Deacon Gary Stone – A Force of Compassion

Gary is a Brisbane-based deacon who has served as an army and police chaplain, and then established Veterans Care: “holistic care of body, mind and soul”. He set a time to contact me with military precision: 0900 hours, if you please. However, on talking to him, I found that he has calibrated his sharp senses to campaign for compassion, and build people up in their journeys of life and faith. He clearly has a missionary spirit; not to impose an agenda, but to reach out to the margins.   

Deacon Gary leading a liturgy for a group of veterans

Gary spent 48 years in the army, and much of that was before he was ordained. As a layperson he would lead prayer groups, but he was considered “extraordinary”. At the time, he was encouraged by a priest padre who worked to introduce inservice married men as deacons and military chaplains. The ordination itself was special, and Gary really felt the grace of the sacrament. It is hard to explain, he says, but people look for leaders who are professionally trained, formally commissioned and have institutional credibility. It is the same in the Church as in other professional roles. There are female military chaplains in Australia, even Catholic women who have been formally appointed as (pastoral associate) Chaplains by a bishop. (Here I note that the American system is not the same – a military chaplain must be ordained, which is posing a heart-wrenching decision to women called to serve). It is all about the mission, Gary says, and it has to be practical.

As well as running health and wellbeing programs, Gary leads liturgies for the veterans that he cares for. He described to me one such liturgy that he had celebrated just the Sunday before. He set up an altar, with a candle and cross, and put on his stole. The veterans sat around in a circle, which created an intimate space of welcome. The participants read the readings and the Gospel, and Gary reflected on them. Then he invited them to share their own reflections, and the thoughts on the Isaian and Marcan texts were quite profound. This was followed by the Prayers of the Faithful, in which everyone prayed. Finally, Gary led them in the Lord’s Prayer, Communion and a blessing.

The responses to the liturgy speak volumes. One man remarked, “I came on this program an atheist, but I have become a Christian.” Another said, “I have been going to the Catholic Church for 50 years, but this was the best service I have ever been to!” I am putting that down to Gary’s diaconal spirit, his love for the people he serves and his ministerial creativity. As he says, the Church needs good leaders, and he is certainly one of them. He humbly describes his magic formula: “the manner in which you celebrate is as important as the liturgical words.” 

Deacon Gary leading a creative liturgy for veterans on a beach

Gary encourages what the Church teaches: “all the faithful should be led to that fully conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebrations.”1 For him, it is not about whether one is male or female, married or single, it is about being missionary. And the Church should be open to the widest pool of people from which to select these missionaries from. Too often, people in marginal situations are being neglected, and faith becomes introversion. In a final, pertinent military image, Gary suggests that the Church is the forward operating base from which people go out on mission. So let the campaign begin!

1Sacrosanctum Concilium #14, 1963.

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