What has it been like, having a parish that you’ve attended your whole life and now serve as deacon?
It feels like a complete gift from God, and I’m so happy that I’ve had it. I feel like a son there. It was an Augustinian parish for a long time, until recently when they couldn’t provide pastors anymore. I feel like a son to the Augustinians, too, because in a sense they helped to teach me the Catholic Faith along with the Racine Dominican Sisters.
What’s the biggest lesson you’ve taken from your time in the parish school?
One of the things I’ve been drawn to since I was ordained is social justice work. As I’ve reflected on it over the years I’ve realized that it was in large part because of the Racine Dominican Sisters, who taught in the parish school when I was there. They had a really deep influence on me in that regard, the idea of social justice. They planted that seed of every person being born with dignity, in the image of God and that had a profound effect on me.
When did your faith become important to you?
Serving at the altar was formative for me. I remember riding my bike to serve at Mass early one Saturday morning. I think I was in fifth or sixth grade. I had this experience that’s hard to describe; all I know is that I was deeply touched and felt God’s presence there with me in that moment.
How did that experience shape your faith?
That was the first deep, overt sense of God that I remember but I also had a feeling of God’s mysterious presence many times when I was in the woods alone. I grew up in a rural area and spent a lot of time in the woods. There were times when I would be lying next to a creek listening to the water, or peering into the water of a pond or swamp, or just walking in the woods. These were times when I would feel “connected” somehow and felt God’s presence all around.
Can you tell me a little about your career?
My family had a tool and die business. After Jeri and I married, we lived for a brief time in Fond du Lac and then we moved back to Racine. I started working in the family business then and eventually became president and acquired majority ownership. Our management team grew it into an engineering company, which designs and builds computerized test equipment for the off-highway industry, companies like John Deere, Caterpillar, and Case IH. I also worked for three years at St. Richard Parish in Racine before retiring in 2019, when Jeri had some serious health problems.
When did you realize that you were being called to the diaconate?
When I was in my 40s, I started having some “symptoms,” like an energy that started agitating me. I didn’t know what it was. It got stronger and stronger and I didn’t know what was going on. I didn’t know what to do with myself. Eventually, I spoke to my pastor, Fr. Joseph Stobba, about it after a Saturday evening Mass. We sat down and talked and, within a short time, he said, “Greg, you are being called.” In that instant, everything was clarified for me. I dove deeper into Catholicism, got involved in jail ministry, being a lector, was elected to parish council, and eventually applied to the diaconate and was accepted. I have never looked back.
What did Jeri think about it?
She grew up Lutheran and the idea of a religious calling was somewhat new for her. It was a little scary for her but her faith grew throughout the process — it widened and deepened. We both began to have a more mature understanding of the faith.
How does social justice play a role in your ministry now?
I see social justice as part of the mission of the Church and part of our collective Catholic identity. I love the Pope’s characterization of the Church as a field hospital, that we need to go out to where people are at. We are called to go into the community, meet and get to know people and find where we can be of service, and sometimes that involves issues of social justice.
How do you live out that mission?
After I was ordained, I became aware of a social justice organization here in Racine called the Racine Interfaith Coalition (RIC). They were the only organization in town that I knew of that had a social justice mission. It drew in people of all faiths. One of the things you learn in formation is that you don’t need to “reinvent the wheel.” In other words, you join in when there already is an organized group of people who are doing the work you are called to do. And so that’s what I did. I joined RIC and, a few years later, St. Rita joined as well.
How do you approach people who balk at the idea of the church being involved in social issues?
Unfortunately, when you say the words “social justice” it draws a line in the sand for some people. It can become divisive and that’s a shame because it’s part of our Catholic identity and tradition. Everything starts with being Christ-centered, and speaking and acting from his example, Scripture and the Church’s teaching. When you do that you’re always on safe ground. One needs to be patient and look for the right opportunities to discuss certain social issues with people. Sometimes people are more formed by the culture and political ideology than they are by Jesus Christ. Lovingly calling our brothers and sisters to truly understand and follow what Christ taught us helps to move them from the culture and the divisive politics of our time to the truth of the Gospel.
Why is your work in prison ministry important to you?
Sooner or later, approximately 90 to 95 percent of men currently in prison are going to be released. How do we want them coming back into society: frustrated, angry, dysfunctional and/or lacking any employable skills? I think most people would agree that we want our fathers, uncles, brothers, cousins, friends and/or neighbors coming back to us rehabilitated, productive, well-adjusted and so forth. In other words, we want them to be healed as much as they can be. Part of that process is to help them realize that they, too, are made in the image and likeness of God. There is a love that can heal.