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Secret Service chaplain called to the diaconate

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From an early age, Mark Arbeen felt called to ministry. During his confirmation, the presiding bishop looked at him and said, “Let me know when your ordination is.” But it would take him many years to realize he was not called to be an Episcopal priest, but a Catholic permanent deacon. A revelation from his birth mother further affirmed his vocation. “That's the way my life has been guided by God,” Arbeen said.

Our Lady’s watchful eye

Arbeen was born in 1968 in Chicago, the last of three adopted children. He grew up in the suburbs, and his family attended an Episcopal church — the church featured in the movie “Home Alone.” After graduating high school, he served in the U.S. Navy for eight years. On one memorable trip to Italy, the Catholic chaplain on his ship asked if Arbeen wanted to meet his old seminary professor. 

“He didn’t tell me his professor was Pope John Paul II,” he said. “So we had a private audience with him and gave him a ship’s hat.”

After leaving the Navy, Arbeen earned a degree in economics from the University of Illinois, and then moved to Alexandria to attend the Virginia Theological Seminary. But after a year and a half of study, he left the seminary. “I sensed I was not called to be there. There were a lot of changes going on in the Episcopal Church that I personally struggled with,” he said. “I (then) served at a parish on their vestry, but still served on the altar all the time.”

In 2002, “I met a woman whom I fell madly in love with, and she was Roman Catholic,” he said. While dating, they attended her church, St. Raymond of Peñafort Church in Springfield, on Saturday night, and Episcopal services on Sunday morning. When they got engaged, the couple received permission to be married in his Episcopal church, with then pastor of St. Raymond, Father James R. Gould, present. 

While engaged, Arbeen went on a trip to Mexico City and attended Mass at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Though he grew up with great respect for the Blessed Mother, he was a little skeptical of the apparition. But he spent the entire Mass in a kind of trance, friends later told him. While staring at the miraculous tilma, he decided that if his wife became pregnant, he would convert to Catholicism.

But he didn’t mention the promise to his wife until after they learned she was pregnant. Then, the first call he made announcing the pregnancy was to Father Gould. “She’s pregnant,” he said, “How do I become Catholic?” 

After going through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, he was received into the Catholic Church during the Easter Vigil in 2004. But still having the “High Church Anglican” mindset, he felt that only a bishop could confirm him. So Father Gould told him he would be confirmed at Holy Spirit Church in Annandale, then Arbeen’s home parish. But he didn’t realize it would be with all the teenaged catechumens. “(Bishop Emeritus Paul S. Loverde) to this day still laughs about it,” he said. 

Roles of service

Around the time of his conversion, the Episcopal Church and other Protestant denominations began to fracture over the issue of same-sex marriage. In 2009, Pope Benedict XVI offered Anglicans a way to enter the Catholic Church while keeping much of their liturgy and customs. In 2011, the pope created the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter for former members of the Anglican tradition in the United States and Canada. Arbeen immediately contacted the ordinariate’s leader to see how he could serve. 

“I missed some of the patrimony,” he said — the prayers, the hymns, and the personal fellowship with the priest and the people through potluck dinners and donut Sundays. “If I had any fault with the Catholic Church it was that the parishes are too large. In the Anglican world, you build more, you don’t build bigger,” he said. 

At first, the ordinariate community worshipped at Our Lady of Hope Church in Potomac Falls, but now the nearest personal ordinate parish worships at Immaculate Conception Church in Washington, under the name St. Luke Church. 

Father Randy Sly, then his ordinariate priest, and Msgr. Jeffrey N. Steenson, then the leader of the ordinariate, encouraged Arbeen to consider the permanent diaconate. “We came up with the concept that if Bishop Loverde would allow it, I would be trained by Arlington,” he said. 

In 2015, Arbeen began his education formation with the other diaconate candidates. He’s grown close to his class and the deacons at Holy Spirit, who make a monthly effort to spend time together in prayer. “I was kept very much in the family,” he said. “They are my brothers.”

As he worked toward a role of service in the church, he also had the opportunity to serve his employer: the U.S. Secret Service. Though most local and federal law enforcement agencies have chaplaincy programs, the Secret Service did not. Two years ago, he and other colleagues began to lay the groundwork. In December, Arbeen was hired as the first full-time chaplain program manager for the Secret Service, an agency that protects heads of state and the financial system. Arbeen is charged with establishing the program and recruiting 150-300 volunteer chaplains for the 6,500 Secret Service employees. 

“(The job of the Secret Service) is to fulfill the Gospel imperative — there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for a friend. It’s a very humbling mission,” he said. “For those of us who are not actual law enforcement agents, the honor of helping these men and women is great, because they need our support. I’m doubly humbled knowing that I’m now running a program that will help them in their spiritual lives.” 

‘Mom, I’m going to be a deacon’

Arbeen always knew he had been adopted from an order of Anglican nuns — the Community of St. Mary. “The Blessed Mother has been with me through birth in that sense,” he said. Though he had often thought about his birth mother, he primarily was interested in seeing his original birth certificate and learning more about his family’s medical history. 

When he was able to obtain his birth certificate, Arbeen saw his mother had named him Stephen. When he inquired further about his medical records, he got a call saying his birth mother hoped to talk with him. 

Though he was apprehensive, he agreed. “I didn't know what to expect,” said Arbeen.

As they talked over the phone, he learned his half-sisters grew up 10 miles from his childhood home. He learned his birth mother was 18 when she requested that her son be placed for adoption with an Episcopal family. He learned she was reading Acts when she was pregnant with him, and named him after the first deacon and martyr: Stephen.

“I said, ‘Mom, I’m going to be a deacon,’ ” he said. “I’m in the process of ordination.”

Since then, Arbeen and his mom have been in constant communication. On Mother’s Day 2016, they met for the first time. That July, his family flew to Chicago to celebrate “my grandmother’s birthday and 48 of my birthdays,” he said.

Though he loves and appreciates his adoptive parents, who since have died, he’s grateful to have found his biological mother. “I call her Mom, understanding that for 49 years she never forgot about me,” he said. “She always loved me, she always cared, even as she was going through her life, I was always part of her and vice versa. I knew another person loved me.” 

In many ways, his Feb. 22 ordination to the diaconate will be a celebration of his life’s journey. He will be ordained by Bishop Steven J. Lopes of the ordinariate, but Anglican Bishop Derek Jones will be there along with other Protestant friends. Friends from the Secret Service have made plans to attend. Several priests and deacons will be there, along with diaconate candidates from his class. His birth mother, godmother, mother-in-law, two children and hiswife will be there, too.

All his life, Arbeen has felt God calling him to the altar, he said. After the ordination, he’ll be able to serve at a table of God in a church that honors his Episcopal upbringing and his love for the Catholic Church. 

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2018