23 permanent deacons vault pandemic changes to ordination

January 26, 2021

Two Masses for the Ordination to the Permanent Diaconate are set for Feb. 19 and Feb. 20 at the Co-Cathedral of Sacred Heart in Houston. (File photo by James Ramos/Herald).

Editor's Note: The Jan. 26 edition of the Texas Catholic Herald included the original dates for the Masses of Ordination to the Permanent Diaconate. This story has been updated to reflect that the Masses have been postponed to Feb. 19 and Feb. 20.

HOUSTON — The first diaconate class of 2021 to be ordained under difficult Covid restrictions is diverse yet share their love for God and willingness to serve His people.
Although only numbering 23 men and their wives, two separate ordinations are scheduled for Feb. 19 and Feb. 20 at the Co-Cathedral of the Sacred Heart because of social distancing for families and those attending by invitation only.

New deacon-to-be Bruce Flagg explored several churches, including Baptist, Reformed Presbyterian and non-denominational, before returning to his religion at birth, a cradle Catholic. With his wife Toni’s encouragement, he enrolled in the FTCM program to learn deeper meanings of Catholicism. The knowledge set him afire with the spirit, and they both prayed and came to a decision for him to apply for the Diaconate program.

Unique gifts

But Flagg brings unique life skills as a deaf person, and his home parish is the St. Dominic’s Deaf Center. With all of St. Mary’s Seminary classes being canceled on campus because of the coronavirus, the diaconate classes were all placed online with Zoom.

“This past year of COVID-19 has been very difficult. Since I am deaf, it was difficult to figure out the technology necessary for me to have an interpreter. My wife interpreted everything for me during that spring semester, including formation classes,” Flagg wrote in response to questions.

By the fall semester, they were able to use the technology to have an interpreter on screen.

“The formation has been time-consuming without a doubt, but with a supportive family, friends and the occasional camping trip, I managed to get through these past six years, thanks be to God,” he said.

During formation, his Archdiocesan ministry was working at Catholic Charities in the food distribution centers that have been so badly needed in these desperate times.
“I now have an even greater awareness of the needs of those whose finances are less than desirable, especially during these times of COVID-19,” Flagg wrote.
“I am one of a handful of deaf deacons in the country who will serve the needs of the deaf community. I look forward to bringing the word of God to my community and to serve that community however the Lord desires,” he said.

Following God’s call

Fellow classmate Sean (pronounced Son) Nguyen said he felt God’s calling since childhood. The seed was planted in his heart and mind that he should be a priest when he grew older. But it did not take root until after college.

After graduation, he still couldn’t find a job, so he went on a mission in Missouri with his mom, serving food and cleaning tables. In the time in between, he asked God for direction.

“I gave myself up to Him. Two weeks later, I got a job. When I married, I realized that priesthood was out of the question but still had the urge to serve,” Nguyen said. He and his wife joined the St. Justin Martyr church community in 2009, and it remains their home parish.

“I found out that I could join the Diaconate, and six years of formation later with the blessing of my wife and family, I am getting ready to begin a new journey for our God,” he said.

A mother’s prayer

“I credit my calling and finding my way to the prayers of my mom. She is 96 years young and is looking forward to seeing my ordination,” Nguyen said.

The class of 2021 was fortunate to have spent more than five years together with in-person classes and pastoral training building up camaraderie before having to move to online Zoom classes, he said.

“We prayed, laughed and cried together. But this last year was difficult for us to stay connected. Online learning also felt distant... As for balancing work, school and family life, I did not think that I had the time. However, when we got started, God just made time for us, our kids accommodated, and things just worked out by the grace of God,” Nguyen said.

A faith that responds

Joe Millhouse, a former deputy sheriff with the Harris County Sheriff’s Department and a former Texas Highway patrolman and narcotics investigator, and his wife Wendy are parishioners at the Co-Cathedral of the Sacred Heart downtown. He grew up attending Catholic schools in Pennsylvania.

“A funny thing about where I am now. As a kid in Catholic school, I was never one to volunteer for, as they called it way back then, being an ‘altar boy.’ I was a pretty quiet and shy kid. Now a Permanent Deacon. Wow!” Millhouse said.

He actually found Zoom classes easier to schedule, especially the Tuesday evening classes at home rather than dealing with Houston’s rush-hour traffic drive to the seminary off Memorial Drive.

“Now retired from law enforcement, I have a good amount of time on my hands to keep a balance in my life. My Archdiocesan assignment of ministry was to visit and correspond with retired priests and deacons. Because of COVID-19, we cannot make in-person visits, so we visit over the telephone. But the retired deacons I speak with are happy to hear from the newer folks,” Millhouse said.

“I have a mixture of feelings on our upcoming ordination; feelings of joy, excitement, anxiousness, and most of all, humility. I look forward to joining the rest of the staff at the Co-Cathedral,” he said.

Rising up to meet challenges

Deacon Phillip Jackson, director of the Office of the Permanent Diaconate for the Archdiocese, said, “We have certainly had our challenges during these past 10 months trying to do diaconal formation in the midst of a pandemic.”

“We certainly could not have gotten this far on our own. The men, mentors and wives embraced this new way of teaching. It reminds me of the opening prayer of the Invitatory, ‘Lord, open my lips and my mouth will proclaim your praise!’ They fully participated and were engaged in a most impressive way. It has caused us, the office of the Permanent Diaconate, to rethink how we will provide diaconal formation in the future,” Deacon Jackson said.

Both Masses of Ordination of the Permanent Diaconate will be livestreamed online at www.archgh.org/live on Feb. 19 at 7 p.m. and Feb. 20 at 10 a.m. from the Co-Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Houston.