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MADISON—Deacon candidate Mike Gardner stood in the front of a classroom at Pope John XXIII School in Madison, fielding questions about the diaconate posed to him by the school’s eager third-graders.
Most of the queries were straightforward, dealing with the duties of a deacon in his ministry.
But one made him pause. He was asked why he wanted to become a deacon.
“That’s a hard question,” said Gardner, one of 25 men who make up the archdiocese’s first deacon formation class.
“And it’s a question that I probably will be answering for the rest of my life.”
In fact, Gardner has already devoted much prayerful reflection to this fundamental question about the meaning of his life.
In an interview with The Criterion after his classroom presentation, Gardner spoke about how he has come to see that his life up to now has prepared him for ordination as a deacon, which is scheduled to occur in June 2008.
Gardner has spent 32 of his 53 years married to his wife, Cindy. Seven years after their wedding, their life changed forever when they participated in a Marriage Encounter weekend.
“… Going into that weekend [we were] seeing only black and white and gray,” he said. “And coming out of that weekend, [it was] full Technicolor. Life was full.
“There was just joy and an awesome feeling that God has put us here for a reason … ”
Over the next several years, Gardner and his wife helped other couples come to the same joy-filled realization as they helped facilitate Marriage Encounter weekends.
Later, they were active in their parish and its school as their three sons grew and became active in sports.
Through it all, Gardner was dedicated to living out his faith consciously within his family life.
“We really viewed ourselves as a little Church, a domestic Church, the place where it all begins,” he said.
Looking back on it now, Gardner recognizes that this long-held conviction might have a profound impact upon his possible life and ministry as a deacon.
“I think that’s part of the way God has formed me and has something in mind there to bring into the diaconate and minister to people that way,” he said.
When the possibility of restoring the diaconate in the archdiocese was publicly raised and Archbishop Daniel M. Buechlein began the process to start the current deacon formation program, Father John Meyer, pastor of Prince of Peace Parish in Madison since 1992, quickly knew who among his parishioners would be a good potential deacon.
“As it was announced, I remembered that Mike had expressed a desire in the past to be involved, possibly as a deacon if that ever became an option for him in the archdiocese,” he said. “It didn’t take a huge search on my part.”
Having ministered with Gardner in various parish programs for many years and gotten to know him in informal settings, Father Meyer appreciated his spiritual values.
“Besides his commitment to the Church and to his family and to his faith, there’s an obvious care and compassion that he has for other people,” he said about Gardner. “There’s a gentle strength that he has in his involvement in the parish and in the community. He has a deeply spiritual side to him that is a key characteristic that I notice [in him].”
One person who has observed Gardner’s commitment and compassion up close is his wife.
“He has more of a quiet faith,” Cindy Gardner said.
“He’s a hard worker. But he’s not one that would stand up and be in the limelight … .”
Shying away from the adulation of the crowd is a good trait for a deacon, according to Mike Gardner, who said a deacon is called to be “a humble servant.”
Thus far in his participation in the deacon formation program, Gardner has had the chance to put this principle into action in many ways.
He’s done jail ministry at the Jefferson County, Ind., Jail, distributed Communion at King’s Daughters’ Hospital in Madison and participated in a service trip sponsored by Prince of Peace Parish to St. Clare Parish in Waveland, Miss., which was severely damaged by Hurricane Katrina.
But in order to maintain that attitude of humility in his ministry of service, Gardner has found a wellspring of grace in his life of prayer.
“I think that prayerfulness kind of breaks down … selfishness,” he said. “I know, for me, I’d much rather watch TV than go out into the world and do God’s [work].
“So that prayer keeps us in touch that God doesn’t have that in mind for us. [And] in your service, you find out that there’s a lot more out there to pray for than just yourself. It pulls you out of yourself.”
Looking back on the time he shared with the third-graders at Pope John XXIII School, Gardner suggested a deeper answer to the question of his vocation, an answer that he wanted to instill in his young audience.
“We’re within the kingdom of God,” Gardner said. “And that reality has flowed in on me since formation [for the diaconate] began. That’s what we’re about.
“I talked to the kids over there [about this]. It’s not about a nice car and a nice house and a good job. We’re here because we were created to be with God for eternity.”†