Greg Simpson has always had a thing for serving people.
When Simpson was in the Navy out to sea on six-month deployments, he would preside as a lay reader over Word and Communion services for his fellow Catholics because there wasn’t a priest onboard.
He has volunteered the past eight years for AIDSpirit in Billings, cooking meals and taking them to clients in the program. Simpson and his wife, Kathleen, also are part of the outreach program for St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church in Billings, visiting residents at Mission Ridge once a month to serve Communion and also doing home visits.
So when he was approached in 2009 about the possibility of studying to become a permanent deacon in the Diocese of Great Falls-Billings, it seemed a natural extension of what he’s been doing all along.
That year, he and Kathleen attended an inquiry weekend at the University of Great Falls to hear what four years of extensive theological study and spiritual formation would entail. He was one of 54 men to attend, most with their wives.
“Listening to what the commitments were, I thought ‘yeah, this is something I think I could really do,’ ” he said, sitting with his wife in the sanctuary at St. Thomas.
Now, with his studies completed, he will set out on that calling.
On Saturday, Greg and eight other men from around the diocese will be ordained to the order of permanent deacon in the Catholic Church. Bishop Michael Warfel will preside over the 11 a.m. ceremony at St. Patrick Co-Cathedral in Billings.
The diocese has not had an actual formation program for deacons in more than 30 years, said Deacon Mark Zenner of Great Falls, program director of the permanent deacon course. When Warfel came to the diocese in 2008, he initiated discussions about resurrecting it, Zenner said.
He is quick to say that being a deacon is not a job, but a ministry, a calling. Their work is not paid.
In the diocese, Zenner said, the bishop shares sacraments, takes care of the needs of the people and has some administrative work. Priests assist in sacramental work, and deacons aid the bishop in other ways.
“They are ministers assigned and sent by the bishop,” Zenner said. “The bishop sends them to be his voice and hands and his ears for issues of charity and justice.”
And while they work in areas such as justice for the poor and homeless and help for those who don’t have food or who are in prison, they don’t do all the work themselves.
“Here’s where the gift of the deacon is, not to do all that work but to call others to the ministry that Christ requires of us,” he said. “They’re the permanent icon of Christ as servant leader.”
Deacons also assist the priest with Mass. They administer some sacraments, including baptism, and can witness marriages and conduct funerals outside the context of the Mass.
The minimum age to enter the program is 35 and the maximum is 55.
“Some exceptions are always made at the top end, but not on the bottom,” Zenner said. “It places a lot of stress on younger families.”
Most of the men in this first cohort of deacons are at the top end of the age bracket, Zenner said. As the program moves forward, the diocese will seek to target younger men who would have many more years available to service.
Deacons can be married. Indeed, the wife must agree for her husband to enter the program and then take part in the four-year training program done on weekends.
If a single man is ordained a deacon, he agrees to take a vow of celibacy and cannot marry.
“The reason is we are saying we are the church’s,” Zenner said. “We belong to the church.”
In the case of this first cohort of deacons, only one of the nine is single. Greg and Kathleen, both 59 and Billings natives, are celebrating 40 years of marriage this August and are the parents of two grown sons.
In 1994, Greg left his 21-year career in the Navy, retiring as a chief warrant officer, and moved to Billings. Having felt a tug on his heart over the years to serve in ministry, he inquired about a program for deacons but learned that one wasn’t available.
“I thought, ‘OK this is not where God wants me to be, so I’ll do whatever I can,’ ” Greg said.
He stayed involved with Knights of Columbus and looked for other opportunities. Along with his other ministry responsibilities, he has been involved in the cursillo movement, doing discovery weekends with jailed inmates.
He worked as a delivery driver for Gainan’s, then used his GI benefits to earn a degree in applied management at Rocky Mountain College.
Greg worked at the Heights Pet Center for six years, then went to part-time work as a bailiff for Yellowstone County District Court. He still works there.
Even as a bailiff, Greg looks for opportunities to minister. He doesn’t have direct contact with plaintiffs, but he’ll say silent prayers that God might work in their lives.
Greg was approached about the possibility of entering the deacon program during Lent in 2009.
“I spent the rest of the Lenten season in prayer and discernment and put my application in,” he said.
Kathleen has supported him all the way.
“I thought it would be a good fit for him,” she said. “I’ve been a cheerleader for him all along and will continue to be our whole life.”
In the program, the pair learned about everything from church history to Christology to pastoral care. He’s focused a lot of the past year on homiletics.
“We practiced giving homilies because one of the responsibilities of a deacon is to give a homily, even though the priest normally does,” he said.
He has spent the past six months as an acolyte, essentially doing on-the-job training. Now he will look forward to working with the Rev. Steve Zabrocki, priest at St. Thomas.
Kathleen will assist him in some parts of his work, doing outreach to seniors and visiting ailing patients at the hospital. She also has her work as executive director of the Eucharistic Adoration Chapel in Billings.
Greg admits to being a little nervous as he approaches the ordination ceremony.
“I feel like a bridegroom getting married,” he said.
But he’s looking forward to receiving a touch of the Holy Spirit at the ceremony, which falls the day before Pentecost Sunday. It will give him the guidance he needs to do his work.
“God will take me where I need to go,” he said.