Eight seminarians from Notre Dame Seminary will be ordained as transitional deacons on May 19 at a 10 a.m. Mass at St. Louis Cathedral. Seven will serve in the Archdiocese of New Orleans. From left are Daniel Okafor, Damian Zablocki, Andrew Gutierrez, Ton Huu Dang, Doug Busch, Andrew Rudmann, Leon Poche and Daniel Darmanin.
PROFILES OF THE TRANSITIONAL DEACON CLASS OF 2018
Instead of road rage, try road blessings
By Peter Finney Jr., Clarion Herald
Doug Busch, 61, has spent a lifetime preparing for this moment.
As seminarians go at Notre Dame Seminary, Busch probably has had more life experiences than the next five or six men combined, but now he is ready to say “yes” to the church’s confirmation of his burning desire to be ordained to the transitional diaconate and, eventually, to the priesthood.
Busch most recently spent five years as a long-haul trucker before asking Archbishop Gregory Aymond in 2013 if he would accept him as a candidate for the priesthood.
Busch did a lot of praying as he rolled 1 million miles throughout the U.S. and Canada, thinking about the direction of his life, and he learned how to turn daily irritations – as when a driver darted in front of him on the highway without warning – into moments of prayer.
“People just don’t understand that trucks don’t stop on a dime,” Busch said. “I learned a lot. God taught me that rather than curse these people, I should bless them.”
Busch used a verse right from the Book of Numbers (6:24-26): “The LORD bless you and keep you! The LORD let his face shine upon you and be gracious to you! The LORD look upon you kindly and give you peace!”
Busch liked the verse so much he said he will use it when he blesses people outside of St. Louis Cathedral following his May 19 ordination to the transitional diaconate.
Busch was married for 24 years before the marriage ended in divorce, and he received an annulment in 2013. He also has had to endure the death of his eldest son Bradley, a military veteran of Afghanistan, who committed suicide after dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Busch believes his life story has prepared him to minister to people in the parish who are dealing with unspeakable tragedies.
“Preaching and teaching are the major ministries that a priest (and deacon) have,” Busch said. “I’m looking forward to giving people some insight into these things, using some stories that I have in my life so that I can relate to them closely.”
Busch, a native of Metairie, said after 24 years in the military and then several years running a school for troubled teens in Chicago, he learned three things as a truck driver: “Humility, humility, humility.”
“I was nobody, and I absolutely thought I was somebody for my entire life,” Busch said. “My life totally revolved around the decisions I made. But God speaks to you in many ways.”
Busch said one way that became evident to him was seeing some of the natural wonders of God’s creation as a truck driver.
“I was driving into Denver in winter time, and it was early in the morning,” he said. “I had a full moon right behind the Rocky Mountains. I literally pulled over and just wept, knowing there was a God.”
Busch will serve his parish internship at St. Pius X in New Orleans. The St. Pius pastor, Father Patrick Williams, is now the vicar general of the archdiocese. Father Williams was a seventh grader at Holy Cross when Busch was a senior.
“No, I don’t remember him,” Busch said, smiling.
Family rosary, daily Mass nurtured him
By Christine Bordelon, Clarion Herald
Being surrounded by Catholic religious in South Vietnam was commonplace to Missionaries of Faith Brother Joseph Ton Huu Dang. He grew up Catholic with relatives who were priests and nuns.
“I looked at them and wanted to become a priest,” he said. “They would come home at Christmas and other times, and they were happy and received respect from others. That nurtured my vocation, and the main reason I have a vocation.”
Further fortifying his faith was his grandfather, Joseph Dang, whom he accompanied to daily Mass at 4 a.m. at Xuan Bihn Parish in Dong Nai City.
“I could not miss daily Mass,” he said. “It made me happy.”
The eldest of six children, Ton developed a love for Mary that led to a parish rosary group in elementary school and praying the rosary daily, something he continues today.
“I let Our Lady guide and lead my life,” he said. “I am happy in her protection.”
His fervent faith opened the door to a Eucharist group where teens became catechists and mentors to children.
