Deacon candidates advance in formation with retreat, rite of acceptance

By Maureen Smith
RAYMOND – The weekend of Aug. 7-9, six men preparing to be deacons for the Diocese of Jackson and their wives joined Bishop Joseph Kopacz and their chaplain Father Sam Messina at the Norbertine Priory of St. Moses the Black in Raymond for a retreat. On Sunday, all six men were admitted to candidacy for the diaconate, one of the last steps on their five-year-journey to ordination.
The retreat is an annual gathering meant to help the men build strong relationships with one another and their bishop and to take a break from the academic side of their preparation.
“The process of our formation – the academic part – can be kind of intense sometimes because we are doing the equivalent of a masters in theology along with our regular jobs and our lives and all that, so this is an opportunity for us once a year to step back from all that and settle down and remember why we are doing this and really focus on the ministry of being a deacon,” said John McGinley.
“We have an opportunity, first of all to bond as brothers and get to know each other, get to know the wives and also bond with the bishop. This is an opportunity for us to know him and him to know us. That’s really important because of the unique relationship between the diaconate and the bishop,” said John McGregor.
The group spent a week earlier this summer at St. Meinrad Seminary in Indiana taking an intensive course on homiletics. “It was quite an adventure. We had one prepared homily going in and we were videotaped. It was humbling to sit down with the priest and go through our strengths and weaknesses,” said Ted Schreck.  The men had to prepare homilies for different occasions, including a funeral.  “We looked at the different styles of homiletics and such. I gained a great appreciation for what the priests and deacons do each and every day,” said Schreck.
He said while they were far from Mississippi, the course really brought home the kind of very personal work they will be doing when they preach. “We really concentrated on knowing who your audience was — so it was all about considering those that we left at home — the parishioners, our friends and family members, people we haven’t met yet,” he said.
McGinley said the trip was more than just an academic experience. “Fr. Anthony Quyet told me at the beginning of this, he said, ‘John you’re going to get a lot of information in the next five years, but information is not formation and you need to make that distinction and make sure that as you gain all this new information that you let it become part of who you are and let it change you.’
That week at St. Meinrad was a lot of information, but it was tremendous formation,” said McGinley. “I really felt like in some way I was different when I left there than when I got there. It was just as much a very intense class as it was a retreat. It was a week of tremendous growth. Yeah, just a beautiful week,” he added.
The Feast of St. Lawrence, one of the first deacons and martyrs for the church, fell on the weekend of the retreat and the bishop used it to speak about the ministry of the diaconate. He spoke of it as a ministry of service and reminded the men that even after they take the Sacrament of Holy Orders, they will have to maintain and nourish their Sacrament of marriage. They will continue to live their lives at work and in their parishes.
The candidates have talked a lot about that service during their fomation. “The idea of the diaconate does not deny the service that other people are doing. The laity are very active in our churches,” explained John McGregor. “I think John Paul II said that we are the service of the church sacramentalized. We are not the only ones serving in church, we are just a sign of that service,” he added.
All of the men were thankful that now retired Bishop Joseph Latino started them on their journey and that Bishop Kopacz continues to support them on the way.
Father Messina said he enjoys guiding the candidates because he values the ministry they are called to do. He said a man who believes he has a calling to the diaconate should have a couple of important qualities. “He must have a suitable prayer life and relationship with God. There must be a willingness and desire to serve God’s people.
“The Good Shepherd image is what’s needed; a Pope Francis model would be ideal. In short, a deacon is a servant after the mind and heart of Jesus who came to serve and not be served. The candidate will need the ability to proclaim and preach God’s Word. Finally, a Deacon or any minister lay or ordained primarily preaches by his or her life,” said Father Messina.
During the next several months the candidates will continue their formation, which will include a day of practicum on liturgical roles and movements of a deacon, especially at a Mass where the bishop is the celebrant. “Deacons have a very special role in the liturgy. When the local bishop is the celebrant, the presence of the deacon allows the bishop to be surrounded by all his ministers – servers, lectors, acolytes, deacons and priests,” said Mary Woodward, diocesan chancellor and director of liturgy.
“Our diocesan liturgies will be greatly enhanced by having deacons present in their traditional role. Therefore, we want them to have a sense of comfort and confidence in the sanctuary. This will assist in drawing the faithful even more into the sacred mysteries,” Woodward added.