Five years ago, 13 men embarked on a journey together to become deacons, meeting each other for the first time on a silent retreat. On June 11, that journey culminated in these men and their spouses being greeted by clamorous cheers emanating from the men, women and children who flocked to downtown Los Angeles’ Cathedral of Our Lady of Angels for this year’s Ordination to the Diaconate.
In a Mass celebrated by Archbishop José H. Gomez, the archdiocese welcomed its newest deacons: the St. Rose of Lima Permanent Diaconate Class, a group that, according to its members, is as tight-knit as they come.
“From day one, we had this connection that was so overwhelming and powerful,” states Santiago “Jimmy” Salas of St. Cyprian Church in Long Beach. “At the ordination Mass, we were giddy about the whole thing; there was so much laughter, and it was truly amazing. It was the best kind of relationship. The kind that you have in some cases with your own siblings.”
“Because they had been so welcoming and so encouraging, we felt like brothers going in, and had a great sense of camaraderie,” echoes Brian Conroy of St. Mel in Woodland Hills, who himself has played a pivotal role in the coordination of faith formation programs throughout his 30-plus years as an RCIA director. “We were together about 16-20 hours a month all year long; we were like family. It was an awesome feeling [being ordained together].”
Though the group’s chemistry was effortless, the diaconate program, like anything truly worthwhile, presented immense challenges. For one, the curriculum required each of the candidates in the class to complete rigorous study, paper writing, group projects and individual projects organized at the candidates’ home parishes. But far more important than the papers and exams are the self-examinations an aspiring deacon undergoes when assessing the gravity of the responsibilities he must accept.
“When you’re studying for the diaconate … you’re studying to administer to people as a deacon,” explains Conroy. “It’s not merely a matter of learning stuff; it’s a matter of learning a way of being. It’s one thing to study Scripture at a university. But if you’re studying the Scriptures with the mindset of ‘what would you say if you had to preach on Sunday’ that’s a whole different dimension. It’s not about knowing stuff; it’s about being someone.”
And then there’s the challenge of maintaining a close relationship with God in the face of adversity and sorrow, a challenge both Salas and Conroy understand all too well. Salas, a double amputee, slowly began to lose his legs in 2001 due to complications following a kidney transplant (a kidney that was donated by his wife Lupe), and earlier this year he endured life-threatening health problems after undergoing open heart surgery.
“I didn’t know if I was going to make it through the year,” says Salas. “So there was some serious discerning going on right there.” And Conroy, who initially began pursuing the diaconate with his first wife in 2008, tragically lost her to breast cancer, and subsequently withdrew from the program.
While adversity of that magnitude would cause many to wrestle with their faith, Salas and Conroy instead embraced their burdens as an opportunity to become closer with God.
“When I was in my hospital bed after my last amputation, I was praying my rosary and the room was pitch black,” recalls Salas.
“And the Virgin Mother appears to me, hovering over my bed, and didn’t say a word to me, but through some kind of mental telepathy told me, ‘Relax. Praise the Lord God, be patient and things will work out.’ And I’ve just embraced this disability and everything that has happened to me in the name of God’s glory ever since then. That moment has had the biggest impact on me and my discernment. All of that suffering that I went through drew me to God. I developed a closeness with him and I just immersed myself in ministry work.”
Conroy credits the emergence of a faith-filled woman in his life, his current wife Esperanza, as his main source of inspiration in discerning his re-entry into the diaconate in 2011.
“We talked about what the program had meant to me and how proud she would be to be a clergy person’s wife,” explains Conroy. “So we looked back into it and ended up scheduling an interview with the deacon formation team, and they readmitted us. The new class welcomed us so openly and warmly, and included us in everything so graciously that after just a few meetings, it was like we had been a part of the group all along.”
Just prior to the conclusion of the ordination Mass, the 12 spouses of the newly-ordained deacons (class member Louis Roche of St. Charles Borromeo in North Hollywood is single, and, as such, made a commitment to celibacy) were honored by the congregation for joining and supporting their husbands throughout their pursuit of the diaconate. And in a very emotional sequence just after the conclusion of the Mass, the St. Rose of Lima class members, having just earned the capacity to bless others as deacons through the “laying on of hands” preparatory rite during the Mass, lined up in the massive courtyard adjacent to the cathedral and offered their first blessings to their wives.
“That moment had so much packed into it,” recalls Conroy of blessing Esperanza. “She beamed at me. It was amazing; it’s hard to put these things into words.”
“The emotions of giving my wife her first blessing was very powerful,” adds Salas of blessing Lupe. “I was in total awe of being there on ordination day after all that she and I had been through. It was something I would do all the time anyway before I was ordained: telling her what a blessing she is to me and how God put her in my life, and I’ve told her that often. I just reiterated that for the first blessing.”
Virtually everyone who attended the Mass waited in the courtyard to receive first blessings from the newly-ordained deacons. The scene was a telling visual indicating that, while this class of permanent deacons completed all of the pre-requisites of the diaconate, the real work — the “service of love” as Archbishop Gomez continually labeled the diaconate during his homily — awaits them.
“Love can be demanding,” assesses Conroy. “It’s not about knowing stuff; it’s about being someone. The demand of love is that you put down what you have planned and you go where you’re called. Because when you go and attend to [someone in need], you’re going and attending to Christ himself. So what could be more important?”
“[The diaconate program] was a challenge, and I know it’s not over yet,” adds Salas, who ministered for many years in prisons and regularly speaks to juveniles involved with gangs and invites people rehabilitating from drug addiction to his home for barbecues. “The work is just about to begin for me. Now that I’m a deacon, that will hold so much more meaning and be so much more powerful. The ‘service of love’ to me means to put the needs of other people first. And that’s what I intend to do.”