“I love to work with youth. I grew up in a very poor village,” he said. “Youth need to be taught something good to prepare for their future. That’s why I love being a teacher. Teachers helped me.”
Dominican Sister Mary Magdalene, his catechetical leader, introduced him to her brother, who currently is Ton’s Missionaries of Faith superior. Ton was immediately attracted to the order’s work with orphans and children.
“The poor need someone to guide them spiritually because they don’t get respect from other people,” he said. “That strengthened my desire for a religious vocation.”
After high school, Ton joined the community’s discernment group in 2003 and was sent to college.
“I was in college but returned to community every weekend to share and pray,” he said. “I love the community life of prayer, working, studying together and helping each other in pastoral ministry.”
He earned a journalism degree and was appointed editor of the community’s “Witness of Faith” quarterly magazine.
Ton spent two years at the Dominican Institute Center in Vietnam, then he was offered a scholarship to study theology and English at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans. He has done parish ministry at Blessed Trinity and Christ the King parishes.
Now 34, he will be ordained a transitional deacon on May 19 for the Missionaries of Faith. This summer, he will minister at a parish run by his order in Bremond, Texas. In the fall, his diaconate internship will be served at Our Lady of La Vang, a predominantly Vietnamese mission in New Orleans, pastored by Father Anthony Hien Tien Nguyen.
“I am looking forward to practicing my preaching skills and doing ministry as a deacon in a parish,” he said. “I can do weddings and baptisms. Right now, I have two families who are waiting for me to baptize their children.”
Trusting in God’s will a key to his vocation
By Christine Bordelon, Clarion Herald
A nudge by his great uncle to become a youth altar server was the beginning of a priestly vocation for Dan Darmanin.
Growing up in Spring Hill, Florida, Darmanin said fellow parishioners suggested he be a priest, but his inclination wasn’t quite there. While studying engineering at the University of Florida in Gainesville, he contracted viral encephalitis and had to leave school, affording time to think while at home recuperating.
As an altar server for Easter Mass at his home parish of St. Frances Cabrini, something happened. He clearly heard the words, “Daniel, discern a priestly vocation.”
“I had served this Mass for years (and nothing significant arose),” he said. “I leave Mass thinking, ‘What was that?’”
Darmanin returned to college and immersed himself in the Catholic Student Union on campus.
“It was four great years of my life, but by my fourth year, my heart wasn’t in it anymore,” Darmanin said.
He dropped everything – a year from earning an engineering degree – and entered St. John Vianney Seminary in Miami to discern the priesthood. In three years, he had a philosophy degree yet still unconvinced seminary was his calling, and he returned to an engineering job he had since high school.
God’s plan was different. Darmanin’s aunt introduced him to an Air Force chaplain, and, before he knew it, he was on an Archdiocese for the Military Services USA retreat in Menlo Park, California, and visiting St. Patrick Seminary.
“I was thinking maybe the military chaplaincy,” he said. But still on medication for encephalitis, the Air Force suggested otherwise. Shortly after, he received an invitation from Archbishop Gregory Aymond to study at Notre Dame Seminary.
“I said, ‘I guess I’m going back to seminary,’” Darmanin said. He quit his job and came to New Orleans. “Ultimately it’s that sense of trusting and being obedient to God’s will and that sense of mystery of our faith that calls you and draws you in.”
He said a priest once told him, “You are called where you are needed.”
“I persevered and when this opportunity arose, I could have easily said no … but when God wants you, you can’t say no,” he said.
Darmanin has experienced clinical pastoral ministry at Baylor Scott and White Medical Center in Texas, where it “opened my eyes to minister to non-Catholics in times of distress.”
He looks forward to his diaconate internship at St. Angela Merici where he’ll administer sacraments of baptism and matrimony, counsel those who have lost loved ones and bury the dead.
“There are a lot of opportunities for me to grow in my ministry,” he said. “It’s that unknown that’s frightening, but I continued to say yes and trust in God’s will.”
