Servant of God: Vern Behrends is first deacon in far western part of dioceseWORTHINGTON — After six years of prayerful study, Vern Behrends recently preached his first homily at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Worthington, beginning with the story about a guy who receives a traffic ticket resulting from a stoplight camera and pays the fine with a photo of some money, only to get a photo of some handcuffs back in the mail.
By: Beth Rickers, Worthington Daily Globe
WORTHINGTON — After six years of prayerful study, Vern Behrends recently preached his first homily at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Worthington, beginning with the story about a guy who receives a traffic ticket resulting from a stoplight camera and pays the fine with a photo of some money, only to get a photo of some handcuffs back in the mail.
An occasional sermon such as that — likely injected with a bit of Vern’s humor — will be among his new duties as a deacon. Vern was ordained Aug. 29 in Winona in the latest class in the Diocese of Winona’s Diaconate Formation Program.
The roots of the diaconate can be traced to the early church, at which time care of the poor was a major concern of the early Christian community and deacons were directly responsible for that ministry. According to the diocese Web site, steps were taken during the Second Vatican Council to restore the diaconate as a permanent ministry within the Catholic Church. In 2009 there were nearly 35,000 deacons serving in 129 countries, with about 16,000 of these in the United States.
“Deacons share in Christ’s mission and grace in a special way. The sacrament of Holy Orders marks them with an imprint (‘character’) which cannot be removed and which configures them to Christ, who made himself the ‘deacon’ or servant of all,” quotes the diocese Office of the Diaconate from the Catechism of the Catholic Church. “This permanent diaconate, which can be conferred on married men, constitutes an important enrichment for the Church’s mission.”
Vern admits he wasn’t the most likely candidate to become a deacon. In fact, he started out life as a Protestant.
“I met (wife) Joanie in school, and we got married two years out of high school,” Vern recalled. “In talking things over, we decided we were going to be a one-faith family, so I decided to become Catholic.”
His parents were faithful Presbyterians, rarely missing church, and his mother voiced her disappointment that he was switching faiths.
“But she told me, ‘If you’re going to be a Catholic, you’d better be a good one,’” he recalled.
The Behrends raised four children in the Catholic faith — Tim, Pam, Jay and Brad — and have four grandchildren, the oldest now in college. After his children had grown and left home, Vern began to contemplate his faith more deeply.
“My dad passed away on the day before King Turkey Day in 1994, and I happened to be on the Turkey Race Team that year,” Vern continued. “His mother had just passed away at the age of 108 the January before, so it wasn’t expected. It made me feel like life was awful short, and I started asking myself, ‘Am I on the right path?’
“I started doing some reading on my faith, and I really found out the Holy Spirit is in each and every one of us. I had never acknowledged that before. I always thought it was something outside of you.”
Vern continued to explore his faith through correspondence courses, and his studies made him appreciate all the blessings in his life.
“When you feel so blessed, you feel you should share it with someone else, spread the word,” he said. “Then, probably back in 2001, The Courier, the diocesan newspaper, had a notice in it about the first class for deacons in Winona. The class had already started, but I inquired about it. A prerequisite was to go to the Lay Ministry Institute; the classes were mostly on the east end of the diocese — Rochester, Winona, Austin.”
Once a month, from September to May, for two years, Vern traveled to the Lay Ministry Institute sessions, then completed a practicum (Vern started a Bible study that still continues) during the third year. After that, Vern was accepted into the Aspirancy year — the first year of the diaconate.
“Each year you have to apply to be accepted for another year,” Vern explained. “… I passed the Aspirancy, then it was another three years of study for a total of six years. Until just this summer, I felt like there was always going to be another hurdle.”
But all the hurdles have been cleared, and Vern is himself amazed by what he’s accomplished in the last six years.
“Ten years ago, I would have told you you were nuts if you said I was going to do this. But it’s just step by step. … I didn’t think I would even be qualified for the diaconate program,” he reflected. “You have to be 35 years of age and not older than 65. You should have good character and have at least two years of college or the equivalent. I got in under the equivalent — life experiences. But I felt like God seen something in me. You know how people ask, ‘Did you get a calling?’ Well, it wasn’t the big booming voice. It was the little whisper in the corner. You have to be at peace to listen.
“It’s been a humbling experience. I think it should be to know that God uses you, with the talents you have, to be a servant of his. Diaconate means servant.”
Vern is currently the only deacon in the diocese west of Fairmont, and he is assigned to St. Mary’s in Worthington with the Rev. Larry Brixius as his supervisor. There were 11 in his class who were ordained.
“We are not supposed to be considered junior priests or mini priests,” he explained. “We are servants of the church. … Basically my job — besides to proclaim the Gospel at Mass — is to do social justice things as well, being part of the community. For instance, I’ve been the coordinator of RCIA (Right of Christian Initiation of Adults), and I serve on the board of the Manna Food Pantry.”
In his role as deacon, Vern can baptize, witness a marriage (he’s already registered with the state) and officiate at funerals and wakes. He can’t sanctify the host for communion or absolve anyone of sins. Although his role has yet to be defined at St. Mary’s, Vern anticipates that he will be asked to preach the homily on occasion to give Brixius a break and assist with any number of other church duties.
“I’ve got to grow into this,” he said. “I’m sure there are things that are going to come along, and you’ve got to walk before you run. One of the drawbacks for me is working with the ethnic groups, since I’m not bilingual.”
Retirement from his day job is on the horizon, and then Vern will be able to devote more of this time and energy to being St. Mary’s sole deacon. He is grateful for the support that he’s received from his family, friends, fellow parishioners and the community at large in his pursuit of the diaconate.
And he also knows he still has much to learn.
“Anybody who gets into their faith knows that you develop a thirst for it, a hunger for more,” he said. “And, no matter how far you dig, you never get to the bottom of it. You get up in the morning and wonder what’s in store. You want to do God’s will, but you know there are curves in the road that you have to take.”
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