Deacons continue to innovatively serve God’s people

Our eyes may be used to the men who assist the priest during the liturgy, to the men who proclaim the Gospel from the pulpit, those servants who lift up our petitions as they prepare the gifts during the offertory. However, these men we call deacons are constantly active beyond their parish responsibilities, reaching out, helping, teaching, consoling… And this time of pandemic has only led them to find new ways to serve, to be creative and innovate within their ministries.

“Many of the ministries that deacons do outside the parish require making contact with people, with the persons in the hospital, the prisoner, the single mother, the widow, the homeless… And the coronavirus has prevented us from being able to be face to face and in direct contact with them and see their grief, pain or remorse,” said Deacon Joseph Donohoe, Director of Deacon Personnel for the Archdiocese of Denver. “In order to work around that and keep a distance, we’ve had to use technology. While there’s something meaningful in being face to face, we’ve still been able to reach out to those in need.”

During the pandemic, many deacons across the archdiocese have dedicated themselves to serving the faithful by organizing formation classes, RCIA programs and prayer sessions via Zoom or providing resources at their parish, nursing homes, jails, prisons and detention centers.

One of these many services is the grief ministry that deacons have been carrying out with Mount Olivet as a response to this pandemic. Its purpose is to touch base with the people who have lost a loved one during this difficult time.

“It’s led me to realize how different deaths are handled as a result of the pandemic. Before, when people experienced death or illness, they had the opportunity to be with their families, friends and clergy. [Now,] if they die from COVID, the family doesn’t see their loved one at all. It’s a very different experience,” said Deacon Clarence McDavid from Cure d’Ars Parish, who has been one of six deacons reaching out to people in their grieving process. “What we’re invited to do as deacons is to call and acknowledge that this is a different time and find out how the family and those who have been left behind are doing. We let them know we are praying for them and their family member, but the most important thing is to listen and hear what they have to say.”

Deacon McDavid said that many of the obstacles that grieving families have had to endure during this time also include not being able to have the Funeral Mass they normally would and delays in burial or cremation. Nonetheless, he has seen many fruits during his ministry, both in people’s lives and in his own. He’s been able to meet them in their loneliness and provide a space for them to express and acknowledge what they’re experiencing, something many of them have been grateful for.

“I’ve found the faith of people very touching. They help you know that no matter the situation, there’s always growth and opportunity to experience God more deeply. In the midst of their grief, they’ve also given me strength,” he said.

‘Deacons have a special place with the intercessions: They cry tears in their soul for love of the people.’”

Deacons have also carried out their ministry by creating virtual spaces of prayer and community for parishioners.

Deacon Dan Cook from St. Mary in Breckenridge and Our Lady of Peace in Silverthorne never imagined that when he and wife decided to host the live Stations of the Cross via Zoom, that virtual space would later become an opportunity for prayer and fellowship cherished by many parishioners.

This practice not only brought parishioners from both churches who had never met each other together, it also led people to start sharing their personal prayer intentions and praying for one another.

“We’ve had a number of parishioners who have had surgeries and our prayers have been answered for them. What we’ve also seen is that parishioners who were regular attendees but not very strong in their faith have really come to strengthen their faith by doing these daily prayers,” Deacon Cook said.

Some parishioners even decided to take it a step further and organized a Zoom meeting every Monday to pray the Rosary. Deacon Cook and parishioners have even considered making these practices permanent.

One of the many apostolates our deacons carry out in the archdiocese and that has also needed innovation during this pandemic is the ministry to people in prisons, jails and detention centers.

Unlike many others, inmates or detainees do not have access to phones, computers or Wi-Fi, which means that the face to face interactions they used to have in confession, spiritual direction or Bible Study cannot be replaced by a Zoom meeting.

This led Deacon Hal Goldwire, Director of Jail and Prison Ministry for the archdiocese, to figure out a way to reach them even if he was not allowed to be in contact with them.

“We were doing Bible studies, RCIA classes, Mass, confessions, communion services, visiting and accompanying them in prison, listening to their stories and letting them know that they’re not forgotten just because they’re behind a wall. But when COVID hit, nothing was happening,” Deacon Goldwire said.

Deacon Goldwire has been checking in with different facilities to provide rosaries, books, Bibles and Divine Mercy Chaplet pamphlets. He has reached out to other prison ministries across the country to brainstorm how to best serve inmates and detainees during this time.

Furthermore, he’s worked with the International Commission of Catholic Prison Pastoral Care on behalf of the archdiocese to provide 1,000 face shields for the Denver Sheriff’s Department County Jail and Downtown Detention Center personnel and incarcerated population.

“Certainly, as deacons we miss seeing people face to face, but we’re still here to reach out to anybody that needs support or help in a wide variety of ministries, and we’re anxious to help,” Deacon Donohoe concluded. “As a priest told us in our last retreat, ‘Deacons have a special place with the intercessions: They cry tears in their soul for love of the people.’”

