CHEYENNE, Wyo. — As the faithful in St. Mary's Cathedral knelt in their pews, Michael Martinson was facedown before the altar.
Martinson lay, and the faithful prayed, all through the singing of the Litany of the Saints. To Catholics, lying prostrate symbolizes the unworthiness for the office of deacon and the candidate's dependence upon God and the community to be successful.
Martinson, 34, was the only deacon ordained on Tuesday at St. Mary's, but only because of a technicality. Martinson is one of 17 permanent deacons to be ordained this year, the largest number in the history of the Diocese of Cheyenne, said Vernon Dobelmann, a deacon himself and the diocese's director of pastoral ministries and superintendent of Catholic schools. The class was about twice as big as past classes, he figured.
The other 16 were ordained in May, before Martinson had turned 34. A deacon must be 35, but the bishop has the authority to dispense a year, which happened in Martinson's case. So Martinson's ceremony was scheduled shortly after his 34th birthday.
"Seventeen deacons, for any diocese in this country, is a very large class," said Bishop Paul Etienne of the Diocese of Cheyenne, which covers the entire state of Wyoming. In fact, Etienne was recently teasing the cardinal archbishop of New York that he had ordained more people for the local church this year than the cardinal had.
"It's a really unique blessing for the local church. God works how and when he will, and thankfully, these guys have responded," Etienne said. "We as a church will benefit from this ministry."
The record-breaking class comes at a time when polls suggest fewer Americans are identifying with a particular church and that only 25 to 30 percent of those who call themselves Catholic participate on a weekly basis, Dobelmann said.
"I think this says the exact opposite," said the Rev. Tim Martinson, Michael Martinson's younger brother who was ordained as a priest two years ago. "There is an excitement and an enthusiasm and a desire to answer the call that God is calling us to do and to spread the gospel message. That's what these deacons have done and are going to do the rest of their lives."
The path to the deaconate is a big commitment. It includes five years of classes and intense academic study. Candidates must attended classes one weekend a month — Friday evening through Sunday — which almost certainly means traveling long distances for Wyoming candidates. Before this class of men started five years ago, the course was taught by the Archdiocese of Denver, meaning Wyoming's hopefuls had to travel there 12 times a year.
This is the first time the classes were taught in Casper, by professors from the St. Meinrad Archabbey in Indiana. Candidates came from across Wyoming, including Cody, Glenrock, Afton, Worland, Jackson, Cheyenne and Casper. Parishioners from Casper's Catholic churches hosted the candidates in their homes.
Deacons are called to fulfill the ministry of charity, Etienne said. Early deacons were ordained to serve the poor and widows. They are at the service of the bishop and the priest or pastor, can preside at weddings and funerals and are able to baptize parishioners. But their primary mission is to minister to the downtrodden.
That's one of the reasons that newly-ordained deacon Michael Burke of Casper answered the calling. He has been a volunteer chaplain at Wyoming Medical Center for 10 years and said he saw the comfort religion can bring to emergency and end-of-life patients.
He'd started the deacon process twice before: The first as a young lawyer just four years into his practice. He's now got 40 years. He tried again with the Denver program, then decided to try one more time with the Wyoming crowd. He was ordained in May with men he'd studied with for the past five years.
"I'm not the kind of person who cries at weddings or funerals, but I do cry at ordinations," he said Tuesday, waiting to see Martinson's ordination, just as Martinson had come to his. "There comes a time in the ceremony where we lie prostrate on the floor before the altar and — I knew when I went down — I took my glasses off and put them on the floor in front of me ... because I knew what was coming. They were not tears of sadness at all, but tears of joy."
Martinson is the father of four girls with another child on the way. He was born and raised in Worland, and expects to be assigned as deacon to St. Mary Magdalene there.
His maternal grandparents had nine children, all strong Catholics, he said. He and his brother were altar servers, and as they got older, they started to feel the call, Martinson said.
He joined the seminary before his brother, but decided it wasn't for him. He left and his brother stayed. Martinson watched his brother be ordained a priest and, on Tuesday, his brother vested Michael with his stole and dalmatic, symbols of Michael's new role in the church.
"I'm just kind of excited to serve. I'm real nervous, but excited to open myself up to serve the church in Worland and Diocese in Cheyenne," Martinson said.
In the ceremony, Bishop Etienne raised his hands and the crowd stood. Martinson knelt and Etienne touched his shoulders.
The "laying on of hands" is a very powerful moment for Etienne, a ritual that can be traced back to when Christ called his first 12 apostles and laid his hands upon them. Deacons are their successors, he said.
It was the 17th time Etienne laid his hands on a new deacon this year.
"It reminds me of my own ordination as deacon, as priest and as bishop. It ensures that there are good ministers of the church, that the gospel will continue to be preached," he said.