Tag Archives: deacon

Do a Catholic deacon and his son have what it takes to canoe the length of the Mississippi?

February 15, 2010



by Gary Hoffman

Deacon Gary Hoffman and his son  Darrin challenged themselves to canoe the Mississippi River from top to bottom.

The pair put in at Lake Itasca in northerm Minnesota dreaming that some 40 days later they would pull their canoe out of the water at Jackson Square in New Orleans. The year was 2002

Hoffman, an ordained Catholic deacon who in retirement still does part-time ministry at St. John the Baptist in Jordan, finally has published the story of this journey of a lifetime. And what a story!

Icy cold water, strength-sapping heat and humidity, gorgeous sunsets, terrorizing lightning strikes, scented spring blooms, scary whirlpools, cooling river breezes, wind-whipped waves, feed-frenzied walleye below, eagles soaring overhead, the occasional loon, beaver and great blue heron for company — and that’s just the non-human aspects of a 2,552-mile canoe trip down the fourth-largest river in the world.

River people are fascinating

Deacon Hoffman is obviously a people person, and the people that the father-son duo meet along the way make this as much drama as memoir, as much a statement on the nature of humanity as a travelogue, as much a how-to book on father-son relations as a how-to book about canoeing the length of the Mississippi.

There are the friendly couples, an eclectic collection of strangers, the helpful rangers, and what best might be described as “characters,” like the Bottleman, attempting to conquer the Mississippi rowing a craft designed entirely of plastic bottles.

“No doubt about it,” Hoffman writes, “the most important part of a Mississippi trip is the people — those we meet and each other. Mississippi books should warn travelers to set aside more time for people. Our goal of two months (to complete the trip) doesn’t allow time to truly know God’s greatest natural resource in the valley: river-people.”

But every drama must have it’s bad guys.

Lock keepers who don’t like canoeists, barge pilots who try to run over them and a nasty employee from the Corps of Engineers who spent hours trying to swamp the Hoffman’s 20-foot canoe — all made the journey more dangerous than it had to be.

No way an easy float

They added to what was obviously a physically demanding challenge, much more so for the then-58-year-old deacon than for his 27-year-old son. Muscle aches, numbness and a medical emergency requiring antibiotics became part of the story, but maybe not as persistent as the mental and emotional roller coaster of a father-son relationship under the stress of an enormous challenge complicated by danger, hardship and every-day life decisions.

Son Darrin had been married for just two months when he and his father launched on Memorial Day in 2002, leaving behind a new bride who understandably didn’t relish the idea of her new husband taking off on an extended trip without her — and a risky trip at that.

Toss in the confidence in himself as a strong, athletic young adult and mix it with the usual parental take-charge approach most fathers assume with their children — no matter the age — and the trip ended up being a consistent struggle of wills. The tension between the two eases but never disappears as the Hoffmans paddle as many as 60 miles a day, taking in both nature’s beauty and nature’s awesome power.

Spirituality always present

The deacon in dad Gary is always right at the surface along with his love of God’s creation. Floating with the Mighty Miss’ current brings “a taste of heaven,” he writes at one point, and soon after their canoe is “sitting in the middle, the starting point, of a loon chorus,” likening it to an evening newscast in the loons’ world.

Dirty, grubby and smelly from camping and paddling, Deacon Hoffman asks to use the restroom during a stop ashore, only to be asked to leave by a female employee. “She provides a gentle but firm reminder of how judgmental I have been,” Hoffman notes. “I am experiencing what must be very common for street people: fear and embarrassment on the part of the establishment.”

More often, however, encounters along the Mississipi are down right hospitable, even neighborly. When an Iowa couple opens their arms and invites Gary and Darrin to enjoy the comforts of showers, a warm dinner, comfortable chairs and congenial conversation, Deacon Hoffman writes, “Other than salvation, we may never receive a finer gift . . . human love.” For him, the people, the sights, the sounds and even the smells are God’s gifts.

The river itself he finds to be a healer and a harmer, and he turns the Father of Waters into a woman with picturesque analogies of a beautiful woman, a trickster, a comforter and a tease.

The best way to enjoy “Mighty Miss” may be to read a chapter a day, taking your time and journeying with the Hoffmans vicariously. As with most great reading, it’s a book I didn’t want to end because I enjoyed the reading so much.

Deacon Gary Hoffman developed and directed the Diaconate Formation Program for the Diocese of Crookston, MN. He later served at St. John the Baptist in Excelsior. Now retired, Deacon Hoffman is hitting the lecture circuit, showing slides of the trip down the Mighty Miss and doing book signings. The self-published paperback sells for $18.95. To order copies, to contact him for speaking engagements, see http://www.MightyMiss.com.


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Real-world approach to find answers to life’s big questions

January 11, 2010


“Get Out of the Boat:

Discover the Meaning of Your Life!”

By Thomas J. Winninger


“Why do I exist?”

“What’s the purpose for my life?”

“What gifts do I have that I should act upon?”

These are the questions our hearts beg to be answered. Then life interrupts.

The need to reach other goals steals time from us. The need to be seen as successful traps us into living “on the surface,” as Deacon Thom Winninger puts it.

Winninger echoes the call of Jesus to the fishermen who would be his apostles, inviting readers to get out of the boat and find the answers to the core questions and to live deeper. He asks:

“When was the last time you looked into your inner mirror and asked yourself, ‘What should I be doing? What will make me truly satisfied with my life?’ Or, ‘Why aren’t things working for me? Why do I seem to make stupid decisions? Why don’t I ever get ahead? Why don’t my relationships work out the way I want?'”

