By Ruthie Robison
GREENVILLE – The Mississippi Delta is a special place to Mark Shoffner. “I am very Delta and very proud of this place,” said the Greenville native.
On Friday, June 8, Shoffner was ordained into the transitional diaconate on his way to the priesthood in the Delta town he loves and in his home parish, St. Joseph.
The newly ordained deacon has a great appreciation for St. Joseph and its parishioners and has even given tours of the church to visitors traveling by riverboats along the Mississippi who make a stop in Greenville. His was the third ordination to be held at the church.
“I grew up in a beautiful Gothic Revival church,” he said. “It’s a beautiful place of worship.”
Shoffner’s love of the Delta and his hometown became very evident to Bishop Joseph Kopacz the first time they met.
“He just launched right into the Delta,” said Kopacz during the homily. “This was my first time in Mississippi, and he said, ‘Well, let me tell you about the Delta.’ And he hasn’t stopped since.”
Growing up in Greenville, Shoffner attended St. Joseph Catholic School.
He became active in the church by the time he was in the third grade, when he was asked to be an altar server. This was an honor for Shoffner because usually students did not become altar servers until the fourth grade.
“I started doing that, and I just enjoyed being up there,” Shoffner said.
Shoffner remembers being told as a child, “You’re going to be a great priest, Mark.” But for a kid in the ’90s, his future was broad with unlimited possibilities.
“I could be anything I wanted to be,” Shoffner said. “I wanted to be a steamboat captain, a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer.”
When Shoffner was in the ninth grade, his family moved from Greenville to Ft. Walton Beach, Florida. There, he became involved in youth ministry, and Shoffner’s call to the priesthood was becoming clearer.
“He’s always been a real reverent young man and just caring about the church,” said Shoffner’s mother, Eva. “We moved to Florida for a little while, and he got right into the church.”
Eva said it was during his teenage years that she “figured there was somewhere in his future when he was going to become very active in the parish, but I didn’t know exactly what.”
After graduating high school and a year of college, Shoffner’s family moved back to Greenville. At that time, he said he knew he wanted a career that allowed him to help people. He thought about teaching but decided on nursing. Shoffner attended Mississippi Delta Community College, where he received a degree in nursing. He began working in the cardiovascular intensive care unit at Delta Regional Medical Center in Greenville.
“With nursing, I thought I could really help,” he said. “That went on for about a year before I began to have these moments in the hospital.”
Soon, Shoffner went from having feelings about his vocation to actively talking about them with Father Kent Bowlds, pastor of Our Lady of Victories Catholic Church in Cleveland and a former vocations director.
“You can’t discern a vocation by yourself,” Shoffner said. “You have to have a community.”
During this time, Shoffner was at work one day helping an elderly man in the hospital when he had a thought — one that would eventually lead him to enter seminary.
“I just remember thinking about Mother Teresa and Father Richard Ho Lung (who founded the religious order known as the Missionaries of the Poor in Kingston, Jamaica) and how they did the same thing I am doing now but they did not get paid. What’s their motivation? The motivation was love,” he said. “I started thinking about the Missionaries of the Poor in Kingston, and how they lived happy lives that were fulfilling, and that called out to me.”
Shoffner’s mother said she wasn’t caught by surprise when her son told her he felt called to be a priest.
“I am just overjoyed and full of happiness,” said Eva Shoffner after her son was ordained to the diaconate. “It was just beautiful, and I am so happy it came to be, and he can start professing the Lord’s faith and helping others.”
Shoffner’s ordination was held on the Feast of the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
“It’s a beautiful feast, because it’s a feast of the beating heart of Jesus — that heart that does not stop beating out of love for us,” said Kopacz.
During the homily, the Bishop read an excerpt from the official proclamation by Pope Leo XIII when he declared the consecration to the Sacred Heart in 1899.
Shoffner was vested by fellow seminarian and classmate Deacon Adolfo Suarez, who was recently ordained in his hometown in Mexico. The two men will be ordained as priests together next year.
At the end of the service, Shoffner, standing near a large stained glass window of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, said, “I was a cardiovascular ICU nurse. I was a heart nurse. So there’s another connection. I was trying to heal broken hearts physically broken, and now, through the Lord’s mercy, I am able to heal spiritually broken hearts.”
Deacon Shoffner, a product of one St. Joseph community, will spend his transitional year at another — St. Joseph Catholic Church in Gluckstadt.
(Ruthie Robison is a reporter for the Greenwood Commonwealth and a member of Greenwood Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish.)