“Faces of Mission” is a bi-weekly blog series produced by the United States Catholic Mission Association highlighting our membership and all their work in and for mission. This week we feature Deacon Thomas (Tom) Berna, a deacon at St. Stephen Catholic Church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Through his varied ministries, Deacon Tom is committed to reaching out and sharing the Good News with people of all faiths and of no particular faith.
Living a Life of Mission at Home
Thomas (Tom) Berna is a deacon at St. Stephen Catholic Church, a parish in the Hazelwood neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In addition to his ministry in the parish, Deacon Tom has long been involved in prison ministry and was certified last year as a Global Fellow for Catholic Relief Services.
Committing to Witness
While Deacon Tom was born and raised Catholic, he truly recommitted himself to his faith when he was 25. Initially, he hoped that God would not call him to Witness because he thought of Witnessing as proselytizing and did not want to be “beating anybody over the head with a Bible.” But over time, he came to realize that Witness is “really what we’re all called to do. It’s the essence of sharing the Gospel with people.” Deacon Tom now understands Witness as sharing the Good News with others through the way we live and encourage people.
In his ministry, Deacon Tom is committed to being a Witness, sharing the Good News with “people of all faiths and no particular faith”. He works with and reaches out to Muslims, Christians of different denominations, and those of other or no faith, trying through example to reveal the one true God he knows. This sense of global solidarity is what calls Deacon Tom to mission. “We’re all on this little blue marble,” he says.
Parish and Prison Mission
Deacon Tom’s mission work is primarily domestic, where he sees “the idea of home mission as being part of the universal call to share the gospel.” In the urban parish in Pittsburgh where he works, Deacon Tom is very involved with Fishes and Loaves Cooperative Ministries. Through the Fishes and Loaves Cooperative Ministries Buying Club, Deacon Tom and others in the parish are focused on reaching out to their neighbors, living the example of Jesus, and working to bring food into the community. They negotiate with vendors to get good, reasonably priced food and distribute it twice a month. Most of those served by Fishes and Loaves live in subsidized housing and find it very difficult to get to a grocery store. Fishes and Loaves helps bridge this gap.
In addition to his parish work, for the past 10 years, Deacon Tom has been involved in prison ministry. He remembers one specific day in the prison that truly showed him that the ministry he was doing is mission. In the process of beginning a new small group at the prison, Deacon Tom was explaining to the prisoners some basic information about the group’s confidentiality. In response, one of the young prisoners immediately said to him, “Deacon Tom, do you know where you’re at? Do you really know where you’re at?” Deacon Tom hadn’t even thought about the differences there would be in the prison world in terms of group confidentiality.
That evening, Deacon Tom went home and reflected on the incident with that young man at the prison. He said to his son, who was getting ready to go to New Orleans for a mission project at the time, “You know, I think the work I’m doing is also mission territory because it’s foreign. They’ve got their own language and their surroundings are different.” So in his prison mission, Deacon Tom works to share God’s love and light to people of all faiths and no particular faiths.
Seeing the Importance of Mission
Deacon Tom’s call to mission is constantly reaffirmed and strengthened in a variety of ways, including during a trip last summer to Peru with his wife. For three years, Deacon Tom’s wife has worked as a Fair Trade Ambassador for Catholic Relief Services, but the two of them had never had a chance to meet any of the coffee and cacao farmers they have been so committed to. However, this past summer the two of them were given an opportunity through Dean’s Beans, an organic and fair trade coffee producer, to spend a week in Peru meeting with farmers.
During that visit, Deacon Tom was able to speak with the coffee farmers and saw their situation. He asked one of the farmers if he had any message to the people of the United States, to which the farmer replied, “Tell the people in the United States that there are good people here and we want the same thing for our children that you want for your children.” This statement really stuck with Deacon Tom. He remembers it as “a moment to connect with a person of a different language, a different country. I could see how hard the people were working and how little they had in a material sense. So if there was any way I could help to affirm them where they’re at, love them where they’re at, I see that as part of mission work.”
Looking to the Future
Moving forward, Deacon Tom plans to continue both his parish and prison ministries. He is also especially excited about being a Global Fellow for Catholic Relief Services. What excites him most is the opportunity to go out and tell people about the important work already being done through Catholic Relief Services. Deacon Tom wants to encourage people to take that mission work seriously and “see it as part of the universal call to discipleship.”