Deacons say gathering helps them feel ‘not alone’

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Sunday, February 12, 2012

Hundreds of deacons from the Archdiocese of Chicago and their wives gathered Jan. 27-29 in Schaumburg to learn, to worship and to reconnect with old friends and to make new ones.

The second Chicago Diaconate Convocation offered deacons opportunities to learn about everything from the Gospel of St. Mark, which is the main Gospel of this liturgical year; how to welcome and support parishioners with mental illness; and how to preach about social justice.

Father Michael Ahlstrom, the vicar for the diaconate community, noted that the Archdiocese of Chicago is unequalled in its number of active permanent deacons. The ballroom at the Renaissance Schaumburg Hotel was standing-room-only as morning prayer ended on Jan. 28 and the participants prepared to listen to keynote speaker Matthew Kelly.

“Nowhere in the United States, and I daresay the world, do we have this many deacons and deacons’ wives gathered in one room,” Ahlstrom said. “There’s a lot of power in this room. But there’s a challenge there too. You cannot keep that yourself.”

The 670 people at the convocation had no intention of keeping to themselves.

Deacon Paul Schmidt, who ministers at St. James Parish in Arlington Heights and serves as business manager at Holy Cross Parish in Deerfield, attended with his wife, Paulette. While St. James has its own vibrant diaconate community, with five permanent deacons taking charge of various ministries, the convocation offers an opportunity to share fellowship with other deacons and reconnect with those they maybe haven’t seen for some time, Schmidt said.

“It affirms what you’re doing,” Schmidt said. “Sometimes you feel like you’re alone, and this shows that you’re not.”

Paulette Schmidt said it’s also important for the deacons’ wives to have an opportunity to connect with one another.

“We can share experiences,” she said, “and that makes your faith grow.”

Deacon Jim Askew, from Our Lady of Humility Parish in Beach Park, said he was enjoying the fellowship opportunities at the convocation. “You get the feeling you’re part of the community,” he said. “You don’t feel like you’re out there on your own.”

Faustino Ramos, ordained last year for St. Bronislava Parish, said he is still learning the ropes of being a deacon.

“I came to listen to the speakers on different topics,” he said. “I want to learn how to get people to stay in the Catholic Church.”

Deacon John Walters from St. Bernardine Parish in Forest Park was presenting a workshop on religious imagination as well as attending other sessions.

“It feeds me,” he said of the opportunity to gather with other deacons. “It’s a good thing to bring together the diaconate community.”

The deacons gave a warm reception to the keynote speaker, Catholic author and management consultant Matthew Kelly. Kelly previewed a book he has coming out later this year about the four signs of a dynamic, engaged Catholic: prayer, ongoing study of the faith, generosity and evangelization.

Those traits abound in deacons, and Kelly urged the participants to find ways to develop them in more parishioners, because only about 7 percent of Catholic parishioners do about 80 percent of the volunteer work and donate about 80 percent of the money in their parishes.

For example, he said that nearly all Catholics say they pray. The difference is that committed, engaged Catholics tend to have a daily prayer routine — something like what the deacons learn when they are in formation.

“Can you share that with one or two people?” Kelly asked, noting that getting only a few more people engaged will have a significant effect.