The open and inclusive nature of the community here at Minsteracres has been a feature of life here from the time that the existing Passionist community opened its doors to the wider world in the late 1960s.
One expression of this openness is the embracing of ordained deacons: men from among the parish who can preach and officiate at baptisms, weddings and funerals. Unlike priests, however, they cannot hear confession and give absolution, anoint the sick, or celebrate Mass.
The first deacon in this diocese was Andrew O’Connor, father of ten, among them Margaret O’Brien who heads the catering team at Minsteracres. Andrew, who died in June just after his 93rd birthday, strove for years to be accepted into dicaconate training, and finally achieved his goal at the age of 66. “It was challenging for him, even later within his own parish,” says Margaret.
With the support of Fr Luke Magee who persuaded the bishop, and Fr Mark Whelehan who helped him through his studies, Andrew was finally ordained in 1987. He was manager of the former Manpower Services programme within Minsteracres. His ministry was very much one of outreach: many learned their skills here particularly during the refurbishment of the youth centre.
Today, Minsteracres has another deacon, and one in training.
David Collins who grew up locally, began coming to Minsteracres with his wife and daughter in 2000. Then, “about eight years ago I had a sense that I could do more, but I wasn’t sure what it was.” Explains David. “I stumbled across a meeting about the permanent diaconate and went to the cathedral to find out more.”
That was the step he needed. Next followed two days of psychometric tests to assess his suitability, and ultimately, four years of formation and development including academic formation at Ushaw College
“Those four years of formation are really about developing yourself. You can be taught the mechanics, but it’s about you as an individual: every deacon has his own personal ministry.” he says.
Now, three years since his ordination, David reflects, “It’s part of who I am. I’m always a deacon no matter where I am, it’s not just about a Sunday morning or when I’m officiating.”
Fellow parishioner Martin Bell is half way through his training. Martin had thought he might train as a priest, but instead went to university where he met Lindsey. They married and now have three children. Martin still felt the pull of vocation. “The values and challenges I felt calling me to priesthood as a young man never left me.”
A key moment was a conversation with Fr Jeroen which led to Martin applying to the formation team. “There’s the academic work, but formation is more than just the essays. There’s terrific camaraderie with the others – those in formation and their wives: a real sense of community.
“For me it’s very much a journey. I have a sense of growing and changing as a person. The development continues throughout your life.
“It’s life changing,” he says simply.