COMING UP: What is a deacon?

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This column is by Deacon Joe Donohoe.

On June 18, 2017, the Catholic Church celebrates the 50th anniversary of the signing of “Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem,” (Sacred Order of the Diaconate) by Pope Paul
VI. This ecclesial document is significant to the life of the Church as it restores the offi ce of the diaconate to a permanent position within the sacrament of Holy Orders.

The Church uses the word “permanent” to mean that the
deacon does not progress through the hierarchy of the Church but remains a deacon through eternity.

So, what have we discovered about this vocation since 1967? First of all, we have learned that a deacon is not
a priest nor is he a parishioner. He is clergy and an ordained minister with the indelible mark of Holy Orders.
His vocation comes from his ordination in which he promises obedience to the bishop and becomes radically
available to Jesus Christ and his bride, the Church.

We also know that some deacons are single; yet, many are married and have families. Most deacons have secular jobs and a few are employed within the Church. Deacons are also in the seminary. Men discerning the priesthood are first ordained deacons and retain this charism into their priestly ordination. Regardless, all deacons are called by God to evangelize and bring the message of the Gospel to those in the workplaces, parishes, homes and the public square.

We’ve learned that deacons are called to be an example of holiness; especially important to those who lack a positive role model in their homes and work places. A deacon is called to make frequent prayer an important part of his daily routine.

As an icon of Jesus Christ, the servant who came to serve, not to be served, prayer proves to be essential for his
ministry and his life.

Every deacon prays in the morning when they wake and in the evening before they retire to bed. They often will spend 15 minutes a day reading Scripture and allowing God to respond to them. Each day is met with opportunities to encounter God in prayer and in deeds.

In service, the archbishop sends the deacon out to accomplish the spiritual and corporal works of mercy.

The deacon visits prisoners, cares for the sick, dying and abused, feeds the hungry, provides shelter to the homeless,
wipes the tears from the sorrowful, and is a voice of the forgotten and helpless, including the unborn.

In one example, a deacon ministering to single mothers in the archdiocese tells me of the first time a mother handed over her infant son for him to hold. As he blessed the child, the deacon was struck with gratitude as he realized the incredible trust the mother had just turned over to him. It was the first time she had ever allowed her baby to be held by someone else since she had arrived at the home.

In his ministry of the word, the deacon teaches and preaches in his parish assignment and witnesses to
those in secular society. He proclaims the Gospel and occasionally preaches the homily. The deacon often teaches both those entering into the Church and away from the Church; and often instructs those in religious education and Sacramental preparation classes.

Many deacons have extensive expertise in life issues. Some are medical professionals who stand before congressional committees to defend life and meet with any person or group to talk about what happens medically with the diff erent procedures that terminate life. These
deacons also visit with patients and families to help them understand the church’s position on life issues.

No doubt, they have turned a lot of people away from the culture of death through their ministries.

The vast majority of deacons are certified as advocates for annulments which can be a very spiritual experience. One petitioner tells the story of how a deacon assisted her with the annulment process, helped her reconcile her relationship with the church and is a spiritual advisor to her, even today. She would even seek his advice on any potential future spouse and felt he was more of a father figure than a friend. She lives a comfortable life with a beautiful young son and a wonderful husband.

There are a couple of deacons who visit the homeless at Samaritan House. One deacon meets clients in the lunch rooms, eats with them, shares stories and then gathers them together for Bible study. Many of the men are anxious to come back when he is around to get their spiritual nutrition. He himself is a cancer survivor
and is dealing with debilitating disease; yet, his joy is with his friends at the homeless shelter.

In the ministry of the liturgy, the deacon assists at the altar, coordinating the activities of the liturgy and promoting reverence. He also conducts baptisms, marriages and funerals.

At the Mass, the deacon’s right to the altar is because of his participation with the faithful. He is ordained for the care of souls. One deacon prepares for Mass by greeting the Lord in the Adoration chapel and praying for the people at Mass. When he receives the gifts at the off ertory, like all deacons, he recognizes the prayers of those in the congregation and presents them to the celebrant as an offering to God. Yet, the faithful gathered together on Sunday are unaware of the prayers that are being lifted up
to God.

Deacons preach by example. They harmonize their vocational sacraments of Marriage and Holy Orders
and model themselves after Jesus.

Many Deacons bond with the couples they have blessed in marriage and further their relationship by being available to them. There is a Deacon who sends a nice anniversary card to all the couples he has blessed and to couples of parents whose children he has baptized. The card often goes beyond a greeting and suggests that they meet and find out what is happening in the lives of the newlyweds
and newly baptized.

Even though we have learned much about deacons in the past 50 years, there is still much to discover and learn about the vocation. With the help of God and the wisdom of Holy Mother Church, the diaconal adventure will be filled with blessings and the grace of the Holy Spirit.