By Dave Jolivet
SWANSEA, Mass. — As we travel deeper into the pandemic, social gatherings are looking more and more like the opening credits to “The Brady Bunch.” But this isn’t a 70s sitcom, it’s real life and becoming life as we know it.
Laptop, tablet, and smart-phone screens are filled with any number of faces and voices all joining together to talk, laugh, commiserate, pray and to give glory to God.
On the evening of April 19, the diocesan Permanent Diaconate Office co-directors Father Robert A. Oliveira and Deacon Frank R. Lucca initiated a virtual Sunday evening of prayer to keep the permanent deacons across the diocese connected, strengthening their bond of brotherhood and allowing them to pray together and share thoughts, feelings and suggestions to help area faithful stay connected to their Catholic faith. In addition, aspirants of the Diocese of Fall River’s 10th diaconate class were also invited to join to keep strong their formation process as they travel the road to what they hope leads to becoming a diocesan permanent deacon.
“This is an opportune time for our permanent deacons to exercise their ministry in a creative way,” Father Oliveira told The Anchor. “This is their time to be servants. We encourage them to do that.
“This is their time. They shouldn’t be afraid and isolate themselves from a ministry that Christ and the bishop have called them to, to exercise their ministry in their own parish or apostolates.”
More than 30 deacons and aspirants gathered for the inaugural prayer meeting. “It is important to gather as a community,” Deacon Lucca told The Anchor. “We’ve invited our deacons and aspirants to join every Sunday evening at 6:30 p.m. for Evening Prayer to pray for our parishes and people, each other and a return to health for those affected by the pandemic, as well as to check in with each other.
“As deacons, we are called to serve God’s people in good times and bad. We are meeting each week online as deacons of the diocese to support each other and encourage each other in ministry.
“We shared ideas of what could be done to reach out to parishioners, to offer opportunities for prayer for our parishioners and what we can do to support each other in the days ahead.”
The first session began with some opening words from Father Oliveira and then Deacons Thomas McMahon and Paul Levesque led the Liturgy of the Hours’ Evening Prayers; part of the daily routine of ordained priests, deacons and those in formation to become deacons.
Aspirant Jack O’Brien from St. Mary’s Parish in Mansfield, is part of the 10th diocesan diaconate class. He expressed to The Anchor his gratitude and appreciation for the efforts of the Permanent Diaconate Office: “In these very atypical times, it seems like the world has adopted ‘virtual meetings’ as one of the important ways for people, whether they be in a company, classroom or church, to stay connected. It is in this vein that the Office of Permanent Diaconate in the Diocese of Fall River has coordinated a weekly prayer meeting for its deacons and deacon candidates.
“These virtual prayer sessions allow the deacons and candidates, who live across the diocese, to fulfill their obligation and more importantly, retain some sense of community.
“Although we have not yet formally been accepted as candidates for the diaconate, having the opportunity to participate as a class, along with the current diocesan deacons, is a very special opportunity.
“It is a very clear visual reminder that, although physically dispersed, the shared ministry of the diaconate is a unique brotherhood and we must not lose sight of the importance of remaining connected and available to help each other.”
Deacon Kevin Gingras from Holy Family Parish in East Taunton sees these unusual times as an opportunity to grow as a Church family. “As the practice of ‘social distancing’ should be growing, let us pray that our practice of ‘Spiritual distancing’ is shrinking,” he told The Anchor.
“It was really great to touch base with all of them [brother deacons and aspirants] to see how things were going and to realize we are all pretty much on the same page here. Sure, we aren’t audio-video experts by any stretch but we are all doing what we can to connect to our parishioners to bring some level of sanity to all this.”
And bringing some normalcy to fellow parishioners is high on this group’s list of priorities. “We pulled together this session as we heard from some deacons that their parishes were ‘dead’ due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” explained Deacon Lucca. “As ordained ministers, we have the obligation to find ways to minister to God’s people, even in a time when parish Masses are on hiatus and parish offices are closed. But with today’s technology, from streaming to online meeting systems, we can still communicate with our parishioners.
