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Called to serve

The wait is over for three men to be ordained permanent deacons
 
by Maryalene Laponsie | Photography by Holly Dolci
 
Fifteen years ago, a group of men set out on a journey to be ordained as permanent deacons. It was a process that should have taken five years to complete. However, the untimely death of Bishop Kevin Britt in 2004 changed all that. As they neared ordination, the men were notified the permanent diaconate program was being suspended indefinitely.
 
Although disappointed, these men used the turn of events as an opportunity to shift their focus to other work and their families. They remained steadfast in their belief that once the Lord calls someone to the diaconate, the vocation remains, despite any obstacles that may arise. “It’s my belief that God never changes his call,” says Dean Vernon, one of the men preparing for the permanent diaconate.
 
That faithfulness was rewarded when Bishop David Walkowiak reinstated the program in 2015. Dean, along with two others from the group that began their formation so long ago, answered the call to
resume their studies and finish the process.
 
Once ordained to the permanent diaconate, these men will be sent out to proclaim God’s word. They will teach in the name of the Church, assist with the sacraments and commit to serve those in need. Re-established under Pope Paul IV, the permanent diaconate includes a social justice emphasis and calls on men to be a tangible sign of Christ’s mercy in the world.
 
Here’s a closer look at the three newest permanent deacons in the Diocese of Grand Rapids:

ABOUT DENNIS

HOMETOWN: Grand Rapids
AGE: 48
PARISH: Cathedral of Saint Andrew, Grand Rapids
OCCUPATION: Teacher/campus minister at Grand Rapids Catholic Central High School, director of sacred
music for the Diocese of Grand Rapids
FAMILY: Wife: Annette; Children: Clare (10) and Cecilia (6)
INTERESTS: Music, gardening, reading 

Dennis Rybicki

For Dennis Rybicki, ministry seems to be in his blood. “I think I’ve always had a call to work in the Church,” he says.
 
He’s spent the majority of his life in Catholic education. Among the many hats he wears, Dennis is the campus minister at Grand Rapids Catholic Central High School. Prior to discerning his call to the permanent diaconate, Dennis completed a spiritual director program through the Dominican Center in Grand Rapids and was already focused on how he could better meet the needs of God’s people.
 
“My call was very specific,” Dennis explains. He sees his vocation to the diaconate as a way to live out the corporal works of mercy. However, feeding the hungry and clothing the poor are only part of that mission. “They also need to be filled with beauty and compassion.”
 
To accomplish that, Dennis hopes to incorporate one of his passions into his work: music. The longtime choir director at Catholic Central hopes he will be able to use his talents to help people experience the mystery of God on a different level. “I want to bring beauty and art to people,” he says.
 
When the door to the permanent diaconate closed, it was Dennis’ love of music that opened a door to a new ministry. He remembers being notified by then Bishop Walter Hurley during Holy Week that the formation program was being suspended. During that conversation, the bishop suggested Dennis could serve the diocese in other ways and the position of director of sacred music was created to make use of the choir director’s talents. “It was an opportunity to go in another direction for a while,” Dennis says.
 
However, when Father Mark Przybysz, director of ministry & life of permanent deacons, called to say the permanent diaconate program was being reinstated, Dennis says he was excited. While his work with the diocese allows him to serve the Church, being ordained opens new doors for his ministry.
 
Dennis sees the role of a deacon as threefold. Serving the community liturgically and assisting a priest is often the role most people associate with the position. However, there is also a strong social justice component, and having a heart for others, especially the poor, is integral to a deacon’s work. Finally, deacons are called to both preach and teach. “I’m really drawn to the power of that,” Dennis notes.
 
While it has been a long wait, Dennis says the years since the program was suspended have allowed him to further see the good in his vocation to the diaconate. As someone who works daily in the Heartside district of Grand Rapids, he says the neighborhood encapsulates everything about the importance of a deacon’s mission.
 
“I fell more in love with being a servant of others,” he says of his time working in the diocese and with Catholic Central High School students. “It’s a great way to live your life,” he adds. It’s a life and a service he hopes to continue expanding through his work as a permanent deacon.
 

ABOUT LANCE

HOMETOWN: Ypsilanti
AGE: 54
PARISH: St. Patrick-St. Anthony Parish in Grand Haven
OCCUPATION: Sales manager
FAMILY: Wife: Lynn; Children: Marcel (21), Leslie (20) and Owen (17)
INTERESTS: Hunting, fishing, golfing

Lance Walters

Serving the Church has been a thread woven throughout the life of Lance Walters. As a child, he was an altar server and member of the youth group, among other parish activities. Upon reaching adulthood, he did some serious soul-searching about what God was calling him to do with his life.
 