‘Three pillars’ of discerning vocation
By Beth Donze, Clarion Herald
Andrew Gutierrez can recall the moment thoughts of becoming a priest began seeping into his mind: as a 13-year-old receiving the sacrament of confession in his home parish of St. Clement of Rome in Metairie.
“I had an intense fear of hell,” recalls Gutierrez, 24. “The priest absolving me of my sins, with the shame I was experiencing, and then just letting me leave (the confessional) – I literally felt the weight of sin lift off my shoulders. It was the first instance in my life where I knew Jesus was real, where I knew Jesus Christ is alive.”
Although raised in a devout Catholic family that regularly prayed together, the teenage Gutierrez decided to become “more intentional” about going to Sunday Mass. His fear of hell became slowly replaced by “an intense love for God.”
As a sophomore at Archbishop Rummel High, Gutierrez said “everything kind of just took off.” He began attending the daily Masses celebrated by Rummel’s then-chaplain Father Patrick Wattigny.
Throughout his spiritual awakening and into his first year as a psychology student at LSU, Gutierrez was dating the same girl.
“Although I was still seeking the Lord, by the end of high school, I was almost certain that he wasn’t calling me to be his priest,” Gutierrez said.
His interest in the priesthood was piqued after reading Cardinal Timothy Dolan’s “Priests for the Third Millennium,” and at Christ the King Parish, his church home at LSU, Gutierrez embraced what he now sees as “the three pillars” of his vocational discernment: daily Mass, weekly Holy Hour and frequent confession.
“When I focused on growing in relationship with Jesus, things began to fall into place and it became clearer that the Lord was calling me to this life,” he said. “My whole journey of faith and to the priesthood has been taking these very small steps with the Lord, and him just taking me along.”
His decision to enter St. Joseph Seminary in 2013 – followed by studies at Notre Dame Seminary – wasn’t without its challenges. After breaking up with his girlfriend, Gutierrez fell prey to the myth that as a priest he would be destined to be alone – and lonely – for the rest of his life.
“Every vocation has its cross,” Gutierrez said. “Even married couples lying next to each other can feel lonely. It’s a warped understanding of the priesthood, that he is alone forever. I stayed faithful to prayer through all of that, through all the temptations that this life was just going to be filled with loneliness. Eventually, (those reservations) left.”
Gutierrez will spend his diaconate internship at St. Catherine of Siena in Metairie.
“I’m just ready to work,” he said. “It’s not so much the tasks that I’m looking forward to. My biggest desire is to be involved with the people, to get to know the people and be a part of their lives.”
Catholic culture of New Orleans is special
By Peter Finney Jr., Clarion Herald
Daniel Chinedu Okafor, 36, is a native of Nigeria, the last of eight children to a staunch Catholic family that emphasized the faith through the family rosary, Bible reflection and daily 6 a.m. Mass.
As part of his Catholic formation, he became an altar server and later a parish catechist, inspired by the example of his older brother, Celestine, who was in the seminary and later was ordained to the priesthood.
After finishing seminary studies at Sts. Peter and Paul Seminary in Nigeria, Okafor continued discerning his vocation while working for a nonprofit that provided health services in eastern Nigeria, and he continued his education and earned a master’s degree in health sciences in Durban, South Africa, where he worked as a leader for a Catholic parish’s youth ministry, choir and altar servers.
He began doctoral studies, which opened up new vistas for travel to other countries, and he became intrigued by the Catholic culture of New Orleans.
“When I got to the United States, I had the chance to discern my vocation in New York, but someone told me that New Orleans had a heavily Catholic population and was very laid back,” Okafor said. “They told me there was no Catholic city for me to consider than New Orleans. It is an incredible city.”
Okafor said resuming his seminary studies at Notre Dame Seminary has been a true blessing.
“It was initially challenging, but over time the seminary has become home for me,” Okafor said. “I was in the seminary before, so for me, the integration was very important. I am looking forward to the diaconate and exercising my diaconal functions.”
Okafor’s musical background – he’s a tenor and can play the piano even though he has not had any formal training – will come in handy as he gets involved with parish youth groups and choirs.
