Deacons Hernandez and Griffith a step closer to priesthood; for a year, father and son will be brothers
By Dan McWilliams
Paired together in their seminary studies over the years, Zachary Griffith and Alex Hernandez entered holy orders at the same time June 15 as Bishop Richard F. Stika ordained them to the transitional diaconate.
The Mass at the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus marked the second ordination in two weeks for the Diocese of Knoxville after the bishop ordained Father Mark Schuster to the priesthood the previous Saturday.
“For two weeks in a row the Church of Knoxville, the Catholic Church of East Tennessee, has gathered together to celebrate a very special vocation: a call to ministry, but especially a call to service,” Bishop Stika said in his opening remarks.
Two family members were an important part of the deacon ordination Mass as Bishop Stika remembered Ana Hernandez, Deacon Alex’s late mother, and as the bishop recognized Deacon Don Griffith, a permanent deacon who is the father of Deacon Zachary Griffith.
More than 24 priests and 12 deacons took part in the diocese’s first multiple ordination since four priests were ordained June 27, 2015. Bishop Stika was joined in concelebrating by Cardinal Justin Rigali, deans Father Ron Franco, CSP, and Father Brent Shelton, and cathedral rector Father David Boettner. Monsignor Edmund Griesedieck represented Kenrick-Glennon Seminary in St. Louis, where the two deacons are studying for the priesthood.
The ordination Mass included a first reading proclaimed by Deacon Hernandez’s father, Juan. It continued when chancellor Deacon Sean Smith called both deacon candidates forward, and each said “present” to his call. Father Joe Reed, diocesan director of vocations, then recommended the two young men to the bishop for ordination.
“Relying on the help of our Lord God and Savior, Jesus Christ, we choose these, our brothers, Alex and Zach, for the order of the diaconate,” the bishop said.
In his homily, Bishop Stika said the ordination marked a moment in time but was more than that.
“What we do here at this Cathedral church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus is a moment, but it extends way beyond that. For this moment we will look to eternity for these my two brothers,” he said.
“For them something will change ontologically, in the very essence of who they are in their soul, as they begin this ministry, as they participate in the ministry of the bishop and bishops who will follow me, as they serve the people of God. “In effect, all priests and deacons in a diocese participate in the ministry of the bishop.”
The choice of deacons, good men of character to assist priests, is an age-old duty in the history of the Catholic Church, the bishop said.
“Just like in the early days of the Church, the apostles were not able to do everything, so they begin to choose people of holiness and virtue,” he said. The two deacon candidates are enrolled at Bishop Stika’s alma mater.
“They have studied at Kenrick—a place where I went to school—all kinds of things: theology, canon law, homiletics, and counseling,” the bishop said. “They have been reviewed and prodded and checked for these years in the seminary. They, too, have come to a point where they have to ask whether or not they will say yes when their name is called, the ‘present’ that we just witnessed.”
The job of a deacon “is a noble task because it is of service,” Bishop Stika said. “To assist a priest in sacramental moments of the days of the Church, to assist the bishop in my ministry or those who follow, but especially to be of service to the people of God: you. Many have traveled to be with them today. You represent the Catholic Church of East Tennessee. Many of you claim to be friends. Maybe you knew them when they were in their diapers. You’ve watched them grow up and mature, hopefully, and here they are today. I’m particularly mindful of the families of Alex and Zach, families who have brought them together, because the first seminary is the family.
“My Mass intention today is for the mother of Alex, who was called home to God a few years ago after a courageous battle with pancreatic cancer.”
The bishop laid out the duties for a deacon.
“You are to care for the people of God: in your preaching—keep it under 15 minutes—in your counseling, in your baptizing, in assisting with families who mourn the loss of a loved one, to marry them, to assist the community, the distribution of the most holy body and blood of our Lord, Jesus Christ. Even in the simplest moments of raising the chalice at Mass, you are connected to the Eucharist and inviting people to make that sign of faith.”
That is not all a deacon has to do, the bishop said.
“Today also you will pledge to pray for the Church, by celebrating the Liturgy of the Hours, the official prayer of the Church.”
Bishop Stika said the new deacons “will pledge celibacy, so often misunderstood in this day and age when everyone believes that they should be free to do what they wish. . . . I often laugh that a lot of times in our day and age people believe that to be free means to be countercultural, and yet what is more countercultural than to pledge your life to the Church?”
