Deacons urged to help boost Mass attendance, strengthen marriages

Photo Caption: Robert Rodriguez, from Corpus Christi Parish in Galesburg, was among 30 deacon candidates installed into the ministry of acolyte by Bishop Daniel R. Jenky, CSC, on March 5.

By: By Tom Dermody

The permanent deacons of the Diocese of Peoria were asked at their annual gathering last weekend to help the Catholic Church confront two of its major challenges — low Mass attendance and threats to marriage and family life.

“The church exists to evangelize, to bring the world to Christ, and boy do I depend on you folks,” said Bishop Daniel R. Jenky, CSC, to the group of 82 ordained deacons and their wives who assembled in Peoria on March 6.

During a nearly hour-long question and answer session with the deacons at the Spalding Pastoral Center, the bishop identified “the greatest challenge facing the Diocese of Peoria” as one shared by other U.S. dioceses — the “disgrace” that about 60 percent of baptized Catholics are not regularly attending Sunday Mass.

“It’s inconceivable,” said Bishop Jenky, who addressed the importance of Sunday Mass participation at length in his 2006 Festival Letter to the diocese. “We cannot be Catholics without the Eucharist.”

He encouraged the deacons, and all Catholics, to watch for moments given by the Holy Spirit to “bring these people back to the practice of the faith.”

“Be willing to announce the good news, to talk about Jesus, in season and out of season,” he urged the deacon community. Bringing back fallen-away Catholics “has got to be first and last in our diocese,” he said.

Later, the deacons and their wives were invited to join “an army of marriage champions” needed to implement the U.S. bishops’ new Pastoral Initiative on Marriage. Don and Lorrie Gramer, directors of the Office of Family Life for the Diocese of Rockford, asked the deacons to work toward making their faith communities “marriage-building parishes.”

DEACON CANDIDATES ADVANCE
Also in attendance were the 30 men preparing to be ordained to the permanent diaconate in May of 2012, and their wives. At a Mass that opened the deacon convocation at St. Mary’s Cathedral, Bishop Jenky installed class members into the ministry of acolyte, with special responsibilities to assist priests and deacons, including as ministers of holy Communion.

“Make your life worthy of your service at the table of the Lord and of his Church,” said Bishop Jenky as the deacon candidates came forward, one by one, after the homily to touch a vessel holding the bread to be consecrated at that Mass.

As they neared their final of three years of preparation, the deacon candidates were urged by the bishop to show a sincere love for God’s people, “and especially for the weak and the sick.”

Bishop Jenky led the assembly in applause for both the candidates and their wives.

UNIFIERS, BUILDING UP THE FAITH
During the convocation, Bishop Jenky responded to ten questions surfaced by the diaconate community, covering topics ranging from the cause for canonization of Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen to suggestions for improving communication with pastors.

The bishop explained the reasons behind the recent “pause” in diocesan efforts on behalf of the Sheen cause, and his joy that it is again moving ahead.

“I believe Fulton Sheen has a lot to say to us,” calling the media pioneer and native son “one of the greatest evangelists in the history of the world.”

The position paper being prepared on Sheen’s behalf is nearly ready for presentation to Pope Benedict XVI, and “if the Holy Spirit and Rome agree,” beatification could take place as early as 2013.

Regarding working with pastors, Bishop Jenky said the role of the deacon is to “be a unifier.”

“Many deacons are in their parishes longer than pastors,” said Bishop Jenky. While there is temptation for parishioners to “tear the new guy down,” deacons are called “to build up and not tear down.” He urged them to be “truth tellers” as they assist priests and the bishop.

Bishop Jenky lauded deacons’ involvement in programs such as Teens Encounter Christ and Cursillo, and encouraged them to be on the lookout for younger leaders to guide those evangelization efforts into coming generations.

MARRIAGE “HEROES”
The Grabers, meanwhile, told the diaconate community of efforts in the Rockford diocese to strengthen marriage and family life. Bishop Thomas Doran has declared this year “Marriage-Building 2011” in that diocese.

“What does a marriage-building parish need to look like?” asked Lorrie Gramer, who is president-elect of the National Association of Catholic Family Life Ministers. The Gramers have spent the last five months visiting parishes and inviting them to do more to support Catholic marriage.

Some parishes, for example, are offering special blessings during Mass for those celebrating a wedding anniversary that month.

“It gives a witness to the rest of the community that we value those marriages,” said Lorrie Gramer.

The Gramers invited the deacon community to list their concerns for marriage and family life. Among the responses were couples living together before marriage, the divorce rate (about 40 percent for Catholics), the push to change the very definition of marriage, contraception, the pace of family life as both spouses are working, the decrease in the number of Catholic weddings, and negative impacts from culture and the media, including the influence of easily-obtained pornography.

The Gramers said that deacons and their wives, as “heroes” of marriage and family life and leaders in their parishes, are in a unique position to help fulfill the goals of the U.S. bishops outlined in their 2009 pastoral letter: “Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan.”

“We all understand and believe in the value of marriage,” she said. “We need to take the knowledge that we have something life-giving to the next generation and allow it to bear fruit. They’re getting a whole different message.”

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