“Many of our deacons also have experience in technology and communications that may be useful to pastors to reach out to our parishioners. At the least, we encourage our deacons to reach out to those in ministry in the parish, as well as to reach out to parishioners directly using the most basic of technology — the phone.”
The message of reaching out to fellow parishioners and area faithful isn’t lost on the “virtual attendees.”
“Following prayer, Father Bob and Deacon Frank spoke to the deacons, encouraging them to be creative and reach out to parishioners to let them know that even though they may not be able to get to Mass every week, their parish is there for them, praying for them and offering opportunities for them to virtually participate in their faith,” Deacon Levesque, who ministers at St. Joseph and St. Michael parishes in Fall River told The Anchor. “Then, anyone who wanted to, shared some of the things that they are doing to do this. Ideas presented include recording and posting Masses, live-streaming Masses, live-streaming Stations of the Cross, Divine Mercy Chaplet, Holy Hours, Morning and Evening Prayer, faith-based talks, calling parishioners, etc.
“This was a great opportunity for all of us to be together, to strengthen our community. Usually we’re able to do this at the Chrism Mass and Deacon Area Meetings, but because of the pandemic these have all been canceled. None of us have ever experienced anything like the current situation we find ourselves in. There are no guidelines. It was great to be able to see each other and exchange ideas on how we can minister to the people of our parishes. I’m sure many of us were inspired to do things we hadn’t thought of before, that others were doing.”
Indeed people today have not experienced anything like the pandemic and its effects. That makes it all the more of a challenge for the current aspirants in their formation process, and the Sunday evening prayer meetings are exactly what’s needed as “new” norms and precedents are set.
“As an aspirant, and hopefully admitted as a candidate, it has been a pleasure to be associated with my cohort of classmates,” Americo Miranda of Our Lady of Grace Parish in Westport expressed to The Anchor. “As we journey on the road of discernment together, we come to know ourselves and one another, as we discern the will of Christ. It is always a gift to meet and dialogue with the many priests and deacons along the journey.
“Unfortunately, due to the epidemic, our candidate retreat has been postponed as well as the annual diaconate convocation. With that being said, it has not shaken our faith. Our trust, faith and hope in the Lord has only increased.
“For the past several weeks the Diaconate Class of 2023 have been taking virtual sessions for our Ecclesiology and Spirituality classes. This method has worked smoothly, with no interruption of our formation. The Sunday evening prayer meetings with deacons and future candidates, have been a blessing as well.
“The new virtual gathering gives us a wonderful opportunity to be part of the diocesan life by sharing the discussions taking place amongst the brother deacons in association with our priests. All have one goal, to serve the people of God, and to seek ways to spread the Good News of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
“In my opinion, the Sunday weekly virtual gatherings will inform us, and make us aware of the needs of the diocese. We will also have an opportunity to meet and dialogue with our deacons who have been so influential in the lives of many. My gratitude to Father Bob Oliveira, and to Deacon Frank Lucca, for taking on this technological initiative,” said Miranda.
Despite many signs pointing to the opposite, life goes on, and diocesan faithful can take heart in the fact that the men who have dedicated their lives to God and the Church, permanent deacons, and those aspiring to be so, have bolstered their commitment to their fellow parishioners by electing to strengthen each other in Spirit, mind, fellowship and prayer. Although miles apart and sheltered in place these men remain close, strong and determined to overcome the challenges of traversing new territories amidst the COVID-19 crisis.
Father Oliveira wrapped it up succinctly: “It is time to be steadfast of heart and exercise courage in extending God’s peace to those they serve.”
The Office of the Permanent Diaconate in cooperation with the Deacon Council is pleased to present the Deacon Webinar Series. The webinars will continue on the first Sunday of each month at 6:30 p.m. online. Upcoming topics included: The Rite of Marriage, Ministry Fair, Spiritual Direction and Homiletics. CEU credit is granted for participation in the webinars. All webinars will also be recorded and made available on the diaconate website for later viewing.
Visit fallriverdeacons.com for information.