Deacons: Balancing family, marriage and ministry

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Sunday, May 6, 2012

Combining diaconate formation and ministry and family life isn’t always easy, and it requires a lot of support from family.

But it also can be a gift to the family, according to men who have been serving as deacons for some years. Two deacons from the Archdiocese of Chicago have sons who are to be ordained priests May 12, and others have seen the life of faith grow in their families as their children see the service that they and their wives do.

Deacon Kevin O’Donnell, who serves at St. Fabian Parish, Bridgeview was ordained a deacon in 2006, about the same time the older of his two sons, Matthew, was discerning his vocation to the priesthood. Matthew O’Donnell is to be ordained on May 12.

His son’s vocation was a bit of a surprise — he had been studying political science when he decided to transfer into the college seminary — but not too much.

“You’re called to ministry,” O’Donnell said. “When you’ve got to go, you’ve got to go.”

He does think the example he and his wife set had something to do with his son’s vocation.

His wife, Anita, attended most of the diaconate formation sessions with him, and the couple works together to prepare families for baptism at St. Fabian. Kevin O’Donnell is a funeral director by profession, so the family was involved in ministering to people even before they started diaconate formation.

“Basically, he saw his mother and I do a lot of things. He became used to it. He thought, ‘If they can do it, I can do it,” the senior O’Donnell said.

O’Donnell’s sons not only saw the joy ministry brought to their father and mother, they also saw the sacrifices that the whole family made.

“You’re going to miss the band concert,” he said. “You’re going to miss a few things. They understood why I was doing this.”

Help from family

In the case of Deacon Bob Boharic, ordained in 1999, it took the ongoing help of his mother-in-law and sister-in-law, who stepped in to help with his four children while he and his wife were at formation sessions.

One of those children, Thomas, 27, is to be ordained a priest on May 12.

Boharic’s journey to the diaconate began when his son Bobby died in 1982 from a childhood cancer. He and his wife, Kathleen, responded by digging deeper into their faith and becoming more active in their parish, St. Mary in Riverside.

It’s not as though the Boharics weren’t busy: Bob was a lawyer and judge, and Kathleen was a stay-at-home mom. But when a deacon at their parish left to study for the priesthood after being widowed, the pastor asked Boharic if he would consider becoming a deacon.

“It had never entered my mind that I could be a priest or deacon throughout my whole life,” he said.

Since ordination, he and his wife have worked together doing adult education at their parish, offering Sunday night classes on Scripture, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, church history and other topics.

They also worked together to coordinate St. Mary parishioners visiting their sharing Parish, St. Agatha on the West Side, to tutor children and offer other services. His children often accompanied them, and Thomas Boharic said that had an effect on his view of the world as he discerned his vocation.

Influence of the children

Deacon Joe Bishop was ordained 21 years ago, before all of his four children were grown. None of them became ordained ministers, but it was children, in a way, that led to the diaconate.

He first became involved in his parish by chaperoning teen events and retreats when his oldest children were participating in youth activities at St. Irenaeus Parish in Park Forest, he said.

“As the children and young people witnessed to their faith in Christ, I was drawn to do the same things myself,” said Bishop, who now ministers at St. Elizabeth Seton Parish in Orland Hills.

He ended up becoming a catechist and taking advantage of the learning and formation opportunities offered by his parish and by the Office for Catechesis. Eventually his pastor asked if he had considered becoming a deacon. Going through formation, he said, he felt like he had found his true home.

“Ministry was something that really suited my talents,” he said.

By the time he was ordained, he had two teenage children and two older children. All of them supported his involvement first in diaconate formation and then in ministry. His wife, Nancy, embraced the formation process, attending nearly all sessions with him and eventually becoming coordinator of religious education at St. George Parish in Tinley Park.

“My wife and I grew even closer throughout the formation process,” he said.

But as their ministry responsibilities grew and expanded, it did become difficult at times to spend time together, so they established Friday nights as a time when no other activities could be scheduled. Instead, they would have time to eat together, to go out or just stay home together and watch TV.

Over the years, they changed parishes, to St. James in Sauk Village, and Deacon Bishop left a career in the trucking industry to serve as a pastoral associate at St. Rosalie in Harwood Heights for a time.

The most important thing deacons can do for their families is to make sure they put the same energy and effort into their lives at home as they do into their ministries, and make sure they treat their families with the same consideration that they do those they work with in ministry, he said.

“If it wasn’t for them, we couldn’t be deacons,” Bishop said. “Our wives and kids allow us to spend a large portion of our lives at church, at the funeral parlor, the hospital. … We need to be a participating part of the household to the fullest extent possible when we are there.”