Lord, grant that I might not so much seek to be loved as to love. – Francis of Assisi
Today, October 4, is the Feast Day of St. Francis of Assisi. It’s a celebratory day on the liturgical calendar for people all over the world as Francis is one of the most beloved of the saints. Michelangelo, the poet Dante, King Louis IX, and the scientist Michael Faraday have all sought to emulate this passionate but humble lover of God and man. Deacon Tom Hartman, formerly of Milbank, has added his name to that list.
Before becoming a priest, Francis was a successful and wealthy silk merchant and a willing participant in the rowdy nightlife of Assisi. Yet, he turned his back on the trappings of society to fully embrace God, take a vow of poverty, and live amongst the lepers. As a young child, Tom Hartman blindly chose St. Francis of Assisi as his patron saint for his confirmation. Only decades later did the divine order of that choice become evident. “He (Francis) had a love for the poor and afflicted,” said Tom. “He gave up all his wealth to serve the poor and I hope to be able to detach myself of possessions to be more free to serve.”
Back in 13th Century Italy, Francis was enjoying a life of luxury and on the fast track to becoming a war hero when a debilitating illness struck him. Soon after, he experienced mystical visions which caused him to re-examine his life and his purpose. It was several years and many fits and starts later, however, before the saint discovered his true calling.
Deacon Tom, 45, now in his fifth year of school at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, Connecticut, like his patron saint, did not take a traditional path to the priesthood. During Tom’s junior year at MHS, he transferred to a preparatory boys school in Fargo, North Dakota. “I didn’t have the best experience and when I came home, I was angry,” he admitted. “I fell away from God and then became a father and got married.” His desire for the priesthood kept resurfacing, though.
He explained, “I was married and had two children, but I wasn’t the person Becky fell in love with and it was asking a lot for her to change and love the person I was becoming.” The couple was civilly divorced and their marriage annulled so Tom could pursue his calling. “It was also for Becky, so she would be free to marry again.”
Tom spent the next few years searching, but didn’t feel he could give his heart to one person. “I was too busy serving too many people. Dating seemed to impede the process and I felt conflicted much of the time. It was during those years, I came to realize I had a priestly heart and knew what God had designed me to be.” He spent the next decade emotionally preparing for what was ahead. “Becoming a priest requires a lot of sacrifice, but I am not hesitant whatsoever. If there are lonely priests, there is an equal number of lonely married people.”
“In committing to God 100%, I sensed relief. Now my life is about having an intimate relationship with God and with people who give me life. When you enter into these relationships, they feed you with a different type of intimacy which gives you just as much joy and happiness. Of course there is sacrifice, but I rely on my prayer life to go deeper into love for God.”
In May, Tom was ordained as a deacon and is fulfilling his role as a transitional deacon this year. Over the summer, he served Holy Name Catholic Church and Immaculate Conception Church in Watertown. As a deacon, Tom assisted the priest, but his primary role was to serve the people. “I was the witness for the Church at my niece Meg’s wedding,” he said. “I also performed baptisms and preached at Mass, but mainly I served the people.”
Now that the school year has begun, Tom attends classes and serves as a priest on the weekends. “I do hospital ministry, prison ministry, adult education, and ministry at assisted living facilities. I even taught a preschool religion class. The goal is to become well-rounded in your service to others,” he said. He also follows the Liturgy of the Hours – the official set of prayers marking the hours of each day and sanctifying the day with prayer. It is an obligation priests undertake. The schedule includes: morning prayer; office of readings; mid-morning, mid-day, or mid-afternoon prayer; evening prayer; and night prayer. They also enter into a Holy Hour of prayer every day.
During this year of transition, Tom is referred to as Deacon Tom. Once he is ordained, he will be called Father Tom. “Of all the titles I have had or will have, the one I like best is Dad.” he said. Tom’s son, Isaiah, is a firefighter in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. His daughter, Natasha, taught English and was the head debate coach at MHS last year, but relocated to Sioux Falls and is teaching in Harrisburg.
In early June, Deacon Tom will be ordained as a priest at the Cathedral in Sioux Falls within the Diocese of Sioux Falls, serving the east side of the Missouri River in South Dakota. He will celebrate his first Mass at his home parish, St. Lawrence Church, in Milbank. He said, ” It will then be up to the Bishop to tell me where I am going.” Like St. Francis, who revolutionized the act of practicing the Christian faith by going wherever God directed him, it’s the next leg on Tom’s spiritual journey.
Unlike St. Francis, whose family was aghast when he traded his status and fine clothes to preach to the birds and the lepers, Tom’s family has been supportive of his change in direction. He said they don’t see him any differently than they always have. “They will always call me Dad or Tom. Especially Natasha, she wants me to be the dad who gives her away when she gets married and not the dad who performs the ceremony.”
He went on to explain that today it is not uncommon for widowers or divorcees with children to enter the priesthood. “I encountered six or seven others at school in my same situation. He added ministers from other denominations have converted to Catholicism and many are married with children. “Ministers who want to become Catholic priests are allowed to do so and remain married. I think we are seeing this more and more.”
Change is, of course, not new to the Catholic faith, but St. Francis might be surprised by the impact he has had on Christians. He would most likely be stunned to see his name enshrined on countless cathedrals, bridges, rivers, and cities today. He might also be perplexed to discover Rembrandt- a painter who renounced the Church and detested its practice of canonizing saints- had tenderly portrayed him clutching his crucifix and kneeling before his open Bible. And, he would probably approve of the tradition of using Nativity sets as St. Francis is believed to have created the first Nativity scene for an outdoor mass in 1223.
This Christmas, as you gaze at your creche, it might be interesting to imagine its creator who began a typical existence over 800 years ago in a small town in Italy. You might also reflect on a man from a small town in South Dakota who seeks to emulate that man, his Creator, and another man from an even smaller town called Nazareth.