Not Just a Liturgical Frill

Deacon Justin Stanwix tells me that he is one of the oldest ordained deacons in the country, so he has a lot to offer over many years of observing and participating in ministry. He started a long and fruitful involvement with the Church in his uni days, soaking up the implementation of Vatican II in the Hobart Diocese. Justin trained as an altar server and then practised as an acolyte for 60-odd years. And while he didn’t pursue his interest in the Jesuit vocation, he found that “ultimately it didn’t go away.”

Justin worked in government and legal practice as a barrister, married and had children and grandchildren. In a Wollongong parish, he became friends with the priest and they started collaborating in many ways. Justin was dubbed the “unordained deacon” and eventually completed all the theological, pastoral, spiritual and personal formation requirements to take the next steps. He was instituted to the minor orders and finally ordained to the permanent diaconate.

Deacon Justin with his wife, Mary, at his ordination

For Justin, this natural progression from his parish involvement “has been a very powerful and prayerful experience, in a formal sense, and uplifting”. He is overwhelmed by the support, affirmation and generosity of the parishioners, who are proud of “one of their own”. He is very conscious of his ordained state, not because of an ontological difference, but because of his role as a minister of God, a development of the baptismal call to be priest, prophet and king. 

Justin keeps very busy in his ministerial role. He works six days every week, often finishing late into the evening. He preaches every second weekend, and often during the week. He visits many homes, as well as hospitals, schools and nursing homes, regularly leading Liturgy of the Word with Holy Communion. 

Yet Justin doesn’t just lead, he empowers others. Once a month, the parish celebrates a ‘synodal Sunday’. Justin introduces the homily, then a lay person does the main commentary on the readings, then Justin concludes. Many of those who speak have never dreamed about giving homilies before, but “the confidence it engenders is enormous.”

Other initiatives that fill Justin with hope are the outside Easter and Christmas celebrations held annually for the holidaying community in the parish. The very public events attract hundreds of Catholics who might not otherwise attend Mass. They look forward to coming and there is a “huge community response” from people who don’t just sit and watch, but actively participate.

Yet it is far from the crowds that Justin truly feels that the ordained ministry can make a difference. He and his priest visit many homes of those who are feeble, sick or immobile. These settings provide “the most significant and important version of the eucharist for a community on the margins.” Recently, he gathered about 10 friends of a frail person to their bedside, so they could all celebrate together. At a time when people are afraid of attending large church gatherings due to COVID, this intimate space becomes a way to reach people with Christ’s message and ministrations.   

Justin does think that the Church needs to reconsider forms of ministry and allocation of tasks, and to welcome back married clergy. But for him, the diaconal role has been “personally meaningful”. He believes that deacons serve in the liturgy to show that the participation of the community is complete. They are so much “more than just a liturgical frill”!

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