Stepping out of our routine and taking up a new, more reflective, prayerful approach on a daily basis, one in which we walk with Jesus, is a way we will come to know the real purpose for our lives, Winninger advises. He gets us started by walking us through the first seven days of that journey.

Re-writing Ignatius of Loyola

What this one-time successful businessman has done is taken the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola and re-crafted them to be less intimidating. A permanent deacon serving St. Olaf parish in downtown Minneapolis, Winninger has simplified Ignatius’ daunting process, creating in its place one he calls “in-the-world-discernment.”

In an earlier career, Winninger was a motivational speaker and a good one, even producing a series of videos on salesmanship. In this 144-page Liguori paperback he taps that know-how with writing that is conversational, logical and especially persuasive. “Get Out of the Boat” is an easy-to-handle work thanks to simple declarative sentences and the sharing of wisdom from real-life experiences.

He invites us to ask great questions of ourselves: “What really makes me happy? What gives me true joy? What have I done in my life that makes me sad? What gifts do I have that for one reason or another seem to work better than anything else? How does God reveal himself to me in my daily activity?”

To get to answers for those core questions, Deacon Winninger’s revision of Ignatius recommends two exercises, one in the morning and one in the evening. The morning step involves a brief reading of Scripture and reflecting  on questions related to it, followed by some time to think about how you see God working in your life and then applying the answers to where you’ve been, where you are at, and where you think you need to be going.

The evening “examen” is time to look at how God made himself known to you that day. Winninger asks: “What part of your day did you feel any inklings or insights into your purpose? What expereineces drew you to an understanding you didn’t have before? What did you do in the world? How did you interact with the world?”

Similar to an examination of conscience, the examen can be summed up this way, Winninger notes: “It asks you where you moved close to Jesus and where you moved away after each day.”

Each step explained

Winninger takes readers through seven steps to simplify the morning reflection and similar ones for the evening portion. He explains each step, and throughout he keeps those important, tough-love questions coming:

“What has been most important to me today? What did I accomplish today that made me feel good about myself? Where did I feel like God instructed me? Who has shown me God’s love today? Who did I hurt?”

A unique, inviting feature of the book are the several instances in which Winninger takes up the voice of Jesus. In story form he recalls Gospel events, then speaks to readers as Jesus, as if Jesus reading our minds and analyzing our lives. Here’s an exerpt:

“You are very similar to my disciples. You have actually spent very little time with me. Yes, you attend Mass and pray once in a while, but your mind is frequently distracted by all the things that you need to get done, removing your focus from me at church and in prayer. Like my disciples, you too wonder if your time spent in prayer or at Mass is a waste because you fail to see the difference it makes in your life.”

Along the way on the seven starter days  — these seven “encounters with Christ,” as Winninger says — he tosses in practical advice, good ideas that are easy to follow. For example, in reflecting he suggests, imagine Jesus sitting next to you, speaking and listening to you. Can’t find time to reflect? Why not take five minutes in the parking lot at work before going in to the job?

Each day there’s a suggested prayer, too. Each day he takes a different tack, coming at the same questions from different perspectives. He makes it personal, and he makes it real.

Follow this pattern of building a relationship with Jesus, Deacon Winninger notes, and “eventually your heart will find peace in answers to life’s big questions, and you will find a deeper meaning to the purpose of your life.” — bz

P.S. —

You may order from Liguori Publications:
On the left menu, right under “Search BY AUTHOR” type in Winninger.
When that page pops up, click on the title of “Get Out of the Boat” and you’ll see how to add to a cart.
As with most online purchases, you’ll need to set up an account. It really isn’t too much of a hassle.
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It’s okay, Catholics, we can laugh

September 30, 2008


“The Book of Catholic Jokes,”

by Deacon Tom Sheridan

Did you know that they had automobiles in Jesus’ time?

Yes, the Bible says that the disciples were all of one Accord.

Yeah, you may have heard some of them before.

And yes, Tom Sheridan admits that some of these may have been jokes to which a Catholic angle has been added to make them churchy.

But Sheridan, who was a writer and editor for the Chicago Sun-Times before he was a deacon, has nicely selected jokes that folks with decent moral standards can tell in polite company, and Acta Publications has packaged them well as a handy little and inexpensive paperback.

Did you hear the one about the man who opened a dry-cleaning business next door to the convent? He knocked on the door and asked the Mother Superior if she had any dirty habits.

To be sure there are some clinkers in the bunch, and some moldy oldies. And I don’t know why every priest in a joke has to have an Irish surname; hell0 — you don’t have to be Irish to be a priest, or to be funny.

With most of the quips you don’t have to be an “insider,” so to speak, although I’m not sure the jokes that take off on the differences between, say, the Franciscans and the Jesuits, aren’t going to have some Catholics scratching their heads. But maybe not.

For the most part the collection is good stuff — good enough to make you crack a smile even though you may have heard them before.

There’s at least one great priest golf joke, a cute one about a rabbi and a priest, a funny Pope Benedict XVI joke and a clever atheist joke. And as someone who can rarely remember a joke, what a good resource; I’m sure “The Book of Catholic Jokes” will end up on a number of reference shelves in rectories. — bz

One Sunday morning a priest saw a little boy staring intently at the large plaque on the church wall. The plaque was covered with names, and flags hung on either side of it.

“Father,” asked the boy, “what’s this?”

He replied, “It’s a memorial to all the men and women who died in the service.”

They stood together in silence for a moment. Finally, the boy asked with genuine concern: “Was it at the eight or the ten-thirty Mass?”

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