Deacons take time to enjoy one another's company.
Deacons take time to enjoy one another's company.
There was a genuine and renewed spirit of camaraderie among the deacons of the Diocese who gathered for a convocation Oct. 22-23. Given it had been two years since they were together for the last convocation because of the global pandemic, and for many of them, it was the last time they saw one another in-person, the 104 deacons, 38 of whom were accompanied by their wives, were happy to reconnect and be reaffirmed in their ministry. 

“It’s a blessing to join together to be nurtured spiritually, intellectually and through opportunities for good conversation and fellowship,” Msgr. Thomas Mullelly, diocesan episcopal vicar for clergy and consecrated life, stated. The convocation, held in Princeton, included a keynote address by Deacon Andrew Saunders, director of the Diaconal Formation Program at Immaculate Conception Seminary, Seton Hall University, South Orange; a Mass celebrated by Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., who also addressed the deacons, as well as set times for prayers, such as Vespers/Evening Prayer on Friday evening and Lauds/Morning Prayer on Saturday morning. 

In the homily he preached Oct. 23, Bishop O’Connell focused on the Reading of St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans and how it “reminds us that we who have been baptized, who are in Christ Jesus, have been set free from the condemnation the law imposes on our sinful flesh. 

“We live and walk in the Spirit of the Lord Jesus” he said, noting that St. Paul writes “The Spirit of God dwells in you.” 

“That is a humbling and powerful message, all the more profound for those who have intensified our baptismal consecration through Holy Orders as deacons,” Bishop O’Connell said. “In all you do, in every path you trod, remember the Spirit of God dwells in you. Live and work for the Lord with that realization.” 

Deacons Begin the Synodal Process

Following Mass, Bishop O’Connell spoke to the approximately 104 deacons gathered, some accompanied by their wives, and encouraged them about the necessity to regularly consult their email and diocesan websites to keep informed about news and other developments in the Diocese. This does not seem to be happening. Diocesan Director of Computer Services and Information Technology (IT) Anthony DeLorenzo addressed the assembly Friday evening, offering guidance about how to use their diocesan email.  Other than conversations with their pastors, this is the only way diocesan news will be accurately communicated throughout the four counties of the Diocese of Trenton.

Bishop O’Connell thanked Msgr. Thomas Mullelly, Vicar for Clergy and his staff Sr. Rose McDermott, SSJ and Mrs. Tanya Taylor-Norwood for their work with the diaconate program.

The Bishop then described the synodal process in which the Diocese is currently involved.  He explained the importance of “encounter” as defined by the Holy Father and “listening” in faith to the Holy Spirit and one another, inviting the deacons at that point to respond to the questions “what would you like to share about your faith” and “what challenges to the faith do you experience?”

The Bishop explained that he would not interrupt their comments or provide an answer to any of the items shared, either directly or indirectly.  The “Diocesan Synod” is not a time to debate or a time to give instruction but, rather, a “process” and opportunity  simply to share and listen to one another.

Those who responded focused mostly upon the “challenges.”  Several deacons spoke of the happiness they experience in ministry and, yet, the need to find balance between diaconal service and the obligations of family life and professional occupations.  One deacon referred to their service to parish as often hard.  Abortion and the politics surrounding it was mentioned several times as a serious concern for the Church.  One deacon described his experience preaching a pro-life homily and the positive reaction he received to it.  He felt people are not hearing the pro-life message in homilies. He noted, however, that one parishioner ripped up his collection envelope in protest.

Outreach to youth was mentioned several times as something we need to emphasize in parish ministries.  The Church needs to develop a better strategy to reach the young and strengthen and encourage their growth in faith.  This was presented as an urgent issue to address.

Several deacons remarked that divisions in the Church are a serious problem that are impacting the faith life of people in their parishes, adding “Parishioners don’t know the truths of our faith.”

One deacon praised the contributions of technology and suggested the Church needs to learn how to use them more effectively.  A comment was made that the use of live-streamed Masses was useful during the pandemic but that “50 percent of parishioners” have not yet returned to Sunday parish Masses.

Another deacon described his parish’s effort to pray for people who have drifted away from the Church.  Names of lapsed Catholics were placed in a basket in church and several were selected each week for parish and individual prayer.

Two deacons spoke of successful parish initiatives and asked how such things could be shared more broadly throughout the Diocese.

One deacon referred to the Diocesan program to create cohorts and wondered if that program was ongoing.  The Bishop did respond to this question by simply stating, “yes.”  (FYI, this initiative was part of the “Faith in Our Future” program begun several years ago.)

