Liturgy’s Power in the Force

If anyone could tell you about the permanent diaconate, and liturgy on the margins, it is Deacon Jim Curtain. He has been ordained for 27 years, and has had the blessing of full-time ministry throughout that time. He has journeyed from air force chaplaincy to school ministry to director of mission in hospitals to diocesan director of Caritas, and now to director of pastoral work at the Melbourne seminary and director of ongoing formation for deacons. And in all these placements since the first one, Jim has also had parish appointments as well.

It started a long time ago for Jim, as he “seriously considered” priesthood and joining a   religious order as an adolescent. However, the order that he applied for wisely advised him to finish his university degree before proceeding. A year after Jim’s first degree in music, he ended up following God’s call to married life with Vicki. From there he spent some years working on ground staff for the RAAF. 

It was while talking to a Catholic chaplain in 1988 at an air base in Malaysia that Jim’s passion for ministry began to re-emerge. Jim said, “What will we do for chaplains when you all get older?” And the chaplain laughed. Then, more seriously, he responded, “We don’t know what the future holds, but some are talking about permanent deacons.” As soon as he said that, Jim had a very clear thought: “This is me.”

That night, Jim went home and spoke to Vicki, who encouraged him to “go for it.” He transitioned to study and formation, and was ordained to the permanent diaconate in September 1995. And, sure enough, he went straight back to the air force as a full time chaplain.

Deacon Jim on service in Timor

It was a time of providing ministry to people of all faiths or none at all. Jim ran the base chapel and administered sacraments to the Catholic population. There was much hospital chaplaincy, funerals and suicide ministry, as well as baptisms and weddings. Jim recalls, “I was very aware when I introduced myself that for many of those I spoke to I was the first Christian cleric of any kind that they had ever come across. I was very conscious of my responsibility in that way.”

In those first few years, Jim was most surprised by how powerful it was to celebrate liturgy, lead worship and preach. It was much more than being a counsellor or teacher to the troops. The liturgy gave structure and “a place to go” especially in the difficult times of stress and grief. It helped them all to pray.

For Jim, funerals have been particularly powerful, as many were in complicated or aggravated circumstances – untimely deaths. The hardest have been suicides, but there were also accidents and young people becoming ill. Jim was “very aware that you hold in your hands a lot of grief and sometimes a lot of anger.” 

One man’s service stands out to Jim in particular. Jim knew him well, as did everyone in that unit. But he took his own life, and for a long time afterwards people asked Jim why he did it. The funeral was “really devastating and difficult”. But it gave them all an opportunity to grieve. In the air force, full formality is a must – the military ceremonial, bells and smells. Jim could see that in those circumstances, “it helps people get through.”

After 13 years and two intense overseas deployments, Jim was getting burnt out. While he had loved the ministry, he needed to be more available to his family. He has served in other ministries and parishes, including hospitals and a disability service, and is currently studying spiritual direction and pastoral supervision. After all these years, he has wisdom of his own to share. Best wishes in all of your diaconal ministry, Deacon Jim!

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