John Walters, the permanent deacon at St. Bernardine Catholic Church located at Harrison and Elgin, emphasizes that he is not burning bridges with what he considers to be his home parish as he transitions to a new congregation.
“It’s more like moving away from home than abandoning it,” he said. “I want to be able to come home sometimes but I know that I need to move away. I think St. Bernardine’s will always be my family.” The ambivalence in his statement comes from the reality that he will be saying good bye to many close relationships, while at the same time looking forward to wherever the Spirit will lead him.
When asked if he was leaving because his situation at St. Bernardine has been difficult, he responded by saying, “I’m being led away. Cardinal George wanted a transfer policy for deacons, and there are a number of reasons why I was not transferred before, but I have always left myself open to being transferred. I don’t know where I’ll be going yet.”
Walters is not looking forward to the farewell reception after the 5:00 p.m. Mass on June 29 which will held for him and Fr. Patrick, both of whom will be leaving St. Bernardine at the end of the month. “I struggle with the saying good bye part because it’s difficult,” he explained. “Part of me feels like I’m abandoning the parish, but there’s another part of me that feels like I’m being led.”
Many St. Bernardine members feel the same ambivalence. “I am so very sad that John is leaving St. Bernardine’s,” said Julie Doloszycki who has known Deacon John since he moved to Forest Park and joined the parish in 1975. “It was John who encouraged me to become a Lay Minister. He was there for me when both of my parents passed away.”
Donna Gawlas, a past president of the congregation who has worked with Walters in the parish for 27 years, said, “We have gone through much loss recently [with the closing of St. Bernardine’s School], so this is very hard to see John leave. I am happy for him to make fresh starts and build new ministries to keep him vibrant and hopeful.”
Fr.George Velloorattil, St. Bernardine’s pastor, said about Walters: “He has a fine personality and a great sense of humor.” The two have worked together for more than two years. “He is hard working and a dedicated deacon,” Velloorattil said.
Deacon John is known for his sense of humor and down-to-earth attitude. But parishioners say Walters’ preaching is what they’ll miss the most.
“His greatest contribution I believe has been his wonderful homilies,” said Jim Murray, a member of the parish for 43 years. “He prepares them well and delivers spiritual messages that are relevant to people’s lives. I know many folks who go to church only when they know he is preaching.”
Preaching, in fact, is what Walters loves most about his work. “I preach once a month at all the Masses,” he said. “I love doing that. It defines my weekend. I think I’m a little bit emotionally spent afterwards but in a good way.”
Walters is called a permanent deacon, because being a deacon is technically one of the stages on the road to becoming a priest in the Roman Catholic Church. The word permanent clarifies that he is not moving on to be ordained a priest. Permanent deacons in the Archdiocese of Chicago are not paid for their ministry, even though they go through a three year training period together with their wives.
Walters’ wife, Barbara, went through the training with her husband between 1985 and 1988 when he was ordained. On the whole, her involvement in the ministry has been a blessing.
“I feel that it has helped us stay better connected,” she said. “I have grown spiritually from being associated with the diaconate and the diaconate community.”
When asked if he thought the Catholic Church would ever allow priests to be married, Walters replied that he thought the Church would eventually accept that arrangement, but then, with his characteristic sense of humor, he added, “at the Third Vatican Council.”