July 8, 2016

Holy Year of Mercy pilgrimage helps deacons follow in footsteps of saints

Archdiocesan deacons Ron Pirau, left, Brad Anderson and Michael East pose for a photo in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican following the Mass for the Jubilee of Deacons that Pope Francis celebrated on May 29. (Submitted photo)

Archdiocesan deacons Ron Pirau, left, Brad Anderson and Michael East pose for a photo in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican following the Mass for the Jubilee of Deacons that Pope Francis celebrated on May 29. (Submitted photo)

By John Shaughnessy

In one sense, it’s another chapter from the timeless story of a wife who knows what’s best for her husband.

Fortunately in this case, it’s also the story of a husband who is wise enough to actually consent to his wife’s advice.

That combination of a wife’s nudging and a husband’s acquiescence recently led Deacon Brad Anderson to one of the most inspiring, faith-filled moments of his life.

On the sun-kissed morning of May 29, Deacon Anderson stood together with Deacon Ron Pirau and Deacon Michael East just to the right of an altar that had been set up in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican.

There, the three deacons from the Archdiocese of Indianapolis had a close-up view of Pope Francis as he celebrated Mass for the Jubilee of Deacons, a celebration that drew more than 2,500 deacons from around the world to Rome.

“There were an estimated 65,000 people in the square for the Mass, and we processed up through the middle of the crowd,” says Deacon Anderson, a member of St. Bartholomew Parish in Columbus who ministers at Holy Angels Parish in Indianapolis. “What impressed me was that they weren’t spectators. Everyone was worshipping. And Pope Francis was so intense as he consecrated the bread and the wine. It was extremely powerful.”

So was the rationale that his wife of 42 years, Kathy, used to finally convince him to make the nine-day pilgrimage that would take them to Rome, Assisi and Orvieto.

She reminded him that, after a previous trip to Italy, he longed to see more of Rome and Assisi. And she noted that the Jubilee was taking place in the Holy Year of Mercy.

“I was still reluctant,” he says. “I’m a private businessman, and I thought my business and my ministry were too busy. She kept nudging me. She said, ‘We’re going to be at Mass with the pope!’ I’m glad she was so persuasive.”

‘A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity’

For Deacon Ron Pirau, there was no doubt that he wanted to make the pilgrimage to Italy, especially since it would immerse him and his fellow travelers in the lives of the two saints who are the namesakes of the parish where he ministers—SS. Francis and Clare of Assisi in Greenwood.

And when the plan for the pilgrimage started in his parish, Deacon Pirau invited all the 40 deacons in the archdiocese to join it, while knowing that it wouldn’t be possible for many of them because of their responsibilities of family, ministry and work.

“I saw it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” says Deacon Pirau, who made the pilgrimage with his wife Linda. “We’d participate in a papal Mass, and it would give me the opportunity to learn more about St. Francis and St. Clare during the time we would have in Assisi.”

The Jubilee of Deacons took place in Rome on May 27-29—with the first two days dedicated to meetings, before the Mass with Pope Francis.

“It was so impactful for me to be there with all our deacon brothers from around the world,” Deacon Pirau says. “And the Mass with Pope Francis was so affirming. One thing Pope Francis said in his homily was how we needed to be available to people and not be so tied to our schedules.”

That approach also shined through in the life of St. Francis, as the pilgrimage led to Assisi.

“We spent time at the places that were important in the ministries of St. Francis and St. Clare,” says Deacon Pirau. “We prayed at the chapel where the remains of St. Francis are. He was so focused on the mercy and forgiveness of God. There’s so much in the world where people aren’t loving and forgiving, and that’s what St. Francis was about. It helped me see the linkage with Pope Francis who always reaches out to people.”

That combined example is the approach that Deacon Pirau tries to follow in his parish duties, his jail ministry and his work leading fundraising and communications for Catholic Charities Indianapolis, while also serving as the liaison for those efforts in the Catholic Charities agencies in Bloomington, New Albany, Tell City and Terre Haute.

“A lot of the ministry I’ve done is with people who are not connected with the Church. We’re supposed to be humble servants and feed the people what they need. You’re the bridge that connects them to the spiritual hunger they have.”

‘You’re living your faith’

The time in Rome and Assisi also showed Deacon Michael East the bridge that connects Pope Francis, St. Francis and deacons.

As the director of deacons for the archdiocese, Deacon East seemed a natural person to attend the Jubilee, but that wasn’t the reason he joined the pilgrimage.

“The pope invited deacons from around the world,” he says. “To get that invitation from the Holy Father was kind of special. I think the Holy Father sees the diaconate as what it truly is. It’s service to the Church and the people. It’s not to fill in for the shortage of priests, which a lot of people think.

“In the permanent diaconate, you’re walking with your feet in two worlds. You’re ordained clergy, but you’re also working with the laity every day in whatever job you have—as a lawyer, a tax accountant, a truck driver, a factory worker. You’re living your faith in that surrounding. Our real contribution to the Church is not necessarily in what we preach or say, but in our witness and in our action in the world every day.”

That belief was reinforced for Deacon East in Assisi.

“Being where St. Francis was, that was one of the highlights for me,” says Deacon East, who provides jail ministry and also serves St. Ambrose Parish in Seymour. “We saw the rock that St. Francis slept on. There was nothing elaborate. It was all very basic—just the simplicity of life, and realizing what’s important.”

It’s a witness that Deacon East will share with the deacons in the archdiocese whose ministry includes the ability to baptize, witness marriages, preside over funeral services and offer spiritual guidance to people in parishes, hospitals and prisons.

That witness has already had an impact on the deacons.

“For me, the pilgrimage clarified some things I’ve been struggling with,” says Deacon Anderson, who also serves in inner-city outreach in Indianapolis as part of his ministry. “I come from a private business environment where we count everything. In ministry, the win-loss record can seem daunting. Sometimes, I struggle with whether I’m making a difference.

“As we followed in the footsteps of St. Francis, one of the things the journey did was show me how everything he did was on a very small scale. He was with people. That will help me when we’re on the streets trying to help someone.” †

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