Deacon David Bernard Tobben
“Any success I have…is due to the Holy Spirit.”
Q. How did you discover your vocation?
A. My dad attended the Franciscan minor seminary for the first two years of high school. He and the friars discerned that the priesthood was not for him at the end of the second year (luckily for me). He returned to his hometown, finished high school, and eventually met and married my mom.
When I was in first grade, a Franciscan priest visited us. He had been a classmate of my dad’s in the seminary and been ordained. At the time of his visit, he was a missionary in Brazil, and he brought slides of the villages along the Amazon where he ministered, plus a six-foot-long boa constrictor skin. My six-year-old self decided then and there that I would be a Franciscan missionary, a vocation idea that lasted until I discovered girls several years later.
Although I gave up any thought of the priesthood, as I got older, I became active in ministry, especially after I met my wife, Lucy. We were active as church musicians almost from the time we started dating, a ministry that continues still today. After we got married, we participated in other ministries: Marriage Encounter, marriage prep, adult education, and Teens Encounter Christ. As I entered my fifties, I began to think about how I could further serve the Church, and the diaconate came to mind, partly due to the example of the deacons serving in our parish at that time.
Lucy and I talked and prayed about it. I mentioned it to others whose opinions I valued, and for the most part, I was encouraged to pursue it. In 2003, we attended an informational meeting. I got very enthused, but due to the ages of our children, we decided the timing was not right. We went again in 2007, but my job situation at the time was problematic. Finally, in 2015, the timing seemed right, so we applied and were accepted. By that time, I was beyond the preferred age for men entering formation, but our archbishop approved my application anyway. As I went through formation, I came to feel God’s calling more and more. He has never disappointed me.
Q. What are the signs of God’s presence in your vocation?
A. I am very much at peace in living out my vocation. My wife likes to say that her decision to marry me didn’t hit her like a ton of bricks. Rather, it was a gradual feeling of peace and comfort with the idea. It’s the same with my vocation as a deacon. God has placed in my heart an acceptance and comfort with carrying out my ministry. I am doing things as a deacon that I never would have dreamed of.
In my ministry, I am privileged to have worked with people who are experiencing difficult situations in their lives, like the unexpected death of a loved one or trying to find one’s way back to the Church after an absence of many years. In ministering in these situations, I have been able to show them God’s love and compassion. I attribute that, not to my own gifts, but to God’s grace working within me. I was a lawyer and a judge in my professional life, and I have little training in dealing one-on-one with people. Upon working with individuals going through trauma, I call on the Holy Spirit to give me the words I need to help bring healing and peace to the situation.
As an attorney, I had a lot of experience with public speaking, and I thought that preaching at Mass would come easily. While taking my homiletics class, I realized that speaking dispassionately in a courtroom was very different from sharing the word of God from the perspective of my own life experiences. I have learned that I cannot preach effectively unless the Holy Spirit is with me, prompting me to convey his message. I pray to the Holy Spirit throughout my preparation, and I always pause and ask for guidance just before I begin to speak. I know that any success I have as a preacher and throughout my life is due to the promptings of the Holy Spirit.
Q. What role does prayer play in your life at this time?
A. I was baptized when I was thirteen days old. As a cradle Catholic, I have always known how to pray, because my parents taught me, and I have always prayed in some form or fashion. As I was growing up, my prayer was mostly perfunctory and not done with much thought. I went to Mass when required and prayed when my class did, but my faith life didn’t go much beyond the bare minimum.
When I was a freshman in college, I had an experience that made me aware of God’s presence in my life and made me realize that he had a plan for me. I began to pray more, but not with much regularity. My prayer life changed dramatically when, after five years of marriage, Lucy and I attended a Marriage Encounter retreat in 1980. I became aware of the need to include God as a third party in our marriage and call on him for the grace of our sacrament. At that time, we also became involved with Teens Encounter Christ, and we saw how a relationship with Jesus can profoundly affect an individual’s life. Since then, my prayer life has become, in large part, our prayer life.
Since beginning formation, prayer has become as important to me as breathing. I look to God for guidance and grace almost constantly. I start my day praying in the shower for all the persons and situations for which I am concerned and to thank God for the blessings he has bestowed on me. Then, I pray the office of readings and morning prayer, joined by Lucy when she is able. During the day I will say prayers relating to the situation I find myself in, invoking the Holy Spirit to help me deal with a difficult situation or person, or asking St. Anthony to help me find my (most recently) misplaced item. Prayer is as much a part of my day as eating or breathing. My day ends with evening prayer. I have come to love and appreciate the Liturgy of the Hours.
Q. What return can you make to our Lord for all he has given you?
A. God has blessed me in so many ways. There is no way I can make a proper return to him for his generosity. He gave me good and faithful Catholic parents who raised me with high expectations and provided me with an excellent education and formation in the faith. He guided my path until I met the perfect wife and mother to share children with. He has blessed our marriage with a deep love for one another, six wonderful children, and eleven amazing grandchildren. Although we haven’t always been financially secure, He has been with us through good times and bad.
It has been said, “To whom much is given, much is expected.” I have lived my life with that in mind. In addition to what I mentioned, God has gifted me with many talents. I have always believed I have an obligation to develop the gifts God has given me and use them for his greater honor and glory.
We are told in formation that our first obligation is to our family. I honor God by striving to be the best husband, father, and grandfather to those nearest to me. In doing that, I strive to model Jesus for them. The return I can make to God is to use the gifts he has given me to try to make the world and the Church a better place. I make a return to God when I dedicate my diaconate and devote my ministry to building up the Church as a whole, and those who make up that Church as individuals. With the help of the Holy Spirit, I am to be a servant to all.