Deacon Hammel announces the Gospel to the imprisoned

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This is part of a series of articles throughout the year celebrating the 50th anniversary of the reinstitution of the permanent diaconate in the United States.

The deacon usually has the last word at Mass. “Go and announce the Gospel of the Lord,” he says. The congregation replies, “Thanks be to God.”

Permanent deacons are meant to be in the world, so their role in the liturgy follows their role in life, said Deacon Lawrence V. Hammel of St. Francis de Sales Church in Purcellville. “It should be a sign for all Catholics that we are to go out from Mass to proclaim the Gospel,” he said.

Though Deacon Hammel prepares some couples for marriage or the baptism of their child, the majority of his ministry is intentionally outside the parish. He coordinates prison ministry at the Loudoun Adult Detention Center and is a hospital chaplain at Loudoun Adult Medical and Psychiatry Services. “Jails, hospital, soup kitchens — that is how the church grows, not necessarily in numbers but in richness of faith,” he said. 

Deacon Hammel was born in New York City in 1935 and grew up on Long Island. He was raised Catholic and attended the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind. He met his wife, Marianne, at a Catholic young adult dance, and they started dating when he saw her at another dance several months later. 

He was setting up for the event, and Marianne was there with her older brother. “So I asked her if she wanted to get a block of ice with me,” he said. That night at the square dance, she came dressed in yellow as a cowgirl, he recalled. They were married in 1959 and had four children.

 He became interested in the permanent diaconate shortly after the vocation was reinstated in 1968. “There’s an Irish saying that when God takes someone to heaven, he gives another grace,” he said. “St. Bridget’s on Long Island had seven deacons in the first class. My mother died in 1979, just about the time when those guys were ordained and I knew all of them.”  Inspired by their action, he began formation in 1981 and was ordained for the Diocese of Rockville Centre, N.Y., May 19, 1984.

Deacon Hammel worked as an engineer in transportation planning for 30 years before he felt he needed a change. “I had no incentive to leave it, but I needed more in my life,” he said. “I needed a challenge.” So he went into a year of chaplaincy training at a county hospital on Long Island. 

He first volunteered for an AIDS and HIV unit. “Going in there was scary at times. What did I know about AIDS? Absolutely nothing,” he said. But he still felt called to serve there. “The Holy Spirit does prompt you at times,” he said. 

The Hammels moved to Virginia in 2000 to be closer to some of their children and eight grandchildren. Deacon Hammel began ministering in the Diocese of Arlington and the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, where he also serves in prison ministry as well as at Our Lady of Grace Church in Romney. 

Deacon Hammel organizes the current group of 54 volunteers of all backgrounds at the Loudoun Detention Center. “One man is an eight-term former Congressman. He is there one Sunday a month. He also does juvenile ministry,” said Deacon Hammel. “We have another man on the team who is a janitor. ‘Jesus loves you,’ that is what he proclaims.”

The team hosts Scripture services from the common lectionary that attracts Catholics and Protestants. There’s Mass once a month and confession when inmates want to go and priests are available, he said. Occasionally, inmates will ask to be baptized or confirmed and three are in formation now.

Deacon Hammel usually doesn’t know if the people he ministers to keep their faith or even stay out of jail, but he believes it’s his job not to look at the results but to be present to the inmates now. “There are some success stories, but one really doesn’t know because our part of the ministry does not follow them afterward,” he said. “To evangelize is not just to proclaim that message to the inmates. If they have family, they are going to mention it (to them and) the deputies know what’s going on (too). We must be present.”

Deacon Hammel also goes to a locked psychiatric hospital unit. “The brokenness there is extreme. Most of the patients have attempted suicide or seriously considered suicide,” he said. “Basically, what you profess there is that God loves them. Because when you think of taking your life, life is so hellish that you can’t face it anymore. You don’t solve their problems, but you give them some hope that they are made in the image and likeness of God, same thing that you did in jail. Proclaiming the Gospel that we are saved, (and) we have to accept salvation.”

Deacon Hammel believes his work and the work of fellow volunteers is a critical part of the mission of Christianity. “I think we’re painting the real face of what Christ has charged his believers with,” he said. “To bring the Gospel to the broken. The broken may reject it and that's ok, we have free will. But the beauty is that the church is there and the faith persists because of the faith of the people in the pews.”

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2018

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