In rare move, American ordained permanent deacon in Muslim Abu Dhabi

A deacon from Richmond wrote me this morning:

Our classmate Don Fox was ordained a Permanent Deacon in Abu Dhabi yesterday. He was a part of the (huge) Diocese of Richmond 2012 formation program (began in 2007) and took the academic portion of formation via internet link to our classroom.

Earlier this year, in the Catholic Virginian, then-candidate Fox wrote about his experiences as a Catholic (and deacon candidate) in the Arab world:

When I tell people that I live in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, most are amazed to hear that I choose to live in such a “remote” part of the world.

Still more are amazed that I can practice my Catholic faith in an Islamic country. And it completely confounds them to hear that I am in the diaconate formation program from the Diocese of Richmond and expect to be ordained this fall.

After having lived in the UAE for two years I am also amazed. Amazement not so much for the freedom of religion that exists in the Middle East as much as it is amazement at God’s invisible hand moving and guiding events in order for all this to transpire.

For what has occurred was incomprehensible to me a few years ago and truly has been divinely guided.

Just a few short months ago we were in the midst of preparing for Christmas with lots of activities planned, both inside and outside the church.

In the midst of all the hustle and bustle we have come to expect with Christmas, I was stopped dead in my tracks one day when searching for that special gift for that special someone.

With the commercialism and secularism that permeates the holy season of Advent, it is no surprise to receive a “Merry Christmas” from retail store clerks in the United States and other so-called Christian countries. Not hearing “Merry Christmas” in these countries is unfortunate but not unexpected.

I have no problem receiving a “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Feast Day” from various people living and working in Abu Dhabi. The greetings themselves are in stark contrast to the competing sounds of secularism.

We celebrate the various Catholic holy days here where Christianity not only survives but thrives. Various nationalities that attend Mass are ministered to in languages such as Tagalog, Malayalam, Arabic, Urdu, Tamil, German, French, Spanish, Konkani, Polish, Italian, etc., and yes, even English!

The only thing probably more amazing in all of this is that somehow God has placed me in an “Oasis of Christianity” in the midst of the “Desert of Islam” as I continue my journey towards ordination to the diaconate and its tri-fold mission of service to liturgy, word and charity.

I use this analogy of oasis and desert not to criticize Islam, but to highlight that Christianity, like an oasis in the desert, can and does exist where one least expects.

Over four years have elapsed since I began the formal process of the diaconate program. Up to that point, my life consisted of work, family, and involvement with various ministries in the church. All of them required time and I devoted little time outside of that for serious reflection on becoming a deacon.

As divine providence would have it, my family and many fine men and women I encountered encouraged me to apply for the diaconate. Those people and others I have subsequently met continue to encourage and pray for me as I continue a journey that I never really thought possible.

This is even more so when I consider that not long after beginning the program, my wife, Therese, and I left Virginia and headed to Abu Dhabi after receiving a job offer.

The job offer came at a time when we thought we had finally settled down in Williamsburg after living around the world in various assignments with the Army for almost 29 years. It also came at a time in which many changes were occurring in the family which required much discussion, prayer, discernment, and ultimately faith that led us to the decision to head out to the Middle East.

It was only through the approval and cooperation of the Diocese of Richmond and the Vicariate of Arabia that I was allowed to continue in the program. Both have fully supported my desire to remain in formation with the goal of ordination while living and working abroad, despite the logistical difficulties involved.

With modern technology and my willingness to forgo sleep, I can “be” with the other candidates “live” despite a nine hour time difference.

To be honest I think it has gone better than any of us had expected or hoped for. I am able to participate in the various formation groups, workshops, and classroom activities through St. Leo University’s ITeach on Demand website, Skype, Oovoo, and phone/texting. While not the same as being in person, this program is sufficient for my continued formation…

…I attend St. Joseph’s Cathedral which has between 50,000 and 100,000 parishioners. There is no exact figure since people are transitioning in and out of the country on a constant basis.

Worshippers primarily are Filipinos and Indians but there are others from Pakistan, France, Spain, Germany, Egypt, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, South Africa and many other countries. Many are separated from their families because their spouse is working in another country while their children are being raised by relatives or friends in yet another country…

..The majority of worshippers also receive only one day off a week from work. This is typically Friday since that is the holy day of the week for Islam. The church and the church grounds are alive with people all day, from long before dawn to after sundown.

Parishes here are dealing with problems that most parishes in the United States would love to have — not enough worship space to accommodate the people, with people filling the aisles and overflowing through the doors; not enough space for catechetical instruction with thousands of youth attending classes and youth activities or the many ministries that meet regularly.

The most striking difference I see is that many will sacrifice their one day off and spend it volunteering at the church. And this is in the midst of 130 degree summer temperatures!

There’s much more.  Read it all here and here. 

Meantime, congratulations, Deacon—and welcome!  Ad multos annos!  

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