November 29, 2023 // Bishop

Retreat Offers Deacons an Invitation to Pilgrimage, Love

By Deacon Mel Tardy

In a joyful homily to permanent deacons at the closing Mass of their three-day annual retreat, Bishop Rhoades said that “the word of God invites us … to live our lives as a pilgrimage, keeping our gaze on the destination for which God has created us.” That destination, he said, and the reason for our existence, is God.

The ordained ministers of the Catholic Church consist of three offices: deacons, priests, and bishops. A deacon – from the Greek word diakonos, which means servant – assists the bishop and his body of priests as a minister of the word, liturgy, and charity. A pilgrimage invites us to prayerfully retrace the footsteps of our spiritual ancestors in order to relive their experiences and faith. The deacon – a living icon of Christ the Servant – walks in Christ’s footsteps and lives a life of pilgrimage by prayerfully making himself the humble servant of all.

Tracey Plenzler
Deacons of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend pose with Bishop Rhoades after Mass on Sunday, November 19, during their three-day retreat at Lindenwood Retreat Center in Donaldson.

Unlike transitional deacons who, once ordained, soon transition to priesthood, permanent deacons are ordained to serve as deacons for life. Since most are also married, it was fitting on November 19, the Sunday before Thanksgiving, for Bishop Rhoades to say, “I give thanks to you, deacons of our diocese, and to your worthy wives.” Noting the qualities of a “worthy wife” from Proverbs 31, Bishop Rhoades commended the wives present for often complementing their husbands’ service by extending their own “hands to the poor” and “arms to the needy.”

Bishop Rhoades especially thanked those celebrating jubilee anniversaries, including 40-year honorees Deacons Joseph Messina and James Walsh, and three Golden Jubilarians (50 years of service): Deacon Paul DeCelles, Deacon Eugene Egendoerfer, and Deacon Kevin Ranaghan (the only jubilarian able to attend, along with his wife, Dorothy). After Mass, Dorothy shared that her husband was the youngest in his class – so young that he needed a special dispensation to get ordained. As the senior deacon in the room, Deacon Ranaghan bore witness to the tremendous growth in diaconal vocations and said it would have been “hard to envision all of this! It was good to see everybody.”

When Bishop Rhoades ordained 11 permanent deacons in 2011, that first class in more than 25 years seemed huge. Since then, he has also ordained a similar-sized Spanish-speaking class in 2018 and an even larger English-speaking class in January of 2023. According to Deacon Joe Cochran, who was ordained in January: “It’s so great and such a blessing to see so many deacons – more than 40 – participating in the retreat. Just a blessing to be in the same room with everyone and sharing the same calling.”

The retreat was held November 17-19 at Lindenwood Retreat Center in Donaldson and featured bilingual facilitators, sessions, and common prayer to reflect the growth in diversity. It began on a Friday with Father Fernando Jimenez, one of two retreat facilitators, reminding the deacons that God is love and God should be at the center of our lives. He exhorted the deacons to follow the two greatest commandments from Matthew 22:37-39: “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind,” which he said requires a life of prayer and sacrifice, and also, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Father Jimenez, reflecting on Matthew 25, as well as Christ’s holy sacrifice on the cross, said that we can’t love others properly unless we realize the depth of God’s love and sacrifice for us.

Bishop Rhoades’ Sunday homily reaffirmed the gift and giving of love. “We are called to live as children of the light … thankful and joyful for the gifts we have received from the Lord [and] using these gifts to produce fruit for the Lord and His kingdom.” In Matthew 25, he said, “Jesus speaks of these gifts as ‘talents’ … an immense sum of money,” but Jesus is speaking “more about the spiritual gifts He has bestowed upon us. His gifts of grace!” including His word and the sacraments. Moreover, “Pope St. Gregory the Great highlighted the gift of Our Lord’s charity, His love, as the greatest talent He has entrusted to us.” Bishop Rhoades said: “Ask yourselves what you are doing with the graces of your diaconal ordination. Are we producing good fruits for our Master? Or do we sometimes bury the gifts?”

On Saturday, facilitator Father Matthew Coonan, Episcopal Vicar for Clergy for the diocese, focused on holiness using the Decalogue of Serenity by Pope St. John XXIII. Deacon Mike Madison said he “came away from Father Matt’s presentation with this challenge: Being with versus doing for [regarding] my balance with God.” Deacon Lou Giovannini added, “I especially enjoyed the Saturday session,” which emphasized that “our journey to holiness begins NOW and not some time into the future.” He admired how Father Coonan broke down “holiness into little bite-size pieces of the here and now” and applied them to the life of a deacon. “Great addition to my daily ritual.”

The retreat intentionally included time for silence and communal prayer, as well as time to meet and socialize with the other deacons. Indeed, Father Coonan described the retreat and prayer as invitations to “give God the gift of our time.” Deacon James Summers appreciated time to pray and to “look at the causes and symptoms of things that pull us away from God, [such as] pleasure, popularity, and power. The retreat helped us understand how we can focus on the things that turn us back toward God.”

After the deacons-only retreat, many wives and family members attended the closing Jubilee Mass and luncheon  with Bishop Rhoades. Andres Miranda, son of Deacon Orlando and Adalys Miranda, proudly said: “I love seeing the fellowship that all the deacons have and share. Being the son of a deacon, it’s awesome to see my father engaging in that setting. It’s an example not just for me but for all others in the faith, as well.”

“We had a wonderful time, said Deacon Dan Avila. “It was such an inspiring opportunity to meet other deacons who’ve been in this ministry for longer than we have, and then to be welcomed. The event was such a wonderful thing for me and for all the members of our new class, so we just had a great, inspiring, restful, rejuvenating time.”

Despite the growth of the diaconate in the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Bishop Rhoades lamented that “in some countries, the permanent diaconate has not been introduced at all” or that its implementation has been inconsistent. The recent Synod of Bishops in Rome recommended an assessment of diaconal ministry implementation since the Second Vatican Council; but while he was at the synod, Bishop Rhoades “sensed a great desire for the deacon’s ministry of charity, his service of the poor and needy, to be emphasized more.”

“This is our mission,” said Bishop Rhoades, “to bring God’s gifts to fruition, not for ourselves, but for Him, for the Church, for others.”

Deacon Ricardo Garcia Ramos took the homily’s message to heart: “We know that God is love – He gave His life for us on the cross. So this is to remind me that I need to love – and not just for myself, but I’ve got to give this love to everybody else in my community and my family … the gift of God’s graces in the sacrament of ordination, I need to put those to work – not just for myself but for others.”

For as Bishop Rhoades said (quoting St. John of the Cross), “At the sunset of our lives, we will be judged on love.”

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