“When I put my fingers on the keyboard, I just play,” he said, laughing. “It comes naturally. Sometimes people ask me, ‘How do you do that?’ and I tell them, ‘I don’t know. Once I hear it, I can play it.’”
Okafor said once he is ordained, he is looking forward to preaching in his role as a transitional deacon.
“For sure, that is No. 1,” he said. “I’ve received strong homiletic principles and theories, but I know it’s not going to be exactly the same when I get into the parish. I am planning to say the truth in a charitable way, challenging ourselves – everyone, including me – to be honest about it.”
Beginning in June, Okafor will serve through May 2019 at Blessed Trinity Parish in New Orleans.
“My internship will be a time for me to really integrate my human, spiritual, intellectual and pastoral formation,” Okafor said.
Widower felt tug to serve God at altar
By Christine Bordelon, Clarion Herald
The idea of being a priest has come full circle for Leon Poche, age 60.
He first entertained the idea as a child in Crowley, Louisiana. But, life happened. He attended LSU, where he met his wife Maureen McKay, earned an accounting degree, moved to New Orleans, earned a master’s degree, became a CPA employed in various careers, had two children and a grandchild.
Throughout, his Catholic faith was ever present, bolstered by his wife, a spiritual director, whom he admired as a pillar of Catholicism.
“Faith was always an important part of our marriage,” Poche said. “Some of our first dates were going to Mass together at LSU.”
Their tandem call to ministry involved marriage preparation for 50-plus couples in the Archdiocese of New Orleans and Bible studies. He also was a Manresa retreatant and involved on the boards of Legatus, an international organization for Catholic business leaders; and The Catholic Foundation, the church’s investment and charitable arm.
Twice, he discerned the diaconate, but because it meant relinquishing their marriage ministry, he decided against it.
In 2012, Poche began reducing hours in his career to devote more time to ministry with Maureen. They spearheaded a $2.5 million campaign to renovate Our Lady of Prompt Succor Shrine at Ursuline Academy, where Maureen had attended school, and they were daily communicants.
Unexpectedly, Maureen contracted ovarian cancer. During her illness, she urged him to become a deacon. For some reason, he couldn’t make that promise. He soon learned why.
At Maureen’s funeral at Our Lady of Prompt Succor in 2015 – one of the first after the renovation – Poche jokingly asked Archbishop Gregory Aymond about the next diaconate class. The archbishop suggested the priesthood instead, saying, in Poche’s words, “I can ordain you a priest faster than I can a deacon,” because priest candidates study full-time, whereas the diaconate is part-time.
After four months discerning – including an extended retreat where he heard God saying, “Yes, I want you to be a priest” and got approval from his children Kevin, now 33 (married to Rachel and their child, Adair), and Celeste, 30 – he entered the seminary.
Helping families is where his heart is. Poche already has completed an internship in the archdiocesan Office of Marriage and Family Life, exploring its programs for Catholic families. He’s attended and been a presenter in a Beginning Experience program for those grieving from loss of a spouse and observed an Engaged Encounter retreat.
“Through so many things in my life – married life, having children, enduring my wife’s suffering and dying – I think I can help mentor people,” he said. “The role of family is so important in society and the church,” he said. “In some ways, society is degrading the family, and I just hope that in some way, in my ministry, I can help strengthen family life even more.”
As a deacon at St. Mary Magdalen from June through October, Poche knows he will be more helpful than his short stint at St. Ann in 2017.
“At St. Ann I was on the outside looking in, but at St. Mary Magdalen, I will be on the inside, able to baptize, marry and bury people,” he said.
‘Being there for everyone’ is lofty goal
By Beth Donze, Clarion Herald
Two years out of college, Andrew Rudmann exhibited all the outward signs that his life was moving toward marriage and family – jobs that were giving him experience in his hoped-for profession; an acceptance letter to attend Duquesne University’s Pharmacy School; and a wonderful girlfriend for whom he had designed an engagement ring.
Rudmann’s sudden discomfort with his life’s direction “started a whole new conversation with God,” he said.
