By Barb Arland-Fye
Deacons, deacon candidates, deacon aspirants and wives formed a circle that encompassed an entire conference room at The Lodge in Bettendorf during last weekend’s deacon retreat.
They had gathered to pray Liturgy of the Hours and to reflect on the second day of their three-day retreat. All together, 86 people participated in the Earthen Vessels Marriage Retreat for Diaconate Couples.
Some had been part of the first deacon class ordained for the Diocese of Davenport in 1980; others were ordained in subsequent classes or anticipate being ordained next year or five years from now.
As they passed a microphone around for participants to share a reflection, one deacon noted that he and his wife have been married “55 years and one day.” While they’ve experienced ups and downs like every long-married couple, the deacon got choked up as he reflected on what his spouse means to him. “I get to kiss an angel every day.”
A deacon candidate’s wife shared how she and her husband have grown even closer in their marriage through dialogue and in praying Evening Prayer before bed. “It puts us in the presence of God and each other,” she said.
One of the exercises during the retreat asked couples to reflect on things they’ve experienced that reminded them of “Good Friday.” They wrote those things down on paper without sharing them. “Then they went outside and burned them in a fire pit, offering those thoughts up to God,” said Deacon David Montgomery, the diocese’s diaconate director.
The Paschal Mystery served as a theme of the Oct. 26-28 retreat led by Earthen Vessels Coordinator Brother Cyril Drnjevic, OSB, and Deacon Mikhail Alnajjar and his wife June.
During the reflection period Saturday night, one deacon’s wife observed how both Palm Sunday and Good Friday experiences had shaped the couple’s life together.
Deacon retreats often focus on the deacon, but this retreat acknowledged that deacons’ wives contribute significantly to diaconal ministry, Deacon Montgomery said.
“Our wives have always been with us (for retreats), but this time our wives have been actively participating with us,” explained Deacon Chuck Metzger. “We are not complete without our wives.”
In their pastoral letter on marriage, the bishops observed that both marriage and the sacrament of orders are divine calls, authentic vocations; they are understood within the primary vocation to love. Both live out the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity.
The Earthen Vessels retreat for diaconate couples seeks “to bring couples closer together with Christ in the middle of their sacrament,” June Alnajjar of Richland, Wash., said. “She is my right hand in this ministry,” Deacon Alnajjar said. “The stronger our marriage is, the stronger a deacon he is,” June added. “When we are together people are attracted to our sacrament because Jesus is present there.”
While many deacons and deacon candidates are married men, some are single men or widowers. Br. Drnjevic, based at Mount Angel Abbey in Saint Benedict, Ore., works with the single deacons. At the Davenport Diocese’s retreat, he had the opportunity to interact with Terry Ball, a recent widower and deacon aspirant.
“The Earthen Vessels retreat was one of the most enriching experiences that I have had! Mona and I had led Marriage Encounter Retreats during our 39 years of marriage,” Terry said. “When Mona died of acute myeloid leukemia on Aug. 29, my wife and my number one team player was gone in a dramatic way forever! The reality is that I became a widower as a diaconate aspirant within minutes.
“The Earthen Vessels Retreat provided me with so many tools for healing my personal grief, for bringing me closer to the Lord, and giving me personal insights into the relationship of needs and values in relating to the hurting person in my midst! Br. Cyril was so supportive and respectful of me during our dialogue sessions. The whole retreat team was composed of truly awesome leaders.”
Deacon Montgomery observed that “the retreat provided an opportunity for deacons, wives of deacons and a widower to reflect on the interrelationship between the sacraments of marriage and the holy order of the diaconate. We are reminded that in every case of a married deacon, the sacrament of marriage came first.”