You know a deacon is doing a good job if parishioners think about his homilies at the grocery store.
For more than three decades, Deacon Earle Flatt has been making such impressions on members of St. Madeleine Sophie in Schenectady by turning everyday items like macaroni and peanut butter into educational props.
He boasts that each of his hundreds of homilies - aided by the mystery objects, cloaked in brown paper bags - has been unique.
At 90 years old, Deacon Flatt continues to preach at three Masses every third Sunday and only recently retired from ministry - though what "retirement" means, in his case, is debatable.
"I call it 'diocesan retirement,'" he said, laughing. "We have a big party and then the next day you get up and go back to Mass."
He retired in earnest from his nursing home ministry three years ago, but has no intention of calling a halt to preaching, preparing Catholics for sacraments, visiting the sick, leading services at funeral homes, helping with faith formation and catechist enrichment and maintaining a presence around the parish.
Priest in awe
"His energy amazes me," said Rev. Jim Belogi, pastor since 1995 and the fourth pastor Deacon Flatt has assisted. "I wish I had half of it. He has had a profound impact on the life of our parish. He brings a sense of history and continuity."
Deacon Flatt was one of five men ordained to the Albany Diocese's first class of deacons in 1976. He spoke with The Evangelist about entering the diaconate, his decades of service and his plans for the rest of his golden years.
Deacon Flatt was born in Pennsylvania and moved to the Albany Diocese as a boy. He spent a decade as a public school teacher, followed by time as a college professor and as a state curriculum developer for continuing teacher education. He later served as diocesan assistant superintendent of Catholic schools and, after retiring at age 65, as a pastoral planning coordinator for the Diocese.
The deacon is a World War II veteran who directed religious services on a Navy ship and then spent a quarter-century in the reserves. The diaconate replaced his military activities and followed 20 years of volunteerism in his former parish, Immaculate Conception in Schenectady.
"I thought, 'Gee, this is going to be an opportunity to increase the number of things I do,'" Deacon Flatt said. "God said, 'Earle, you're foolish not to take this opportunity.'"
Since then, he's assisted at three of his five children's weddings and at one of his 16 grandchildren's. He's proud of what he's taught parents of babies being baptized, of the church tours he's given to people joining the Church and of using his education expertise to enhance Catholics' faith lives.
"I've become a greater believer," he said of his own faith. "It made me feel as though I'm doing something to do the work of God. I didn't know I wasn't accomplishing it before."
The diaconate in the Diocese, Deacon Flatt said, has "had a few hitches along the way," but has grown positively, with clergy and laypeople becoming more accepting of the role of deacons.
Deacons continue to face the challenges of limited time and keeping up with the changing Church. Deacon Flatt sees the ministry growing to include extra responsibilities, such as administering the sacrament of anointing of the sick, but added that "I hope it doesn't grow beyond our capabilities."
Back at his 25th anniversary, Deacon Flatt told The Evangelist it feels like deacons never truly retire: "I tell people, 'If I start getting doddering and forgetful up there on the altar, tell me!'" He still has that attitude, crediting his energy to having "things to do and people to see.
"I refuse to get older," he continued. "I'm maturing."
Deacon Flatt's wife, Beth, who's 86, predicts that he may someday reduce his Mass responsibilities, but stick with his sacramental preparation.
"He likes to keep busy," Mrs. Flatt told The Evangelist. "People at St. Madeleine's seem to look for him. He's a very prayerful person and a person that people speak to if they have a problem. I think he takes people as they come. He doesn't have any preconceived ideas."
By his side
Mrs. Flatt has helped with a variety of ministries, including reviewing her husband's homilies. Deacon Flatt called her "a tremendous person to walk this journey with."
The Flatts exercise and travel together; they're currently preparing to dance at their grandson's wedding in November.
Mrs. Flatt said most people wouldn't guess her husband has had colon cancer and heart surgery.
"He doesn't get down," she said. "I don't think that religion should be a heavy burden. It should be something that uplifts you. And he has that attitude that everything is going to turn out well."
She concluded: "He takes good care of himself - or I try to take care of him."