Reveling in finally reaching the ordination day of four men to the diaconate on Aug. 22, Bishop Ronald Gainer said such days of celebration and joy are much needed in a time of face masks and social distancing.
“We have all been counting the days, and counting the days, and counting the days,” he said of the previously twice-delayed liturgy for the men: two Diocesan seminarians, a former minister in the Church of Christ and Episcopalian priest, and a native of India in formation for a religious order that serves in the Diocese.
“I know that there are broad smiles on your faces right now, even though I can’t see your faces,” Bishop Gainer told the candidates: William Barbee, Aaron Lynch, Peter Rettig and Norbert Suresh. The Rite of Ordination was celebrated at St. Patrick Cathedral in Harrisburg in front of a limited number of close family and friends. The Mass was also livestreamed on the Diocese’s YouTube Channel.
The deacons are continuing to serve in the parishes they have been recently assigned to: Deacon Barbee at St. Margaret Mary Parish in Harrisburg; Deacon Lynch at St. Catherine Labouré Parish in Harrisburg; and Deacon Rettig at St. Francis Xavier Parish in Gettysburg. Deacon Suresh, MSSCC, who has been living and serving with his order in Fairfield while completing studies at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md., is waiting to receive his diaconate assignment from his congregation.
In his homily, Bishop Gainer cautioned the candidates against the temptation of considering diaconate ordination solely as a milestone toward priesthood.
“There is a temptation, I know, for you to see this ordination simply as a movement toward your true vocation, since each of you aspires to be ordained a priest. It’s a temptation that all of us, I think, might fall into. We might rejoice today just because you are one step closer to the priesthood. That is understandable. But today’s sacramental celebration is more than a stepping stone to your final goal,” he said.
The bishop read to the candidates the words Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI spoke to the clergy of Rome in 2008: “Every priest, of course, also continues to be a deacon, and must always be aware of this dimension, for the Lord himself became our minister, our deacon. Recall the act of the washing of the feet, where it is explicitly shown that the teacher, the Lord, acts as a deacon, and wants those who follow him to be deacons, and carry out this ministry for humanity to the point that they even help us wash the dirty feet of the people entrusted to our care. This dimension seems to be one of paramount importance.”
Ordination to the diaconate is “the beginning of an ordained servanthood that must remain visible throughout the rest of your lives,” Bishop Gainer told the men. “If your diaconal ordination is only seen as a progression towards something else, and the diaconal dimension does not remain manifest throughout the rest of your lives, you may be ordained priests or even someday ordained bishops, but you will not be good priests or good bishops. Servanthood modeled on the life of Christ the Servant must remain an essential part of who you are.”
Eager to Serve
Deacon William Barbee – a husband, father, grandfather and former minister in the Church of Christ and the Episcopal Church – is in formation for the Diocesan priesthood under the Church’s Pastoral Provision. The provision provides a structure for the formation of married former Anglican clergy members to be ordained Catholic priests.
The Vatican created the Pastoral Provision in 1980 in response to requests from clergy and laity of the Episcopal Church seeking full communion with the Catholic Church. The provision is under the auspices of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Deacon Barbee, who is originally from Illinois, said his 28 years of service as an Army chaplain introduced him to various denominations, including Lutheran and Catholic chaplains that became close friends.
Theological discussions with fellow chaplains put the search for truth on his heart during his time as chaplain with the Church of Christ, where he had ministered since 1980.
While assigned to Fort Hood, Texas, he and his wife Cindy began attending an Episcopal church. He was ordained a priest in the Episcopal Church in 1995. Continued discussions with his close chaplain friends and continued studies, however, led him and his wife to enter the Catholic Church in 2015 while assigned to the Carlisle Barracks.
“I saw the fullness of the Church, through history, through liturgy, but primarily through doctrine,” Deacon Barbee said. “In the Episcopal Church, I loved the people and I respect the Church, but doctrinally, the Catholic Church has it. It has the authority. It has the magisterium. You can sink yourself into the Truth.”
“It came to a point where I had to say to myself and to Cindy, ‘I may never be a Catholic priest. That might not happen. But I know one thing for sure, I have to be Catholic. I’m going to move regardless,’” he said.
Eventually, he connected with Father Paul Schenck, who had been a minister in the Anglican tradition prior to his ordination as a Diocesan priest, to explore joining the ranks of the priesthood.
In November of 2018, Bishop Gainer assigned him to serve at St. Margaret Mary Parish in Harrisburg, where he’ll continue as he awaits ordination to the priesthood.
Deacon Barbee said he has enjoyed his work in the parish, and looks forward to continued service.
“For me, it’s been a real joy to go in with the children in the school. They ask some really good questions, and sometimes it’s hard to find the answer. I’ll have to say, ‘I’ll get back with you on that one!’ And sometimes I do hospital visits and Communion to the shut-ins and homebound, and also nursing home ministry. I also serve as an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion and lector,” he said.
Deacon Aaron Lynch, a native of St. Patrick Parish in Carlisle and a seminarian at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia, first heard the call to priesthood in middle school and high school. He said the messages were like small tugs.
“There’s just something in you that knows, and I think every priest and every consecrated religious has that feeling,” he said. “It might not be what I want, but it’s what God wants me to do, whether I enjoy it, or want it or not. If it’s what God wants me to do, it will ultimately make me happy.”
“Discernment of a vocation, at least in my experience and in the experience of a lot of young men is, a lot of guys have a fairly clear idea that this is what God wants me to do, and it’s training our own hearts to be obedient to that pull. You discover that you love this vocation deeply,” he added.
Assigned to St. Catherine Labouré Parish in Harrisburg earlier this summer, Deacon Lynch said he looks forward to continuing his service in the deacon’s role as Minister of the Word, Altar and Charity.
