November 6, 2015

Husband, father becomes a deacon to serve the Church in a different way

Altar server Cami Swaner, left, Deacon Steven Gretencord and Father Joseph Feltz, sacramental minister, process out of Sacred Heart Church in Terre Haute at the end of a Mass celebrated on Oct. 18. Like all permanent deacons, Deacon Gretencord balances his ministry between duties at the parish and serving in the community. (Submitted photo)

Altar server Cami Swaner, left, Deacon Steven Gretencord and Father Joseph Feltz, sacramental minister, process out of Sacred Heart Church in Terre Haute at the end of a Mass celebrated on Oct. 18. Like all permanent deacons, Deacon Gretencord balances his ministry between duties at the parish and serving in the community. (Submitted photo)

By Victoria Arthur (Special to The Criterion)

Deacon Steven Gretencord was about to leave the hospital, thinking his work for the day was done.

Then he received an urgent request. There was someone who needed a Catholic chaplain—immediately. Just 10 minutes before, this patient had learned he was dying of cancer. The man and his family were reeling from the news, and they were waiting.

There was no time to prepare. But at that moment, and in so many others in his ministry, Deacon Gretencord said the Holy Spirit took over. As he approached the door to the man’s hospital room, he recalled the Gospel reading from that weekend’s Sunday Mass: St. Mark’s account of Jesus calming a storm on the Sea of Galilee.

“I told the man and his family that before Jesus calmed the storm, the disciples still experienced the terror of it,” Deacon Gretencord said. “I told them that we all have storms in our lives, and sometimes we may wonder if Jesus is asleep in the back of the boat. But he’s always there for us to call upon him, to trust him, and to find peace.”

The words flowed, along with more than a few tears on the part of everyone in the room. And along with the Holy Spirit guiding him through that critical encounter, Deacon Gretencord credits years of formation for his life and ministry as a permanent deacon.

“I felt quite calm about it,” he says of that day this past summer. “I spoke from my heart, but my preparation and formation definitely came into play.”

Deacon Gretencord was among the first group of men to be ordained as permanent deacons in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis in 2008. Permanent deacons are distinguished from transitional deacons, who are men in the final stage of formation for the priesthood.

Looking back over his life, Deacon Gretencord says he never felt called to the priesthood. But the husband and father was eventually called to serve the Church in a different way, and it began in the unlikeliest of places.

A game changer

Deacon Gretencord was at Indiana State University’s Hulman Center in Terre Haute, watching his beloved Sycamores play basketball. On that day 15 or so years ago, he was seated next to Father Stephen Giannini, who at the time was Gretencord’s pastor at Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish in Terre Haute.

During the game, Father Giannini made an offhand remark about a meeting he had just attended in Indianapolis. The archdiocese was exploring the idea of beginning a deacon formation program.

“It sounded interesting—but not for me,” Deacon Gretencord recalls thinking at the time. “But then the idea kept popping up after that.”

The next pastor of Sacred Heart Parish mentioned the permanent diaconate to him as well. Soon after, a series of articles in The Criterion caught his attention. Deacon Gretencord began pondering the idea, and even brought it up in his workplace. And then one day, a colleague at his office mentioned that his brother-in-law—a permanent deacon in Pennsylvania—was coming to visit. The co-worker offered to arrange a meeting between the two of them.

“We spent five hours talking,” Deacon Gretencord said. “By this time, I had spent a lot of time reading [about the diaconate]. The more I investigated what a permanent deacon was, the more I wondered if it was something I was capable of doing. Something kept drawing me, and then this man shared his firsthand experience. What struck me most was the call to service—especially ministering to those that society forgets.”

Then in his late 40s, Deacon Gretencord spoke with his wife, Kathy, and their son, Jason, about the leap of faith he was considering. Both were supportive, and Deacon Gretencord embarked on his long journey toward becoming a deacon. Four years of formation followed, with a regular commute to and from Indianapolis. This was no minor commitment for a man with a full-time job—vice president of Valley Electric Supply in Terre Haute.

On June 28, 2008, the native of Fowler, Ind., was ordained a permanent deacon at the SS. Peter and Paul Cathedral in Indianapolis. Today, he considers this ministry a perfect fit for him.

“It’s just me,” he says of the role he has embraced with a passion.

‘Always there’

Now one of 40 permanent deacons ministering in central and southern Indiana, Deacon Gretencord describes the duties of the ministry as three-fold, encompassing word, sacrament and charity. Deacons proclaim the Gospel and preach homilies at Mass. They assist the priest in other ways during liturgies, and they can officiate at weddings and funeral services that do not involve the Eucharist. They can celebrate the sacrament of baptism and are ordinary ministers of holy Communion. And they dedicate themselves to service.

“During formation, you find out what calls you,” Deacon Gretencord said. After ordination, every deacon is assigned to one or more ministries of charity.

Deacon Gretencord has ministered to people in need—particularly youths—through Catholic Charities Terre Haute. Then there is his regular service to the city’s Union Hospital, where he is a volunteer chaplain. In addition, he volunteers as a chaplain to two prisons in Terre Haute—the U.S. Penitentiary and the Federal Correctional Institution.

As the Church continues to face a shortage of priests, Deacon Gretencord said that deacons are called to do more and more within parishes as well. Sacred Heart Parish, for example, has operated without a resident pastor for six years. Recently, Father Joseph Feltz, archdiocesan vicar for clergy, was appointed sacramental minister at Sacred Heart, traveling regularly from Indianapolis to celebrate Masses and assist the parish in other ways.

Through all the transitions in recent years, Deacon Gretencord “has been the steady one,” according to Barbara Black, Sacred Heart’s parish life coordinator.

“Deacon Steve is instrumental in everything we do,” Black said. “He’s at every Mass, and he preaches the homily once a month. He’s always there. … He’s always available.”

And like all permanent deacons, Deacon Gretencord fulfills all of his duties on a volunteer basis. Now 63, he looks forward to retiring from his full-time role at Valley Electric Supply at the end of this year. But he has no plans to retire from his ministry.

“I cannot imagine my life without being a deacon,” he said. “It’s a wonderful, remarkable privilege.”

(Victoria Arthur is a freelance writer and a member of St. Malachy Parish in Brownsburg.)

Local site Links: