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EPISODE #187
EMPOWERED BY THE SPIRIT: THE DEACON AND PARISH LIFE

Host Deacon Steve Greco enjoys a great time of fellowship and conversation with dear friends John and Cindy Erdag.

John as officially been “Deacon John” for going on 16 months now, based at his parish St. John Neumann in Irvine.

He is enjoying his calling immensely. Listen in, and you’re sure to be inspired!

 

Originally broadcast on 3/24/19

 

ALL IN THE FAMILY

She was raised Catholic but had ventured away from the church. 

After she got married and began having children, something stirred in Elaina Francis–a spiritual yearning that only could be satisfied by re-embracing the faith she had left years ago. 

On Saturday, May 12, at St. John Neumann Catholic Church in Irvine, in what church officials said was a rarity, not only did Elaina and Kedric Francis have their marriage blessed in a liturgical ceremony, they also had their four young children baptized. 

The unique ceremony, before family and friends who later celebrated at the Francis home with cake and other treats, strengthens the entire St. John Neumann community and the larger O.C. Catholic community, said Deacon John Erdag, who presided over the joint Sacrament of Matrimony and Sacrament of Baptism. 

“Catholic families serve as ‘domestic churches,’ and this beautiful family is strengthening our church,” Erdag said. “Society needs families like this who are raising their kids in the Catholic faith.” 

Said Elaina: “The Holy Spirit came back to me in two ways: through motherhood, and through friendship.” 

 

Questioning the faith 

Elaina said something went awry in her interpretation of the Church while growing up. 

“It felt more like a chore and a burden, without a sense of unconditional love at the heart of it,” Elaina said. 

So, as a young adult, she stopped going to church. 

“I went through my share of rebellions and questioning the faith, which I don’t regret,” Elaina added. “I believe it’s healthy and normal to question things, and that it can lead to a deeper connection to God.”  

Around three years ago, Elaina began to feel the stirrings of faith returning. 

At that time, she and Kedric had two children, Otis, now 7, and Annarose, now 6. 

“One of the first things you learn as a new mother is that you cannot do it alone,” Elaina said. “We all need help, support, and a village to get us through. And it just so happened that the village that began forming around me was other Catholic women, both new friends and old.” 

Elaina reignited friendships with old classmates from Mater Dei High School who also were new mothers. 

Her obstetrician/gynecologist is an Irish Catholic. 

Elaina, a professional photographer, landed new clients who reached out to her for a family photo session. The husband and wife turned out to be two religion teachers, one at Mater Dei and the other at Rosary Academy in Fullerton. 

And through Instagram, Elaina struck up a close friendship with Korinne Hannegan, a mother of seven and a parishioner at St. Edward the Confessor in Dana Point. 

“All of these people had one thing in common: They led by pure example and showed me what being a modern, practicing Catholic in today’s society could look like,” Elaina said.  

Last December, Elaina became a parishioner at St. John Neumann. 

As director of parish life, one of Erdag’s jobs is to reach out to new churchgoers. 

“I saw the (parish registration) form and noticed her kids weren’t baptized,” Erdag said. “Then things just snowballed from there.” 

By that time, the Francis clan had expanded to three children, with one on the way (Mabel is now 2, and Flynn is 4 months old). 

Erdag received approval from St. John Neumann Fr. Jeff Droessler, the church’s administrator, to have the joint marriage/baptism ceremony for family and friends on a Saturday afternoon. 

Among the guests was Hannegan, who Elaina chose to be the godmother of her four children. 

“She was well on her journey (to returning to the church) when I met her, and I was very happy to walk along beside her,” said Hannegan, who teared up several times during the ceremony. 

“I literally can’t even put it into words,” Hannegan said. “It was so beautiful to watch her come back home. It was beyond moving.” 

Also attending the service was Wylie Aitken, a prominent Orange County attorney and family friend who is active in the Orange Catholic Foundation and is a parishioner at San Antonio de Padua Church in Anaheim. 

“It’s really an honor to be here,” Aitken said. “It’s marvelous to see their marriage evolve. It’s a culmination of an interesting journey. It’s just phenomenal.” 

Added Aitken: “It’s very positive to see people make decisions when they are free to make decisions.” 

Although her husband isn’t a Catholic, Elaina said he’s a wonderful father and spiritual guide for their children. 

“I’ve seen so much spiritual growth in him,” Elaina said. “It’s almost like he tapped into something that was always there but he didn’t know it. 

“He talks to our kids about God and morality and the commitments and disciplines required when serving others. He also comes to Mass with us here and there, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he begins really exploring his own faith journey.” 

Elaina said St. John Neumann felt like home from the first Mass she and her family attended. 

“The sense of community is awesome,” she said. 

And May 12, 2018 always will be a monumental day for her. 

“The day was beyond special, as wonderful as our wedding day,” Elaina said. “Any opportunity to bring together many of the people you love, from all different corners of life, into the same room to celebrate the love in your family is going to be one of the best days of your life.”  

 

DISASTER SPIRITUAL CARE

Most Catholics are familiar with the seven corporal acts of mercy: 

Feed the hungry. 

Give water to the thirsty. 

Clothe the naked. 

Shelter the homeless. 

Visit the sick. 

Visit the imprisoned, or ransom the captive. 

Bury the dead. 

A relatively new parishioner at St. John Neumann performs these and other acts of charity on a regular basis as a volunteer for the American Red Cross, specializing in a field few people are familiar with: Disaster Spiritual Care. 

Although for years the Red Cross has dispatched volunteer nurses and mental health professionals to scenes of disaster, such as plane crashes and fires, in November 2015 the organization added Disaster Spiritual Care” to its array of services. 

