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TERRE HAUTE—A little more than one year after their landmark ordination, three members of the first class of permanent deacons in the history of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis are finding joy in their life and ministry.
Less than two months later, Deacon Ronald Stier of the Richmond Catholic Community died after a two-year struggle with pancreatic cancer.
But deacons Robert Decker, Timothy Heller and Michael Stratman, along with their 21 remaining classmates, are ministering in a broad variety of ways across central and southern Indiana. (Related story: Deacon candidates declare their commitment to continue formation)
Deacon Decker, 58, continues to serve as the parish life coordinator of St. Andrew the Apostle Parish in Indianapolis, a position he has held since 2004.
But he said he has spent more time since his ordination visiting the sick and homebound members of St. Andrew the Apostle Parish than he did prior to being ordained.
Deacon Decker attributes the change to the gratitude he has for his vocation and the fact that it is simply part of his identity, not just a task he does.
“Being a deacon is what we are,” he said. “That’s who we are. That’s our essence. That’s the gift that God has given me. That’s what he has led me to.”
Deacon Decker said the vocation of a permanent deacon is to be a living sign of Christ the servant and to be primarily a minister of charity.
Marcella Woods, 81, is a homebound member of St. Andrew Parish who Deacon Decker visits regularly. She said she enjoys seeing him.
“When he comes by here, he’ll tell me who he has to go see,” Woods said. “He has a little list in his pocket and pulls it out and says, ‘I’m going out and seeing such and such a person.’ ”
Deacon Decker knows, however, that he has to balance the time that he dedicates to his diaconal ministry with the time he needs to give to his wife, Ann, and to their married children and their grandchildren. He said it is a balancing act that has had its “ups and downs.”
His wife said that it was a challenge shortly after his ordination, but that they are both getting used to it.
“We still attend as many of them [family events] as we can as a couple,” Ann Decker said. “But there are times when I have to go without Bob. But then I feel like I’m representing him and me. That was probably one of the bigger adjustments for me.”
“I truly believe that the diaconate is a perfect fit for me,” he said. “It’s a great ministry. And I believe that, if you stay focused on balancing your life, it’s very rewarding. It keeps you in union with God in constant prayer and adoration.”
Deacon Stratman said that balancing diaconal ministry, his family commitments and his work selling advertising for an automobile trade publication is like “juggling three heavy balls.”
But he has also experienced joy in bringing the diaconate and his family life together. The first person he baptized after being ordained was his grandson, Jacob.
“It was very, very powerful,” he said. “It just seemed like I wasn’t really in my body. It seemed like the hand of God reached down and was baptizing my grandson.”
His identity as a deacon has also influenced his work life, even though he said he works with few Catholics.
Bob Vice is a commissioned elder at Ladoga Presbyterian Church in Ladoga, Ind., and one of Deacon Stratman’s clients. He works at a car dealership in Ladoga that is owned by his family.
As a commissioned elder, he teaches religious education classes and periodically gives homilies at worship services. Vice said that the two will talk about matters dealing with each other’s faith frequently.
He has known Deacon Stratman for 12 years, but has seen a noticeable change in him since he was ordained to the diaconate.
“You could see him growing in faith for the last couple of years,” Vice said. “But since his ordination, I’ve seen a big change in him. He has great peace in his life. He has the ability to listen and to give good counsel.”
Father Rick Ginther, the pastor of St. Patrick and St. Margaret Mary parishes in Terre Haute, said that helping the members of the parishes where Deacon Stratman ministers to understand the particular nature of the diaconate is an ongoing process.
“I think the archdiocese has done a pretty good job of saying this is what and who deacons are in the Church,” he said. “[But] we still have a long way to go because I don’t think diaconal ministry is completely understood.”
That is the case with Richard Dahle, a member of St. Margaret Mary Parish, who said after a Sunday Mass there on Aug. 9 that he is still learning about the diaconate.
Nevertheless, he values Deacon Stratman’s ministry.
“He adds a lot to the [Mass],” Dahle said. “We really do like him.”
It is in assisting at the altar during Mass that Deacon Stratman said he most feels like a deacon.
But at those moments, he said his heart is often focused on those he has ministered to recently in hospitals or nursing homes.
“I represent the people who cannot be there at that particular moment,” Deacon Stratman said. “I pray for them and when [the people in the congregation] see me, they see the people that are homebound or the people in the hospitals or in the health centers that cannot make it to church. I’m kind of a conduit to God [for them] when I’m serving at the altar.”
Deacon Heller, 54, ministers at St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross Parish in Bright in the Batesville Deanery by visiting the sick and homebound and bringing them Communion. He also does jail ministry at the Dearborn County Law Enforcement Center in Lawrenceburg and assists at the North Dearborn Pantry in Bright that his parish helps support with food donations.
“I’ve been really excited to be working with the people in the capacity of a deacon,” Deacon Heller said. “I didn’t know what it was going to be like. But I really feel like I’m able to respond to my calling.”
A year later, though, he is still growing into some aspects of his life and ministry, especially his commitment to celibacy.
Deacon Heller was the sole member of his ordination class to promise to live a life of celibacy. His wife, Sandra, died of cancer nine months before the ordination Mass.
Unmarried men who are ordained to the permanent diaconate are required to be celibate. If a married deacon becomes a widower after being ordained, he cannot re-marry.
Clare Sucietto, 75, thinks the tragedy of the death of Deacon Heller’s wife has helped him in his ministry.
“I think it has given him an understanding and an insight into human nature and people’s hearts,” said Sucietto, who receives spiritual direction from Deacon Heller. “I think Tim can read hearts.”
Sucietto said Heller’s ministry in spiritual direction should be seen very much in the context of his ministry of service as a deacon.
“That’s being a servant,” she said. “He’s very, very gentle. He almost always asks me where I see God in the midst of [my life]. He invites me to discover what God is leading me to and through at [a particular] time in my life.”
But for Deacon Heller, it doesn’t matter who it is that he is ministering to. In all cases, he seeks to find in them the presence of Christ.
“When I’m at the food pantry helping there as its meat manager—that’s my big job title—I’m able to see Christ in others,” Deacon Heller said. “And I did before [being ordained]. But I’m more keenly aware of it [now] when they come through the line. … It’s just so real to me.”
(For more information about the permanent deacons in the archdiocese and the archdiocesan deacon formation program, log on to www.archindy.org/deacon.) †