A permanent deacon lends his care to those in need

LISA JOHNSTON | lisajohnston@archstl.org

Deacon Del Leonardo carries three pagers and a cell phone on him at all times.

It's a necessity in his work as a full-time evening and overnight chaplain at Mercy Hospital in St. Louis, but Deacon Leonardo doesn't mind all of the buzzing and beeping coming from his hip. Rather, he sees those as opportunities to be with patients "in the moment" who are critically ill or close to death.

The 72-year-old never imagined that he would become a permanent deacon, or a chaplain for that matter, but he knows in his heart that this is exactly what he's supposed to be doing.

"What I find most consoling in this work is that if you're effective in bringing that grace to the moment, it is the most important thing you can do for a family," he said. "Whether Catholic or not, the awareness of the meaning of life and death is precious."

A change of plans

Deacon Leonardo was ordained a permanent deacon for the archdiocese by Archbishop Justin Rigali in 2003 and was assigned to assist at St. Joseph Parish in Clayton. His wife of 44 years, Marcella, was completely supportive of his decision.

It initially wasn't a life that he had envisioned. Born and raised in the Philippines, Deacon Leonardo entered the Salesians of Don Bosco, and spent 14 years in formation, primarily in Hong Kong, with the intention of becoming a priest.

But his father had an accident, and Deacon Leonardo, as the oldest son in the house, had to come home and help care for the family. He considered the option of the diocesan seminary back home, but he met Marcella, fell in love, and the two married in 1968. Twenty years later, they moved to St. Louis.

The idea of serving in ordained ministry never left him. "I had this attraction forever in my heart," he said. He and Marcella were not able to have children, so he knew the extra time he had outside of his work in the banking industry would allow him to enter the diaconate formation program.

A work of charity

During his formation, Deacon Leonardo was introduced to various works of charity -- including prison work, nursing homes and shelters for battered women -- to get an idea of the ministry that many permanent deacons provide beyond the work they do at parishes.

It was during a visit to Sherbrooke Village, an Alexian Brothers-sponsored long-term care residence for the elderly, that Deacon Leonardo had an encounter that forever changed his heart.

"There was an old woman I was trying to help to the chapel. When I brought her back to her room, she held my hand and would not let go," he recalled. "She had no other family members who visited her. That was where I first felt something in my heart to do this" work.

Deacon Leonardo eventually sought training in chaplaincy at the end of his diaconate formation. He was offered a position at Mercy just months before his ordination. "The puzzle pieces came into place, by the grace of God," he said.

Letting the Holy Spirit enter

Deacon Leonardo remembers his first visit with a family as a hospital chaplain. "I prayed before I entered the room," he said. He couldn't recall exactly what he said, but he remembered asking the family if he could pray with them. Apparently, that moment meant a lot to the family.

"They asked if I could do the funeral, but I hadn't been ordained yet," he said. "So they asked me to give a eulogy. That gave me the awareness that I just needed to place myself into His hands, close my eyes, open my heart and let the Holy Spirit enter."

Ten years later, he continues to have that same experience on every shift, whether it's visiting with a couple who has a new baby, being with a family who has a critically ill child or helping an elderly person draw closer to Christ in the last moments of life. It's not uncommon to see him ministering to staff, too, all with a gentle smile on his face.

Deacon Information Nights

The archdiocesan Office of the Permanent Diaconate is holding two information meetings for men interested in learning more about the life, role and formation of permanent deacons.

The information meetings will be held at 7 p.m. Tuesday, March 5, and Thursday, March 14, at the Cardinal Rigali Center, 20 Archbishop May Drive in Shrewsbury. The meetings will provide information as well as an opportunity to apply to enter the five-year formation program beginning in September. Spouses are encouraged to attend the meeting with their husbands.

To be considered for the permanent diaconate, men must be between the ages of 30 (by May 31, 2013) and 55 (and age 60 if in good health or over age 60 by appeal), a permanent resident in the archdiocese for at least three years and be in a valid marriage of at least five years (if married). They also must be active and in good standing with the Church and their parish, be in good health and free of any canonical impediments.

The educational courses are taught at the college level, and while men with college degrees are encouraged to apply, those without college experience also are encouraged to apply. Those entering the program are expected to have basic computer, word processing and Internet skills. More information will be provided at the meetings.

To ensure space, those interested in attending should call (314) 792-7431. For more information, call Deacon Chris Ast at (314) 792-7432 or email chrisast@archstl.org. 

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