“We had ‘body’ with our nurses, ‘mind’ with our mental health counselors, and now we have ‘soul’ with disaster spiritual care,” says Connie Sue Regener, a former hospice chaplain who became a Catholic in May 2017. “They say it’s the converts that take the lead in evangelization because they are so enthusiastic about their new faith.”  

A former Protestant pastor who sings in the choir at St. John Neumann, Regener’s official volunteer title is Disaster Spiritual Care Responder (DSR) for the American Red Cross. 

The relatively new service provides respectful and appropriate spiritual care support to clients, survivors and staff, says Tim Serban, Disaster Spiritual Care National Lead for the American Red Cross at its national headquarters in Washington, D.C., and Pacific Division Advisor. 

“The Red Cross supports the physical, emotional and now spiritual needs of those impacted by disasters in the United States, in addition to our traditional goal of supporting sheltering and feeding needs immediately following a disaster,” Serban says. 

Disaster Spiritual Care Responders work in close collaboration with Red Cross Disaster Health and Disaster Mental Health volunteers. 

“Our disaster Spiritual Care volunteers support the spiritual needs that arise such as grief and loss, (and collaborates) with all faith communities to ensure each person is served in a way that honors their tradition or faith community,” Serban says. 

Often following a disaster or mass-casualty event, questions of meaning and feelings of helplessness emerge, Serban says. 

“It’s essential to ensure one has a safe place to grieve and find meaning on (his or her) own terms,” he says. 

As regional advisor in Disaster Spiritual Care for the American Red Cross, Regener’s territory includes Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties. She is trying to build up a local team of volunteers to work with her. So far, she’s recruited 10. 

Although the American Red Cross used to require all DSRs to be certified as chaplains, volunteers now can serve as DSRs after meeting certain eligibility requirements and being trained in certain skill sets. 

“Everybody deserves compassion, dignity and respect,” says Regener, who outside of her Red Cross role also is a board-certified chaplain. “When you’re down and out, a lot of your dignity is taken away. You become totally dependent on others. DSRs are like force multipliers. We make everyone else more effective. We’re there to make things run better.” 

In the past two years, Regener’s work as a DSR has taken her to floods in South Carolina, the mass shooting in San Bernardino, the Blue Cut Fire near Victorville and three shelters following Hurricane Harvey in Texas. 

She also worked in two shelters for evacuees following the destructive Canyon 2 fire in Anaheim. 

She recalls a woman who had just moved to Orange County from out of state who was evacuated in that blaze. 

“She had no local support system and was in the process of looking for a job,” Regener says. “She was frantic on her phone trying to reschedule a job interview she missed. When I work the shelters, I look for people who are having the hardest times.” 

Deacon John Erdag at St. John Neumann has been supportive of Regener’s efforts. 

In a message to parishioners, Erdag, director of Parish Life, recalled Regener returning from the Blue Cut Fire when she was an RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) pre-Catechumen. 

“One lady in particular was very despondent over the loss of her garage,” Erdag wrote. “It happened to be the structure where her child had taken his life, and now she didn’t have that place anymore. 

“Connie was there to pray with her and give her comfort. When Connie returned to Irvine, she came straight to St. John Neumann, even before going home. Dirty and sooty, she laid her Red Cross badge at the foot of the altar and gave up her experiences to the Lord. What a remarkable act of discipleship.” 

Regener, who earned a master of divinity from Fuller Theological Seminary, volunteers more than 1,000 hours a year for the American Red Cross. 

“We feel everybody deserves spiritual care — that is, what’s important to you, your values, your world view,” she says. “It’s the universal need everyone has for love, dignity and respect.” 

If you’re interested in becoming a DSR for the American Red Cross, contact Regener at Connie.Regener@RedCross.org  

 

ST. JOHN NEUMANN RECOGNIZED FOR MENTAL HEALTH MINISTRY

IRVINE — The “Hope for Wellness” ministry at St. John Neumann Church has been honored with Crime Survivors, Incorporated’s 2015 Above and Beyond Award for its innovative approach to the subject of mental health.

Hope for Wellness was inaugurated at the parish in January and is dedicated to raising awareness and education of mental wellness, bringing compassionate aid to those seeking help connecting with community services and removing the stigma of mental illness.

Crime Survivors, Incorporated is a charitable nonprofit organization dedicated to helping and healing victims of violent crimes. The group’s CEO and founder, Patricia Wenskunas, said Crime Survivors was led to recognize the Hope for Wellness program because of “the importance of mental wellness in preventing violent crimes.”

Since its inception nearly 10 months ago, Hope for Wellness “has been received very well at the parish,” said Carlos Carney, a member of the group’s advisory committee. “There’s been a good turnout at our meetings so far. People are starting to understand that this issue cuts across more areas and affects more people than they might have thought.”

The ministry, said Carney, was inspired in large part by last year’s Gathering on Mental Health and the Church at Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, which was conceived by Saddleback’s Pastor Rick Warren and Bishop Kevin Vann (this year’s sold-out gathering was held from Oct. 7-9, again at Saddleback Church).

“The gathering had a lot to do with us starting Hope for Wellness,” said Carney. “We wanted to start an outreach program where people could feel safe talking about these subjects.”

Among Hope for Wellness’ activities:

  • Quarterly panel discussions presented by a wide range of mental illness and mental health professional experts;
  • Programs that provide adolescents with information and advice on dealing with cyber bullying, academic anxieties, substance abuse, teen suicide prevention and other subjects;
  • 12-week family-to-family classes to assist and train families to care for adult loved ones affected by mental illness;
  • Programs to help military veterans returning from active deployment to acclimate back to civilian life;
  • The establishment of “bridges” for teens and parents to provide group support and interaction;
  • Sharing program templates with other diocese parishes to help establish programs.