On the road: big sky, big mountains, big hearts

I finally got home late (very late) Sunday from a long weekend in the Diocese of Great Falls-Billings, Montana, where I led a retreat for the deacons and their wives.

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The diocese is big. No, it’s huge. No, it’s GINORMOUS. The website says it “comprises the eastern two-thirds of the State of Montana and includes churches, missions, and chapels of occasional worship from Gardiner to Plentywood and from Fort Shaw to Wibaux.” It’s about 94,000 square miles, with 51 parishes and 48 missions.

Serving that territory: 49 active priests and 17 permanent deacons.

A total of 38,654 Catholics are registered in parishes.

This ain’t Brooklyn.

They don’t have a retreat center, so the conferences were held at the Rock Creek Resort in Red Lodge, Montana, about 60 miles from Yellowstone National Park.

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We were warned at the front desk that we might have some uninvited company.

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I didn’t see any critters larger than a rabbit. (Though a trip into town did give me an opportunity to see wild turkeys walking down the sidewalk on the main street. At least, I was told they were turkeys. They appeared to be the size of Shetland ponies.)

The hotel accommodations were terrific, the food excellent and the scenery spectacular.

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Friday afternoon, I was taken up through Beartooth Pass, which stretches into Wyoming. I was lucky we went when we did; hours after we returned, eight inches of snow arrived on the higher elevations, closing the pass for the rest of the season. It won’t open again until the spring thaw. My intrepid guide—Deacon Mark Zenner, director of the diaconate program—captured a few snapshots.

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Yeah: this ain’t Brooklyn.

This being a retreat, in between gawking at rocks and posing for pictures and hearing the presenter (cough) drone on (cough), we did do some praying.

Bishop Michael Warfel was there for the entire retreat—attending the conferences and presiding at the Masses. We turned a big conference room (formerly the resort gift shop) into our chapel. Deacons preached.

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The bishop gave a presentation on the New Evangelization near the end of the retreat.

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Sunday, we headed into the town of Red Lodge for a final Mass celebrated in the parish of St. Agnes, a modern, comfortable space that lets in loads of light and features a gurgling baptismal font made of stones.

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I loved this painting, hanging in a large gathering area.

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The small congregation was enthusiastic and welcoming, and didn’t seem to mind that the (cough) visiting deacon (cough) was flummoxed by the unfamiliar church and steps, which led him to trip and fall at the start of Mass.

Bishop Mike, evidently accustomed to such liturgical flights of fancy, covered it nicely. “I’d like to introduce Deacon Greg from New York,” he said gently. “He’s my fall guy.”

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I can’t say enough good things about Deacon Mark Zenner and his lovely wife Jeannie. They both made me feel so welcome, and organized a great getaway for all the deacons and their wives; some couples drove four or five hours to be there. (Did I tell you the diocese is big? It’s big.)

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Even bigger, though, is the spirit of the diaconate community in Great Falls-Billings; some of the post-conference conversations were unexpectedly moving, as the couples shared stories of their own faith journeys.  It was a privilege to spend time with these folks. I hope to make it back for another visit soon.

Thank you, guys. You made this Brooklyn boy feel like a mountain man.

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