Diocesan deacons return from awe-inspiring Mass in Rome

By Becky Aubut
Anchor Staff

DARTMOUTH, Mass. — Words like “incredible” and “awesome” were the common words heard from the four deacons from the Fall River Diocese after their return from celebrating a Jubilee for Deacons with Pope Francis as part of the year-long celebration of the Year of Mercy. 

The group joined with 2,300 deacons from all over the world. Along with family and friends, the deacons spent a week in Rome on a pilgrimage, “and it was a pilgrimage, it wasn’t a vacation,” said Deacon Frank Lucca, Catholic campus minister at UMass Dartmouth, and designated group leader for the trip.

Each day started with Mass in English, and the group saw many Catholic churches, tombs and various other Church historical sites, all while accompanied by a “phenomenal tour guide” who had a Ph.D. in Church antiquities, said Deacon Lucca.

During their pilgrimage, the group was able to walk through four designated Holy Doors: “That was a great experience,” said Deacon Gary John, from Espirito Santo Parish in Fall River. It was the rich history of the area that Deacon John really enjoyed, adding, “every time you turned your head, it was something different.”

On the Saturday before Sunday Mass, the deacons attended afternoon catechesis sessions, but the highlight of the trip was celebrating Mass with the pope. The group arrived at the Vatican around 7:30 in the morning for the 10:30 a.m. Mass. 

“It was absolutely jammed with people,” said Deacon Lucca. “We were told deacons were to go to Paul VI Hall, and the rest of the folks had their special reserved seat passes and were supposed to go through the security areas. They got beautiful seats and were only four or five rows from the front.”

It took a few hours to get through the security gate and once in Paul VI Hall, each deacon vested and was given a stole.

“It was amazing because it was an embroidered stole with the seal of the Year of Mercy on it,” said Deacon Lucca. “It will be something we’ll be able to use onwards. It was a wonderful keepsake and not expected.”

While waiting, there was a lot of shuffling about as deacons were being moved around to make room for others, and suddenly the four deacons from Fall River found themselves at the front of the line. As the deacons began to process out, the first 70 or so were pulled aside into a group, and then asked if they would like to present Communion at Mass. 

Everyone from Fall River said yes, even when they harbored reservations about exactly what being special ministers of Holy Communion at Mass would entail, said Deacon Lucca, including would they even be able to see the pope?

The group made its way through St. Peter’s Square, said Deacon Lucca, and “they kept walking us up towards the altar, and then we went beyond that and we were standing in front of the pope’s chair, and then we turned right to an area right at the top of the stairs outside of the Basilica doors, and we were all seated right there, like five rows away from the side of the pope. He was right there. All the other deacons [not handing out Communion] were seated on next level down on the side of the altars on both sides.”

Sitting there, taking in the view of St. Peter’s Square, and having to explain how he was feeling had Deacon Eduardo Borges of Immaculate Conception Parish in New Bedford searching for the right words: “How can I express it? It’s just being there being in the presence of so many people celebrating the Eucharist with the Vicar of Christ right there, you become — it’s not overwhelming — it’s peace. I felt at peace and very relaxed, and taking it in.”

During the Mass the deacons had to go into the Basilica to get the ciboria, and walking down the front to the tables that held each Host-filled ciborium, they were all alone in a tourist attraction that normally holds thousands of sightseers — some of the deacons had a moment of reflection. 

“When we waited to process outside, just being alone in the Basilica and be able to look around and knowing we were going to participate in the Mass, it was just almost overwhelming,” said Deacon John. “Just looking around at the statues and the building, thinking about how St. Peter is buried here, the Rock upon the Church is built; it was awe-inspiring standing alone in the Basilica.”

When the deacons processed towards the square, it began to briefly rain but each station had an umbrella. Deacon Lucca had the first station right in front of the altar.

“Now we have all these folks trying to receive Communion,” said Deacon Lucca. “This is somewhat a discouraging part and an awesome moment, because we’re on the side of the rows and I was assigned like six or seven rows. I would move left to right, and it was fine for the first few people but the others had to start climbing over people to get to the aisle. That was discouraging because people were pushing to get there.”

Even in this momentary chaos, Deacon Lucca was still struck by the love and faith of the people attending the Mass: “What was so powerful to me was the yearning of the people. Their hands were out, it was not the typical receive-the-Eucharist stance with palm over palm; they were trying to reach me. Their hands were out as far as they could go and I stretched as far as I could go, still trying to reverently place the Host in their hand, taking the time and not trying to rush anything. I just see this sea of people with their hands raised up and it just struck me how desirous people were to receive Christ.”

“Seeing people reaching and clamoring for Communion, it was really impressive to be part of that. Just to see all these Catholics gathered and reaching out for the Eucharist, and to be able [to hand it to them] was quite special to be able to do that,” said Deacon John Foley of Holy Trinity Parish in West Harwich. “As we were finishing Communion, the man holding my umbrella said, ‘Will you give me your blessing?’ I gave him my blessing and walked back. It was beautiful and incredible. I think we got a special feeling for it.”

As the group processed back to return the unconsumed Hosts, a Swiss Guard stopped Deacon John; “He asked me to distribute Communion to him. If there was a photograph, I would like to have it; it was me giving Communion to one of the pope’s guards. Their uniform, it’s so colorful and they don’t want you to take pictures of them or converse or approach them, but for him to gesture me towards him and ask for Communion, it was just a memory that will be with me for a long, long time.”

To get back into the Basilica, the deacons also had to go past additional Swiss Guards, “one on each side, going through the doors to return the remaining Hosts,” said Deacon Borges. “One of the things that made me emotional was as we went through the Swiss Guards, they presented arms, of course not to us, but as a gesture of recognition of what we were taking, that in the ciborium was Jesus. To me that was an expression of great faith, and also reaffirmation of the real presence of Jesus in the Host. That touched me really deeply.”

During the Mass, Pope Francis spoke in Italian with translations being made available that evening. The entire homily focused on deacons and using their gifts to be available to others, answer the call to minister to others and charity, but Deacon Lucca stated, “If you take the word ‘deacon’ out, it was applying to everybody. The fact that the pope spoke to the deacons directly is wonderful.”

Now back home and settling into their regular routine, at the time of being interviewed, each deacon had only been stateside less than 48 hours and were still at peace from an experience they will never forget.

“It was a lot of stuff all at once, and it’s going to take some time to digest,” said Deacon Borges. 

“It was an incredible trip,” said Deacon Foley, who said he has been to the Holy Land and walked in the footsteps of Jesus, but going to the Vatican, “and being present at the Seat of our Church, it gives me both perspectives of our faith — our origin, where we come from, what we do — it completed my formation for right now until I get another opportunity. It was really quite beautiful.”

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