One deacon asked if the Bishop was writing these comments down to which the Bishop responded, pointing to his brain and saying “in my mind.  I’m not as dumb as I look.”

All in all, about 25 deacons offered comments. The session concluded with the Bishop explaining that deacons will play an important role in similar sessions to be conducted in the parishes throughout the Diocese. Summaries of these sessions will hopefully be forwarded to the Synod co-chairs, one of whom, Deacon Patrick Brannigan, was present in the room.  A diocesan wide 10-page report will be created from these summaries and submitted by the Bishop to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops by April 1, 2022 for the next phase of the Synod the “continental phase.”

Perspective on the Diaconate  

Over the two days, the gathering of deacons and wives heard Deacon Saunders’s three-part presentation on “Deacons – Heralds of the Gospel and Leaders of the New Evangelization.” For each of the presentations, Deacon Saunders offered insights and then gave the deacons questions to prayerfully ponder. 

In his first presentation, Deacon Saunders focused on how deacons need to be nourished and transformed by the Eucharist.  

“Everything the Church does flows from the Eucharist and is ordered to the Eucharist,” Deacon Saunders said. “It is the source and summit of Christian life. Deacons need to be close to the Eucharist and receive their strength from the Eucharist. The Eucharist is at the core of the deacon’s identity.” The reflection questions the deacons were asked to consider were “How does the bread of life sustain my diaconal ministry?” “What is the connection between heralding the Gospel of Christ and the Eucharist?” “Having received the Gospel and the Eucharist, where and to whom am I sent to proclaim and herald the Good News?” 

Recalling how deacons receive the Gospel of Christ at their ordination, Deacon Saunders, in his second presentation, said that in becoming Christ’s heralds, deacons, as do all ministers, need to recognize that “our ministry is not our ministry but it is Christ’s ministry flowing through us.

“We are simply Christ’s messenger, his spokesperson, his ambassador,” he said. “We represent Christ, not ourselves.” Questions he asked deacons to reflect on were “How do I put on the mind of Christ?” “Is Christ I you as another person?” “Have you internalized his presence?” 

In his third talk, “Deacons are icons of Christ the Servant,” Deacon Saunders explained that “an icon is to be a stand-in for what is being represented. 

“Deacons, in heralding the Gospel of Christ in Word and deed, become a stand-in representative for Christ in the world,” he said, noting that Christ the Servant, who washed the feet of his disciples, performed miracles and proclaimed the Kingdom of God, did so with authority and as a leader in which he guided, taught and led his disciples to a greater understanding of his identity and his mission on earth.    

“Jesus is not only the model servant, but in his servanthood, he is also the model leader,” Deacon Saunders said. “To be an effective leader of the New Evangelization, the deacon must also be an icon of Christ the servant and Christ the leader,” he said, then followed with questions: “How do I follow Christ and lead others to him?” “What does ministry on my knees in humble service mean?” “What ways can I be an effective leader in my family, with my coworkers, in the parish and Diocese?” 

Enjoying Fraternity 

The emphasis that Deacon Saunders placed on deacons being more Christ-centric and Eucharistic-centric was appreciated by Deacon Rich Arcari of St. Raphael-Holy Angels Parish, Hamilton; Deacon Matt Nicosia of St. Thomas More Parish, Manalapan, and Deacon Mike Hagan of Corpus Christi Parish, Willingboro. 

After acknowledging how glad he was that he and his brothers could gather for the 2021 convocation – in-person and seeing members of his “diaconate family,” Deacon Arcari said that he found Deacon Saunders’ presentation to be insightful especially since he is a deacon himself.  

“I felt that I could relate to what he was talking about,” especially when he asked us to reflect on our ordination day and keeling in front of the Bishop and holding the Book of the Gospels, Deacon Arcari said.  “I thought back to how it was at that moment when I felt filled with the Holy Spirit and was then prepared to do the work of Jesus. I was reminded of how deacons are called to be Christ-centered and Eucharistic-centered.” 

For Deacon Nicosia, the presentations reminded him to reflect more on the “servant role in my ministry.”  

Deacon Hagan appreciated the emphasis that Deacon Saunders placed on the significance of the Eucharist and its central place in the life and ministry of a deacon. 

“The Eucharist,” Deacon Hagan said, “needs to be totally respected for what it truly is – the Body and Blood of Christ.”