By ERIKA ANDERSON, Staff Writer | Published February 3, 2005
They are an essential part of the ministry of the Catholic Church in the Archdiocese of Atlanta, and at a special Mass and reception in their honor, hundreds of permanent deacons were affirmed by Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory for their many contributions.
On Jan. 27, deacons who serve in the Archdiocese of Atlanta gathered at St. Brigid Church for a Mass celebrated by the new archbishop. It was a chance for Archbishop Gregory to meet them and to express his gratitude for the important part they play in the church in the archdiocese.
“My personal involvement with the permanent diaconate dates by more than 35 years and includes being on the formation staff for the first group of permanent deacons who were ordained for the Archdiocese of Chicago in 1972,” Archbishop Gregory told the deacons. “Literally, I have worked with deacons even before I myself was a deacon—while still a seminary theology student. I consider some of the deacons that I have known to be personal friends and I look forward to that same type of relationship with deacons here.”
He was so anxious to have his first meeting with the deacons, he said, “that this date was chosen without the type of consultation that I ordinarily will seek to pursue.”
“I know that some deacons and their wives were not able to be in attendance. I look forward to other gatherings with the deacons so that you will know of the love, respect, and commitment that I seek with you as ministers of the Church in Atlanta,” he said.
By serving the church and their own families, the deacons offer a unique dimension to their visible ministry, Archbishop Gregory said, adding that the wives and families of the men deserve much credit for their support.
“I don’t think I need to tell you, dear brothers, that the greatest gifts by which God enhances most of your ministry, are the wives you love with all your hearts, and the children you cherish as life itself,” he said. “They are an integral part of your vocation—they are a part of you—but even more important, they are the ones who love you first, who support you in the weight of your work, who rejoice with you when your work is successful, and who stand by you firmly, when the challenges seem greater than your ability to overcome.”
“What a gift for you—these help-mates of your own home. But what a gift for the Church, especially our young people, who wish to marry and plant their lives in the love of Jesus Christ and His Church—that they can look up to the altar, look up to those who minister for the sake of Jesus Christ, and see there, husbands, fathers, and grandfathers who love their wives and children, with a love so close to what they desire for their own future,” he continued. “God bless you and your families for being there, as teachers and models of married life.”
The archbishop said he was pleased to learn of the thriving diaconate community in Atlanta and prayed that the program would continue to grow.
“As deacons of the Church, as special bearers of the Light that is Christ Himself, join with me now for our future work—join with me and the priests of the Archdiocese—feel the light which the Holy Spirit has set aflame in our hearts—the light of Jesus Christ’s own love—and together, let us make this light, this warmth, this fire which renews and is never exhausted, felt by God’s people, the ones we have been called to care for.”
There was a familial feel to the event as deacons and their wives connected with peers from across the archdiocese at the post-Mass reception. A joyful buzz hung in the air of the St. Brigid parish hall. The deacons excitedly greeted each other with the warmth of brothers, their wives kissing each other on the cheeks and asking about the other’s children.
Standing with their wives, Deacon Ray Brown, who serves at St. John Neumann Church in Lilburn, and Deacon Dick Conti from St. Catherine of Siena Church in Kennesaw, said that there is a strong tie among the deacons who gather together several times a year.
“This ministry really bonds us together, because of our relationships with our families,” Deacon Conti said.
“And it’s not only on the family level, but also on a spiritual level because of the ministry we do,” Deacon Brown said.
Lois Brown said that same bond is also encouraged among the wives.
“(During their formation) they really stress that,” she said. “We can always go to each other for questions and concerns and prayer requests—anything, really.”
In his first month as archbishop of Atlanta, Archbishop Gregory has a lot on his plate. But the deacons said that it is a true sign of the archbishop’s support of the permanent diaconate that he made time for them.
“What I look for in a bishop is someone who really supports us as deacons,” Deacon Conti said. “This is our shepherd and everything I’ve read and heard shows that he is 100 percent in favor of the diaconate and that he realizes that this is an important vocation. The great thing about Archbishop Gregory is that he has really hit the ground running, and the fact that he has met with us this soon is a very, very positive sign.”
Deacon Bill Brandt has been a deacon for a year, and said he looks forward to their gatherings.
“As deacons, we are all part of a group, a fellowship, not just as part of the clergy, but also as part of the community,” he said. “I’m retired, but most of us are out working in the world and doing our ministry, and it’s nice to get together to share in that.”
The deacon from St. Pius X Church in Conyers also expressed his appreciation that Archbishop Gregory had taken the time for the deacons early in his role as leader of the Archdiocese of Atlanta. Deacon Brandt said he looks for more than a boss in the archbishop.
“It’s important that he is a spiritual leader, that he doesn’t just say ‘go here, do that’ but that he sets a tone,” he said. “He needs to be a beacon. And not just because he’s a bishop, but because he really supports what we do.”
Deacon Brown said that not all bishops are as supportive of the diaconate, and that they were also lucky to have the encouragement of Archbishop-emeritus John F. Donoghue, who was a major proponent of the ministry.
“The key thing about a bishop is that he sets the tone of the organization,” Deacon Brown said. “Our job is to serve the bishop with all our heart and soul. He has our loyalty.”