“I realized the reason I was unhappy was because I always desired to love people in a particular way; I wanted to love every single person as if they were my own child,” explained Rudmann, now 29. “I realized, ‘That’s the love of a priest!’ A priest loves every person as their child. We call the priest ‘father.’ You’re the guy that’s always supposed to be there for everyone, whether you’ve known them your whole life or you just met them because their mom’s dying. I realized this was the strongest desire of my heart.”
The eldest of seven children, Rudmann attended Catholic schools in his native Cleveland and earned a bachelor’s degree in business from Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio. He said he can’t remember a time when he didn’t hear a call to the priesthood.
“But that always was coupled with fear and anxiety, and, for whatever reason, aversion,” said Rudmann, who would have panic attacks whenever he heard a homily on the shortage of priests. In prayer, Rudmann would thank God for putting the priestly desire in his heart, but then say, ‘I don’t want it. I want to do something else.’”
“I (ultimately) realized the priesthood wasn’t about ‘giving up all these things’ or sacrificing the life that I thought I really wanted,” Rudmann said. “It was about loving people the way that God created me to love them, the way God was calling me to love them. It was like ‘boom!’ I wanted that more than anything!”
Rudmann called a seminarian-friend in New Orleans to discuss his options: he had just broken up with his girlfriend, didn’t want to attend pharmacy school and was considering the priesthood. Two days later, Rudmann received a phone call from Archbishop Gregory Aymond. Their conversation led to Rudmann’s enrollment in Notre Dame Seminary in 2013.
Rudmann said he is looking forward to putting his seminary lessons into action as a deacon intern at St. Clement of Rome Parish in Metairie.
“I was afraid of preaching; I was afraid of teaching; I was afraid of being public,” Rudmann said. “I carried these fears through seminary, and it’s really cool to see that as time went on, the Lord worked with those fears and turned them into excitement!”
‘Feeding the soul’ is a deacon’s noble task
By Peter Finney Jr., Clarion Herald
Damian Zablocki, 40, grew up in Toledo, Ohio, in a large family that was not religious, but his parents sent him and his siblings to the Catholic school across the street.
It was there that Zablocki found an old children’s book, probably published in the 1940s, on Our Lady of Fatima, which intrigued him for some mysterious reason.
“I had always wanted to become Catholic, and I had always lamented the fact that the churches were divided between east and west,” Zablocki said. “I knew the Roman Church had the Byzantine Rite, which, for all intents and purposes, are the Orthodox (faithful) who are united with Rome.”
When Zablocki was 25, he met his godfather, who was a deacon in the Ukrainian Catholic Church. For some reason, he felt a strong tug toward the Catholic Church and a vocation.
“I always felt I had a vocation my while life, even when I was a young kid, which is strange because my family did not go to church,” Zablocki said. “I don’t really have an explanation for it.”
Zablocki attended an Orthodox seminary for two years, and then, after his conversion to the Catholic Church at age 25, he attended a Ukrainian Catholic Seminary at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., and finished his philosophy studies at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania.
But before his ordination to the diaconate, he left the seminary because “I didn’t feel this was where I should be.” He came to New Orleans five years ago and began working as a waiter at Irene’s restaurant, run by Irene DiPietro.
“Irene as a business owner and as a human being and as a Catholic lives the faith and runs her business according to the faith,” Zablocki said. “There is something special about that place. Irene told me I should consider going back to the seminary.”
Two years ago on St. Joseph’s Day, Zablocki met Archbishop Gregory Aymond, who was blessing DiPietro’s elaborate St. Joseph Altar at the former St. Louis Cathedral School. Archbishop Aymond is a friend of DiPietro’s and also encouraged Zablocki to resume his studies at Notre Dame Seminary.
As for his upcoming ordination to the transitional diaconate, Zablocki is looking forward to preaching for the first time.
“I’m thinking about how I can give back some of the faith to the people here that they’ve given to me, and how I can serve them to give them the best food, but different from the food I served in the restaurant,” Zablocki said.
Zablocki will serve from June through May 2019 at St. Rita Parish in Harahan.