Deacon Mick O’Donnell is a novelist, but his life makes a compelling and inspiring story of its own. Ordained in 1991, he has had 31 years as a permanent deacon and “is still in love with the ministry.”
Back in the 80’s, there were few such deacons in Australia and Mick was working in criminal intelligence in the Australian Federal Police after 20 years as a radio officer in the Royal Australian Navy. There was a Synod in his Archdiocese of Canberra-Goulburn, with Archbishop Francis Carroll, and one outcome was the serious consideration of the permanent diaconate. Mick was chosen to explore this vocation, and sent to the Marist seminary in Hunters Hill. For two years, he was separated from his wife, Cora, and children in Canberra, but finally they were reunited as he began his new ministry as the second ordained permanent deacon in the archdiocese.
There were “great dreams” at the time for the diaconate. Mick first took on the administration of a parish, including financial and pastoral responsibility. Here, Cora was instrumental in hospitality and pastoral care; Mick said, “I couldn’t have done anything without my wife…We minister together as a family.” Later, he was the archdiocesan director of missions, travelling to places such as India, Sri Lanka, the Holy Land and Aboriginal communities to connect them with Australian schools and promote the mission of the Church. After that he had a liturgical and administrative role at St Christopher’s Cathedral.
It was Mick’s next role, however, that most stands out in his mind today. One day, he was organising the Police Remembrance Day on St Michael’s Feast in the Cathedral. The Police Commissioner asked if he would consider coming back into the Australian Federal Police as a chaplain and, “seriously, the Holy Spirit spoke!” So Mick was with the AFP for 5 years, doing many stints overseas as part of the International Deployment Group.
Although it is not yet a reality, Mick “could write a book on that most wonderful ministry…I loved every minute.” It was a full-time paid role, in uniform and being responsible for other chaplains. He was present at anti-terrorist activities, and helped to bring bodies back from Indonesia, the Solomon Islands and East Timor.
Mick became “the friend of the blokes” and worked in his Christian capacity alongside Muslim, Jewish and Buddhist chaplains as well. He was expected to provide liturgical services, which sometimes could be held in a church, and other times required creative alternatives. Mick distinctly remembers organising these in a thatched hut at the Guadalcanal Beach Resort in Honiara, Solomon Islands. It faced the sea area where the big battle of Guadalcanal had been fought. There were members of 11 Pacific nations as part of the deployment and many were strong Pentecostals with beautiful singing voices. It was “very, very, very special” to celebrate with them for several hours on a Sunday or Saturday evening. After a shared Liturgy of the Word, he would take communion to the Catholics in a pix, or bring them to the Mass in the capital.
After such wonderful experiences, I ask if Mick has seen the permanent diaconate evolve much over the last 30 years. He “suspects” that the Church does not yet understand the diaconate and its great ministry possibilities. As deacons have often come from highly professional and practical backgrounds such as the military, the Church could make more of their gifts for administration. Increasing chaplaincy roles in areas such as hospitals, aged care and the SES also “fit the diaconate very well”. Mick has worked alongside female deacons from other denominations and has seen the benefits of having women in such ministry, which may be a gift for the future. At the same time, he believes that wives of deacons can work together with them as a great team in community situations.
Now “in the twilight of my life”, Mick has retired, yet continues as a chaplain to the RSL and Vietnam Veterans Association. He counsels, presides at funerals, attends ceremonies and reunions, and ministers in a hospice. It is very satisfying work, and he finds that many of his aging diggers are looking for God. After completing a creative writing course, he has also become a novelist, “recapturing many of the experiences and emotions of my time in the AFP.” Thank you for sharing, Mick, and may your story encourage many others.