“I felt I had gifts to offer as a husband and a father, but I also felt I had gifts to offer to the Church,” he says. “I struggled for a long time, especially in college, knowing whether I was called to the priesthood.”
 
In the end, marriage and fatherhood won out, but Lance never stopped feeling called to share his talents with his parish community. He serves in various ministries, such as being a lector at Mass and helping young couples prepare for marriage. When the opportunity to join the formation process for the permanent diaconate presented itself, Lance embraced it.
 
“I see the diaconate as an opportunity to serve people and help them strengthen their faith,” he says.
It’s something Lance says he’s been doing for years through ministries in his home parish, but he relishes
the chance to expand that work, particularly in the area of promoting social justice.
 
When the formation process was suspended, Lance remembers feeling disappointed. He wishes there had
been more communication about the plans, but he didn’t let that stop him from continuing his work in
parish ministries. “I just continued to do what I did,” he says. The break from the program also allowed
him to refocus on his family and then young children. “In retrospect, the hiatus was very good for me personally,” he says.
 
Now that his formation has resumed and is nearly complete, Lance looks back and reflects on how the process has helped deepen his faith. Plus, it provided an opportunity to further connect with his wife as she was invited to participate in some formation activities as well.
 
Lance says he looks forward to being able to administer the sacraments. He has long been an instructor
in baptismal preparation classes and hopes to be able to complete that process in the future by
performing the baptisms himself.
 
Most of all, Lance wants to be a listening ear for those who need it. He remembers a visit to Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services and being struck by the fact that 20 percent of all people are struggling with a mental health challenge. “How does that affect ministry?” he wonders.
 
“That was a revelation to me.” Lance describes himself as a person of strong faith and an even-keel personality. He hopes those traits will help him minister to those in need of both guidance and understanding.
 
Going forward, Lance says he is happy to serve wherever and however directed by the bishop. His ordination will send him forth with an anointing from the Holy Spirit, but he also hopes the people of the diocese will continue to pray for him and his brother deacons as they strive to know and serve God.
 

ABOUT DEAN

HOMETOWN: Milwaukee, Wis.
AGE: 53
PARISH: St. Thomas the Apostle Parish in Grand Rapids
OCCUPATION: School psychologist
FAMILY: Wife: Lori; Children: Amanda (29), Deanna (26), Adam (24), Kenny (22), Simon (19), Veronica (16) and Leah (13)
INTERESTS: Football and coaching basketball

Dean Vernon

Dean Vernon never doubted God was calling him to the permanent diaconate. He grew up watching his father serve as a deacon and first heard the call himself in 1999 through a series of events that has God’s fingerprints all over it.
 
It started with a pamphlet that arrived in the mail describing who might have a call to the diaconate. “I read it and thought, ‘That’s me and that’s me and that’s me,’” he says of the signs outlined in the pamphlet. He still doesn’t know who sent it to him, since he later learned the diocese never mailed them.
 
Despite feeling as though the pamphlet was speaking directly to him, Dean set it aside. He had applied to a doctoral program and had other plans. However, it seemed God wasn’t done tapping on his shoulder yet. Dean asked the Lord for a sign and got it during a visit to the Bishop Baraga bookstore. He said that if he was mistaken for a minister, he would look into signing up for the formation process. The clerk indeed mistook him for a minister, convincing him it was time to answer the call and pursue the permanent diaconate.
 
For Dean, the process has been eye-opening. “I didn’t really get the diaconate when I was younger and saw my dad,” he says. “I get it now.” When his progress toward ordination was delayed, some around Dean expressed frustration, but he laid it in God’s hands. Even if he never reached ordination, he said the process offered fruits he will carry with him the rest of his life. “All the things we’ve learned in formation are ours forever,” he says.
 
Although he maintains he would rather listen than talk, Dean is a dynamic speaker. It’s a gift he inherited from his parents, who were public speakers, and then nurtured through a communications degree. For years, he worked as a professional singer and is at ease in front of a crowd.
 
Dean looks forward to fulfilling the call of the deacon to be the eyes and ears of the Church. “That’s one of the reasons the deacon says the last words at Mass – go forth,” he explains. “The deacon says follow me. This is how we do it.”
 
It’s been a long path, and Dean says he can hardly believe he’s come to the end of the formation journey. “I’m not the same person I was when I started this process,” he reflects. He adds that, in a way, he’s grateful God took his time to get him to this place, saying, “The longer anything takes in life, the sweeter it is.”