“I’ve been in seminary for seven years now, and I’ve been in formation for the Diocese of Harrisburg for over seven years. I feel like my ministry is just now beginning,” he said. “All of this time has been preparation, and I’m aching to begin. I want to preach. I want to baptize. I want to witness marriages. I want to visit the sick.”
“I’m chomping at the bit to finally get there after all this time,” he added. “I have a great desire to give the grace of Christ to people in a unique way. I’ve been doing a lot of these things and I feel prepared, and I’m anxious to begin doing them in a priestly way.”
Deacon Lynch expressed gratitude for the support he and his fellow seminarians have received from the people in the Diocese, through prayers, financial contributions and friendship.
“Receiving unconditional love from someone I’ve never met but who has been praying for me in such a deep, intimate and spiritual way is a very humbling experience and a very joyous one,” he said. “The people of God have been very kind and generous to me and my brothers, and there isn’t a ‘Thank you’ big enough for that.”
“Pray for vocations, pray for my brothers, pray for your priests, and pray for all the people who are helping them,” Deacon Lynch asked the faithful of the Diocese. “Pray for all the people who are working in the parishes during this very difficult time. Things are crazy and we need to be patient. We need to pray for guidance from the Holy Spirit; we can’t do this alone.”
Deacon Peter Rettig said his consideration of the priesthood came when his religion teacher at St. Maria Goretti High School in Hagerstown, Md., told the class, “You can have a personal relationship with God.”
He liked the sound of it, and made a visit to the Adoration Chapel on campus.
“People were sitting there in silence and I didn’t quite understand why, but I wanted to figure out why,” said Deacon Rettig, a native of St. Andrew the Apostle Parish in Waynesboro.
“God spoke to me and told me He was there, just internally, like a little movement in your soul, and I kept going back a few days to the Adoration Chapel to pursue that voice that I heard. There was this desire to figure out what it was, to know who it was. After a few days, the thought of the priesthood just kept popping into my head. It wasn’t a self-produced thought. You know when it is, and it wasn’t.”
To further his discernment, he attended the Diocese’s Quo Vadis Days discernment camp, where he prayed a novena to St. John Vianney, the patron saint of parish priests. Again, he felt the presence of God, calling him to enter seminary.
After two years of studies at Louisiana State University, he entered St. Charles Seminary in Philadelphia, where he earned his degree in philosophy. Further studies led him to the University of Navarra in Spain and then to Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md.
Deacon Rettig has been serving at St. Francis Xavier Parish in Gettysburg this summer, and will continue there as a deacon.
“Three things I’m very much looking forward to are, Exposition with Adoration before the Blessed Sacrament, baptisms and preaching,” he said. “With baptisms, you get to see somebody born into the faith. That’s the beginning of their Eternal Life. With Adoration, you’re before Jesus Christ, and that speaks for itself. With preaching, I’ve given some reflections and I’ve found it so much fun.”
Deacon Rettig said he is approaching diaconal ministry with commitment.
“I feel very comfortable approaching this commitment because it’s a vocation. There are some fears here and there – Am I going to be good at this? Will I not be good at this? – but those come and go and they’re solved by the grace of God,” he said.
“When people ask me how I’m doing, I say I’m living the dream. My family members say, ‘You’re a lot happier. You sound way more chipper than you did in college.’ Well, I’m going the way I’m supposed to go. I feel like I’ve been called by God to do it, and I think it’s the only way to satiate those feelings and find true happiness. I’m approaching commitment with a lot of joy,” he said.
Deacon Norbert Suresh, MSSCC, is a native of India. He has been studying at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md., for the past two years and resides at his congregation’s House of Studies in Fairfield.
“My faith journey started from my mother. She is a very devoted woman. I recall going with her to Mass. I used to help the priest celebrate the Mass, being an altar server. Being able to be so close to the Altar of God and seeing how the priest was so close, I was so much inspired,” he said.
“In high school, I expressed the idea to my parents about becoming a priest, and they were very happy about that. After tenth grade, I told our former parish priest. He also was very happy with that. He showed me the Missionary priest who was working in our parish at the time for six months. I said, ‘Yes, Father. I can be a religious priest.’”
Deacon Suresh joined the Missionaries of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary in 2008, and completed his high school education with the order. He spent a year learning English before studies in philosophy and a novitiate year in 2015.
While he was studying theology, he was invited by the order to study at Mount St. Mary’s.
“It was very difficult for me to come here, because my mother gets sick now and then. I thought, ‘If I’m in India, I can see my parents all the time.’ I have one brother and two sisters. I said, ‘I have only one brother. If I miss the chance to see his marriage, I will never see it,’” Deacon Suresh said. “So at the beginning, I said I am not interested in coming to America. But if God-willing they asked me again, my brother gets married and my mom gets well, then it is God’s plan that I come to America. So here I am.”
The Missionaries of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary were founded in 1836 by St. Gaetano Errico, a native of Naples, Italy.
“The basic mission, the charism of our congregation is spreading the love of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary,” Deacon Suresh said. “The work of the apostolate is administrating any of the sacraments in the parish, teaching in the school. In any of the work we do, we should show the devotion of the Sacred Hearts to others.”
Deacon Suresh professed his vows with the order on May 5, 2019. During his time in Fairfield, he has been assisting at Masses at Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church in Fairfield as acolyte and Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion. He said he is looking forward to serving the people of the parish, who have welcomed him like family.
“This many years, I have experienced God’s mercy and love throughout my life, so I am eagerly looking forward to show that same love to the people through my service and ministry,” he said.
(Photos by Chris Heisey, The Catholic Witness.)
By Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness