working together

In the final part of the SCO series on the permanent diaconate, GERARD GOUGH talks to Glasgow Chancellor Fr Tom White and Permanent Deacon Michael O’Donnell from the same parish about their complimentary roles

Transmitting the Gospel in a subtle way,’ is what Deacon Michael O’Donnell, who serves at St Mary’s parish in the Calton district of Glasgow, considers to be the key component part of his service to the Church. That call to service is something that he has always felt in his heart from a young age growing up in Glasgow’s south side, in particular during his time as a pupil at Holyrood Seondary School.

“RE was a subject I was curious about because Christ the King Parish (Kings Park) had a great youth set up,” Deacon O’Donnell said. “Every Sunday we’d have a youth Mass and talk afterwards in the hall about aspects of Faith and socialise. It was a very vibrant group.”

Initially, Deacon O’Donnell was drawn to the priesthood and was a seminarian at Scots College in Spain, but his journey to become an ordained priest came to an end after just two years when he realised that he would have struggled with priestly celibacy.

“I discerned through time that celibacy was going to be difficult and I was wise enough to know that,” he said.

However, when Glasgow Archdiocese appealed for men to come forward and study for the permanent diaconate, it was something that re-ignited that call to service in Deacon O’Donnell.


Family support

“I was inspired to become a deacon precisely because it is a call to service and you can use your own gifts in that service,” he said. “I was one of the first guys in Glasgow to become a deacon. There was an open night and 50 guys came along that were interested, but there is having an interest and then there is the reality of what the course entails a five years of study—a spiritual year and then four years of academic and pastoral studies. It went down from 50 to possibly 20 who did the year of discernment and from there about 15 went forward and of those 12 were ordained, which is quite a good ratio.

“I am the youngest deacon in Scotland at the moment. My philosophy is that diaconate is not just for old men; it is also for young guys who have families, jobs and the pressures that other young people in the parish communities have.”

Indeed, before he made the decision to become a deacon, it was important that he received the support of his wife Caroline and three daughters Laura, Rachel and Hannah.

“They were supportive of my decision,” he said. “They know what my interests have been down through the years. I have maintained my love of theology and the Church—I have written for The Scottish Catholic Observer in the past too. That said I had study for two hours a night after catching up with the family. It takes real discipline. In the end though it is worth it because even though I left seminary, I never lost that call to service.

“In a sense, my job as a social worker is a ministry, counseling is a ministry and in the diaconate charity forms part of that—relating to people.”


Call to serve

Relating to his parishioners is something that is crucial to his service as a deacon, not only in a social setting, but also in a pastoral sense, given that some Catholics may not fully understand the complexities of what being a deacon entails. For example, while many people think that deacons are ordained for their own parish, this is, in fact not the case. Deacon O’Donnell is a parishioner of St Vincent de Paul, Thornliebank, but serves outwith his own deanery.

“Within our group of deacons most have been allowed to stay in their home parish, but there were a number of guys who for various reasons it was felt it would be better if they went to another parish,” he said. “The reality is that some parish priests in Scotland are not quite ready for permanent deacons for various reasons plus Archbishop Conti wants to use the different skills of a deacon elsewhere.

“You are ordained for your diocese so your bishop can move you, obviously there is a bit more negotiation when then happens, than there would be with a priest because you have families and so on. When I went to St Mary’s, we were becoming the pro-Cathedral so my appointment may have been symbolic—having the bishop, priest and deacon there. In other places there is often only one deacon and one priest.

Deacon O’Donnell added: “In the parish—and every parish is different—you are very visible on a Sunday because that is when you do the Liturgy, which is all some associate deacons with, but it entails more than that. You are busy with the Gospel, the prayers of the Faithful, sometimes doing the homily and assisting with Communion. You do Baptisms—some deacons do 30 a year—I have not but it is just to do with the makeup of my parish you have Catechesis too and visits to sick parishioners. You do Lenten services such as Stations of the Cross, nursing home visitations and reception of the body.

“What deacons cannot do is celebrate the Mass in full, hear confessions or when, someone needs the Sacrament of the Sick, the anointing of the oils. You cannot do that, which can be a frustrating aspect of the diaconate. Anointing with oil is very symbolic; it is healing in its own way. If you have a relationship with someone and you have to say ‘hold on a minute while I get the priest’ it can be a little frustrating.


Role of the deacon

Prior to serving at St Mary’s, Mgr Peter Smith, the then parish priest and archdiocesan chancellor, prepared the parishioners for Deacon O’Donnell’s arrival by outlining the role of a deacon to them, something which he is thankful for and which helped him establish a relationship with them from the beginning of his ministry.

“I was lucky that Mgr Smith had been doing a weekly reflection with information in the bulletin on what a deacon was for six weeks prior to my arrival, so they were semi prepared,” he said “When I went in, they knew who I was, roughly what I was going to be doing, they knew I was married that I was not going to be living there and for the first week, Caroline and the girls came with me so they could visualise that it is slightly different.

“The parishioners have been brilliant too. It has taken a while to get to know all the names, but there is a great core group at St Mary’s. I choose not to wear the collar—I only wear it at particular times. I prefer to be myself, wear jeans and banter informally with them. If there is something significant that comes up and they need to talk about it then you respect that. St Mary’s is sociable and very friendly so if someone wants to have a moment with you and talk to you, you speak to them in private and keep it private.”



His relationships with Mgr Smith and now Mgr Tom White—the new chancellor of the archdiocese and parish priest at St Mary’s—have also been friendly, fruitful and Faith-filled and Deacon O’Donnell likes to think he has played his part in helping to offset their workload to an extent.

“I think I can help, but I think also, because of the parish needs, they could manage without me as there are enough priests there,” he said. “However, with Mgr Smith going away it has changed the dynamic, because for a time there was only Mgr White in the parish, so I was doing a good number of things, taking the bodies in more often than I had been, so that helps. Chancellors have a lot to do; they are really busy. Mgr White is there all day in the office and he might be out at night and he has to run a parish too.  I think for some of the larger parishes, it is definitely a real asset to have a deacon there.”

While not being at his own parish, St Mary’s has become a home from home for Deacon O’Donnell and his experience of service in the east end of Glasgow has been positive, bolstering his own Faith and prompting him to recommend more men to join the permanent diaconate.

“What I like are the people in the parish, in the sense that you feel a real part of it,” he said. “They enjoy what you are doing, they respect and value you and that is nice. You feel like you’re doing something and that is important.

“I would recommend the permanent diaconate, but you have to judge it, what your life is and what your life will be because there is a process of five years of studying and that is a long time. However if you are all for it, you go for it and you will get support.”

Deacon O’Donnell, who also works with the homeless in the Wayside Club in Glasgow, also feels that deacons can play an important role in the New Evangelisation.

“We can because we are in the world,” he said. “You don’t go about overtly saying who you are but you can transmit the Gospel to people in a subtle way. I base it on what I do in the Wayside Club. The important thing is to be present. God is love and God is present.”

And while content in his role as a deacon, he holds a personal view on married priests.

“Many good priests are ordained and many good priests leave,” he said. “It is a terrible shame. If there was the option of becoming a married priest tomorrow, I would go for it. I don’t shy away from that view.”


Deacons called to serve in New Evangelisation


When Fr Tom White was appointed as the new chancellor of Glasgow Archdiocese and parish priest of St Mary’s in the Calton earlier this year, replacing Mgr Peter Smith in both roles, as expected, his responsibilities grew along with his workload.

Periods of transition such as this can be difficult, but as he admits, it was an asset to have a deacon as dedicated to his ministry as Deacon Michael O’Donnell there to assist him in the parish at that time.

“When Fr Thaddeus [Umaru] was away and there was a transition period and I was in the parish on my own, it was great to have someone else to rely on,” Fr White said. “The way we work, the benefit is that you are able to leave a deacon to get on with it. There are certain tasks that I can give to Michael and he completes them, which is great and really beneficial.”

To get to a point where a deacon can capably perform his duties however, is far from simplistic, requiring dedication and hard work and while Fr White is fulsome in his praise for the Maryvale formation programme, he is aware of the difficulties that deacons face on their journey towards ministry.

“I was privileged to go to the Scots College in Rome and spend seven years there, which was fantastic,” he said.

“Nothing else sets you up better to have an appreciation of the Church than experiencing the universal Church. It equips you in a way that is unparalleled.

“It is one thing that is a disadvantage for deacons—their experience is often only of their parish.

“They do not have the benefit of a seminary training, where Mass is celebrated on a regular basis and you have seven years of growing up with the Liturgy.

“At times deacons can be a little like ducks out of water when they are not on their home patch, but the flipside of that is that they operate very well in their own parishes.

“I think the academic enhancement that the Maryvale programme brings is certainly helping a great deal and there is always plenty of scope to look at anything that equips deacons to have a better feel for the Church.”

Fr White is quick to point out, however, that once a deacon has established himself in his parish and forged a relationship with the parishioners, they can become a real asset not only to their parish but also to their diocese.

“In this office as chancellor, you get to see different deacons performing different roles and different parishes and it is amazing the lengths and breadths of where different deacons serve,” Fr White said. “Some are married, some have family commitments; others have raised families and have more time to dedicate to their ministry.

“I know that in one parish, the deacon has allowed a priest, who hasn’t enjoyed the best of health, to continue his ministry for many more years because he has helped to receive the burden and it’s fantastic to see.

“Michael himself brings a different dynamic to the parish and in St Mary’s, the parishioners realise that he is at the start of his ministry and they look out for him and encourage him, give him compliments on his homily and so on. It is very endearing to see. They want him to do well and they encourage him in his ministry, which is nice.”

This appreciation of service is something that pleases Fr White immensely as he considers service the key element of a deacon’s ministry.

“The term diaconia itself means service,” he said. “If anyone embraces or undertakes the role of deacon and it is not characterised by service, then they would be getting off on the wrong footing. I think when you go into a parish, it becomes evident the men you could identify to become deacons due to their readiness and willingness to serve.

“The deacons that excel the most in the archdiocese are those whose service and desire to serve is immediately clear and everything else follows on from that.”

The call to service underpins the New Evangelisation, which Pope Benedict XVI has been keen to promote, and it is something that Fr White feels deacons can be crucial in helping to advance.

“I think the key to the New Evangelisation is the Church being seen at the service of the community,” Fr White said. “The New Evangelisation will have a distinct characteristic, which is the Gospel as a lived reality, in our families and in our workplaces. Deacons are a visible way of living their Faith in the family environment.


Pic: Mark Campbell

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