One aspect of the ordination appeals to Bishop Stika.
“My favorite part of the ordination ceremony is when I ask them this question: Do you promise respect and obedience to me and to my successors? I love that part.”
The bishop spoke of what would follow the homily, including the Litany of the Saints, when both candidates prostrate themselves before the altar; the laying on of hands and the prayer of ordination; the vesting of each new deacon; and the new deacons assisting at Mass.
“The Litany of the Saints will be sung. And during that time as they lay down before the altar of God, they give themselves to the Church,” Bishop Stika said. “It’s a symbolic act of death and resurrection, of abandonment to God and to the people they are called to serve. We join with them in prayer by invoking the saints, many of whom are contained in the dome of this cathedral: all the saints, come to their aid.”
The bishop then had a message directly for the deacon candidates.
“Zach and Alex, take these days, these moments, these seconds seriously, because you are giving your life to the people of God. . . . You can give such a tremendous gift in the wholeness of who you are, of mind and body and spirit.”
Bishop Stika called on deacons Griffith and Hernandez to remember his episcopal motto: Iesu confide in te (Jesus, I trust in you).
“If there’s one thing that I could give you today besides ordination,” he said, “it’s an admonition that you say daily in your heart, in your sacramental ministry, in your participating in pig roasts and barbecues and adult education, or in just walking with a friend through their journey of life—make that your prayer: Jesus, I trust in you.”
Deacon Griffith said afterward that his new title sounded “weird.”
“What’s weirder I guess is not having to call other people Deacon. They’re just brothers now,” he said.
Deacon Griffith said he and Deacon Hernandez have been together “near about” every step of the way in their formation
“Alex and me have been in the same seminary for the last eight years together,” he said, adding that he was “definitely glad” that Deacon Hernandez was ordained with him.
Deacon Griffith and his dad started their diaconate journeys together.
“We joined the programs at the same time,” the younger Griffith said. “I joined the seminary when he joined the diaconate program. He beat me to the diaconate by a couple of years.”
The new Deacon Griffith chose his dad as his vestor at the ordination “’cause my mom would skin me if I didn’t.”
Deacon Hernandez said his new title “sounds pretty good to me.”
His journey to the diaconate has been a “long one,” he said.
“I’ve been going to seminary and kind of with the year I had to take off with taking care of my mom, it’s been eight years in total. But it’s been good. It’s been a long time coming, but I’ve learned a lot, and I’ve had a lot of good people help me along the way,” he said.
Deacon Hernandez talked of being “together the entire time” with Deacon Griffith.
“We entered together, and we’re going to leave together, hopefully,” he said.
He said he was glad to be ordained at the same time with Deacon Griffith.
“Zach and I have gotten to know each other very well. We’re very good friends,” Deacon Hernandez said.
He recalled his late mother, who he said at that moment was very happy to see his ordination.
“She better be. I suspect she is,” he said. “She was very happy when I made the decision to go to seminary. Coming to this day, I know that her hopes and her dreams for me coming with the Lord, it’s all coming together.”
Deacon Hernandez’s vestor was Father Shelton.
“For a while he was at my home parish, at Our Lady of Fatima [in Alcoa],” he said. “He’s just a very good friend of the family. I’ve known him for a very long time. He and my parents have always been very good and very close.”
Juan Hernandez was Deacon Hernandez’s only blood relative at the ordination, but his family section in the pews was filled nevertheless with important people.
“In terms of the people who supported me and gave me prayers along the way—everybody in my family section, they were all really instrumental in that,” he said.
Deacon Don Griffith serves at St. Mary in Johnson City, his home parish and also his son’s.
The ordination of his son was certainly special for him, Deacon Griffith said.
“There’s a certain sense of pride, but mostly thankfulness for him to respond to God’s initiative,” he said. “It’s very humbling for me to celebrate this day in which I call my son brother, and may God be willing next year to call my son Father. I’m just very thankful to God for the blessings He’s poured out across the diocese. I’m very, very thankful.”
He commented on starting his deacon path at the same time as his son.
“He left right out of high school to go to seminary, and that’s the same year that I entered into my diaconate formation. Ours is not quite as long as his,” he said. “I kind of beat him to the punch [to ordination], but we’re all just trying to respond to God’s gift of His grace and give it back how best we can.”