One of the great blessings I know in my priestly life is the gift of so many talented fellow ministers with whom I have collaborated in parish ministry. Included among these fellow ministers are lay men and women, who are a vital and life-giving part of the team of professionals in ministry who bring their creative energies and talents to their daily labors. These labors, in turn, help bring life and light to our parish communities each day.
I have also been blessed to have collaborated with so many talented permanent deacons through the years. These fellow ordained ministers, with their spouses and families, have been for me a source of great inspiration, mutual support and deep joy. I have learned much through the years as we have ministered side-by-side, and there have been times of great humor and joy as well as times of sadness and testing. There have been beautiful celebrations of liturgies such as the Easter Vigil, and there have been fun times spent on the back deck, sharing a meal and stories of life and ministry. Although I am hesitant to point to any one deacon whose ministry and witness have had the greatest impact on my life, I do know of one instance involving a deacon that stays with me to this day and which has profoundly shaped my priestly ministry.
From 1997 to 1999, I served as the parochial vicar at St. Thomas the Apostle Parish in Ann Arbor. It was there that I was graced to meet Deacon Gwynn McPeek, who at that time had just taken senior status as a deacon due to failing health and age. Deacon Gwynn was well into his eighties and had been among the first permanent deacons to have been ordained for service in our diocese following the restoration of the order of the permanent diaconate in 1967. Deacon Gwynn had followed an interesting path to becoming Catholic, and an equally fascinating path to the diaconate. He was also a professor of music history and musicology at the University of Michigan, having eventually risen through the ranks to serve as chair of those departments. Deacon Gwynn was an internationally respected music scholar and one of the gentlest people I have ever known, due in large part to his Quaker heritage.
In early 1998, both the pastor and I were told that Deacon Gwynn desired to assist at Mass and preach one more time – something that he had not done in some time due to his weakened health. I was blessed to be the presider for Mass that Sunday, as Deacon Gwynn made his way to the ambo, proclaimed the Gospel and then took a seat on a chair that had been placed before the altar so that he could more comfortably speak to the assembly. There followed a beautiful homily during which Deacon Gwynn shared about his faith journey and journey to ministry, and the path that had led him to St. Thomas Parish. He spent the rest of his time reminding people just how much God loves them and how much God desires that their love be expressed in service and care, most especially for the poor and those most in need. Throughout his homily, Deacon Gwynn spoke with great love and affection for the people of the parish, letting them know how thankful he was for their welcome into their lives and the great joy he had known during his years of ministry among them. Through it all, it seemed to me that Deacon Gwynn was speaking like a beloved grandfather, letting the family know he loved them, that he appreciated all they had done for him and for his wife, Mary, and their family, and that there would one day be a joyous reunion in the very presence of God. Deacon Gwynn went to his rest in Christ in March 2002.
As we mark the fiftieth anniversary of the restoration of the permanent diaconate, I say thanks to Deacon Gwynn for the gift of that last homily, and I say thanks to all the deacons with whom I have collaborated. Thank you for your ministry, your love for God and your willingness to remind all of us that we are beloved of God, too. And so, our journey in FAITH continues.