By Patrick T. Brown | Associate Editor
Coming together as a brotherhood, deacons of the Diocese of Trenton were challenged by Bishop David M. O'Connell, C.M., to live up to the summons issued by Pope Francis on his recent trip to the United States.
"When the Pope met with us, he told us to focus our energies on two things - prayer and preaching," said the Bishop. "So he laid it out there for us, our agenda.
"I want you to receive, to believe, to teach and practice. I want you to be a witness in your parish."
165 permanent deacons, many accompanied by their wives, prayed, learned and celebrated together at the annual convocation held Oct. 23-24 in Plainsboro.
Deacon Don Ronning of Mother of Mercy Parish, Asbury Park, said the convening was "very refreshing" and gave the brothers in the diaconate a chance to re-connect and celebrate their shared ministry while learning about the long-term planning efforts of the Diocese.
"We all work in different parishes and do different ministries, but we all feel a kinship with one another in the work that we do," said Deacon Ronning. "We have a good time together, we learn, and we get to talk about 'deacon stuff,' which is nice.
"There's a lot that people rely on us for, so the better equipped we are, the better off they are."
In his address, Bishop O'Connell encouraged the deacons to heed the advice given by Pope Francis - to develop a strong life of prayer and to become effective teachers of the Gospel.
"Preaching," the Bishop said, "is an issue that people cite all the time. [We] ask, why did you leave your parish, and they say 'Because the preaching is lousy. Doesn't hold my interest.'...Preaching is critically important. For me, as Bishop, it is the primary task."
During the open discussion, Deacon John Scanlon, of Our Lady of Good Counsel Parish, Moorestown, expressed his appreciation and admiration for the Bishop's commentary on CBS 3 Philly television during the Papal events in Philadelphia.
Deacon Scanlon told about a Jewish family he knows who tuned into the coverage. "They were absolutely amazed, and understood everything that went on. I would just like to credit you for what you did that day," he said, as the assembly joined in applause.
"For me, as Bishop, my efforts to reach the widest swath of Catholics are by preaching...but also teaching," responded Bishop O'Connell. "That was a teaching moment...I've heard from Catholics who [watched and] said 'You know, we never really understood that.'
"Our job, in the Church, is to hand on the faith that has been handed on to us, and to hand it on in a way that people are able to relate to, understand, own and practice. That's my vision."
Deacon Andy Fatovic, of St. Vincent de Paul Parish, Yardville, said that, as an unmarried deacon, his parish provides the support and community of a family. Gathering with his brother deacons is like a reunion with extended family members.
"Unless you're close to some of the other guys in a nearby parish, everyone is so scattered around, it's great to see the guys you don't a chance to over the course of the year," Deacon Fatovic said. "It's a great time to meet up with the brothers, catch up on things, pray together, it's really important to spend the time together."
The convocation began on Friday afternoon with dinner, followed by Evening Prayer and welcome from Msgr. Thomas Mullelly, the diocesan vicar for clergy and consecrated life. Saturday's highlights included breakfast and Morning Prayer as well as Mass with the Bishop, followed by lunch.
“Bishop O'Connell did a great thing by having this be yearly," said Deacon Fatovic. "Every-other-year was fine, but this is great. It's nice to have the Bishop supporting you by coming to these things, to share what's going on the Diocese, to hear that he's in the same boat we are - we're learning, and it's a positive process living out our call."
"This annual convocation is an opportunity for the diaconate community to gather for spiritual renewal, educational formation, and fellowship," said Deacon Michael Riley, associate director of the diocese's office of clergy and consecrated life.
The bulk of the day-and-a-half retreat was dedicated towards explaining the “Faith in Our Future” pastoral planning process, which will launch later this year and will engage parishes and communities in discerning a solid path forward for the Diocese of Trenton in the years ahead.
Presenters from the Reid Group, a strategic planning consultancy based out of Seattle that specializes in strengthening faith-based ministries and organizations, led the attending deacons in a presentation and discussion around the process and its timeline.
"The only thing I can guarantee you is there will be change," said Bishop O'Connell. "And the only thing I can ask you is, let's make that change positive for our Church."
No matter what the pastoral structure of the Diocese looks like going forward, the Bishop said, the role of the Deacon will remain critically important in the life of parishes across the four counties.
"I say to the priests, 'You know, as the numbers shrink, the things that you would like to do, or would want to do, you're not going to be able to do. You're only going to be able to do the things that only a priest does. And the things that anybody can do, you should share.' And I'd say the same thing to deacons - the things that deacons can do, that's what you should focus on,” said Bishop O’Connell.
"When the Pope spoke to us in Philadelphia, to the Bishops, he told us 'When the priests couldn't do it all, what did they do? They invented deacons!'"