Members of Vancouver’s first class of permanent deacons find novel ways to serve
By Agnieszka Ruck, The B.C. Catholic
[Vancouver – Canadian Catholic News] – Five years ago, Deacon Jamie Meskas and his wife sold their five-bedroom home and moved into a single-wide trailer on First Nations land near Agassiz.
If you ask him about the dramatic move, he’ll say it’s only natural he lives in the community he has been called to serve.
“It takes time to earn their trust,” Deacon Meskas told The B.C. Catholic. “My approach has been to serve the people, not to wait for them to come to church.”
Deacon Meskas was ordained Dec. 8, 2015, with 15 other men, making history as the first class of permanent deacons ever ordained in the Archdiocese of Vancouver.
Those deacons, having just now celebrated their fifth anniversary, are serving all over the Lower Mainland, in parishes, hospitals, prisons, ports, cemeteries, and First Nations reserves.
Deacon Meskas serves the Sts’ailes and Seabird Island communities through Our Lady of Fatima and Immaculate Conception, missions of St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Agassiz. The mission churches rely on visiting priests to celebrate Mass on Sundays, with no lasting Catholic presence during the week.
So the deacon who has made the community his home tries to keep the church active all week long. He has started movie nights, grief support groups, and a food bank, and spent most of his pre-pandemic days connecting with locals and visiting elders in their homes.
“It’s those little movements that give people back a sense of pride in who they are,” he said.
“The pain and the brokenness that [residential schools] caused to the people have made it extremely difficult because they don’t trust the church anymore … I had to try to let people know that things have changed. This isn’t the same church. It has evolved.”
Deacons are ordained clergy, but don’t share the same job as a priest. While they can’t celebrate Mass, deacons can baptize, distribute communion, preach, and devote their time to the church community. Most in the Archdiocese of Vancouver are married.
“We are made … to go to these places priests can’t go and we can spend the time building trust and building community that a priest doesn’t have,” said Deacon Meskas. His wife, a nurse, has also received a warm welcome in the neighbourhood.
In five years, Deacon Meskas has seen the number of people at Mass jump from five to as many as 40. Before public worship services were banned in the COVID-19 pandemic, he was getting worried the Sts’ailes church was getting too cramped.
“The more that I can be there for the people in little ways, the more they can see the Church is different,” he said. “This isn’t a Church that wants to tell you that the language you speak is no good and your culture is no good. We invite the culture in the Church, with us.”
Msgr. Gregory Smith, permanent diaconate program director, called it “a wonderful example of the diaconal spirit of service, displayed with astonishing generosity.”
He said in the five years since ordaining Vancouver’s first permanent deacons, he’s been surprised at the enthusiasm of the deacons and their wives for this new ministry. “These 16 deacons have done remarkable things, helping countless seafarers, patients, people dealing with same-sex attraction, converts, and ordinary parishioners. Several hold key positions in the archdiocese.”
Since that historic ordination in 2015, six more deacons were ordained in 2017 and another nine men are preparing to take that step next spring. Another eight are currently in academic formation at St. Mark’s College, part of the training process.
Prison chaplain Deacon Terry McLaughlin sees his work as bringing healing to wounded people.
As a deacon, he has set foot inside every prison in the Lower Mainland. He has baptized a couple of inmates, counselled many, and run countless communion services. (Due to pandemic-related bans on travel between correctional facilities, he currently can only visit Matsqui Institution once a week).
“It’s truly a ministry of healing, in many respects,” he said. “When you get a level of trust with prisoners and they open up to you, you realize how heavily wounded they are as people.”
He has built trust with inmates over the years. One man he had seen occasionally approached him one day, saying he’d been carrying a burden for 20 years and wanted to tell someone. He had chosen Deacon McLaughlin.
“Because he felt like he could trust me, he felt like he could open up. And when he opened up, he started to break down. His eyes were running, his nose was running, he was shaking. Weight was coming off his shoulders, and I just listened. I just listened.”
A week later, another inmate pointed out that man seemed to have more life in him.
“The vast majority of people in prison are there because they have suffered,” mental, emotional, sexual, or physical abuse, he said. “You have to have time with them on a regular basis to get to know them.”
Deacon Andrew Kung also sees his diaconal ministry as one of offering healing and being present and available to anyone.
He has carved out a role for himself in many areas of parish life at St. Anthony of Padua in Vancouver. He assists at Mass, baptizes, runs marriage preparation, gives retreats, preaches on weekdays, visits sick parishioners, and runs RCIA in Cantonese and Mandarin. He also translates the pastor’s homily into Cantonese and Mandarin for use in simultaneous translation during Mass.
Deacon Kung is not ashamed to be seen in line for confession or wearing a collar while visiting parishioners in hospital. Sometimes he wears a cassock while taking a stroll in his neighbourhood.
“I make myself visible,” he said. “Sometimes people will come and ask me for prayers, to pray over their sickness, a car blessing, a house blessing, animal blessing, I can do all that.”
With more than 40 years of social work behind him, Deacon Kung is comfortable with interacting with people with disabilities. He also prays for and brings Communion daily to people in hospital and has seen remarkable recoveries.
He said being immersed in the community and building relationships pays off in the long run.
“I suppose this is a deacon’s role: to stay visible, to tell people ‘you are not alone, you are not forgotten during these difficult times, and I am here to stay with you.’”