By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
KANSAS CITY — If dioceses did such silly things, Ralph Joe McNeal, at 61 years old, might be named Deacon Rookie of the Year.
It’s not that his first year of service, good as it was, at St. Matthew the Apostle Parish in southeast Kansas City was so astoundingly better, or his homilies, always solidly prepared and delivered, outshined those of his seven classmates who were ordained on June 4, 2011.
It would be the fact that Deacon Ralph Joe McNeal was even ordained at all, let alone survived to put in one full year of service.
And that fact alone has made him an inspiration, not only to his classmates, but to deacons throughout the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, as well as to the people that Deacon McNeal is certain that God wants him to serve.
So strongly was that call, Deacon McNeal will say, one year later, that it wasn’t Ralph Joe McNeal who willed himself out of what should have been his deathbed at St. Luke’s Hospital. It was clearly God’s will that McNeal had to do.
Who else but God could have surrounded him with such great men to be ordained with? Who else but God could have given him Becky, his Bishop Hogan High School sweetheart and wife of four decades, who supported him like a rock through all the times — too many to keep track of — that doctors told her to prepare — not for her husband’s ordination to the ranks of the clergy, but for his death. He was that close, many times.
Men bond when they share an intense experience, and formation for the permanent diaconate is an intense experience.
Deacon McNeal’s Class of 2011 was part of a transition in the diocesan formation program that delayed their ordinations by two years. But that too was a blessing, Deacon McNeal said, because the extra time allowed them to bond even more closely.
“I spent five years with these guys,” he said. “You become close. You become family.”
Yet the extra time also forced them to watch helplessly as their classmate’s health began to fail, beginning in the late summer of 2010 — less than a year away from the Sacrament of Holy Orders — to the point he was hospitalized with pneumonia.
“We knew there was a strong chance he wouldn’t get ordained with us,” said Deacon Mike Gates. “That was hard. But we were all just praying that he would get better.”
Long before then, Deacon McNeal had been asking God to fulfill his will for the rest of the life of a career Air Force master sergeant as his military career of service was winding down.
He couldn’t understand why, in 1996 when military doctors first diagnosed him with congestive heart failure and put him on a regimen of medications that restored at least some of his heart function, that he didn’t die then.
Was there something else God wanted him to do?
That, he said, became clear to him on June 12, 2004. That was the day that the McNeals watched Becky’s first cousin, Deacon Ken Albers, and three others ordained as permanent deacons.
Sitting in the pews of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, God’s plan became clear, Deacon McNeal said.
“I had an epiphany,” he said. “I was called to the diaconate. God was calling me. The diaconate was the place to fulfill that call.”
It wasn’t that nothing could stop Ralph Joe McNeal, he said. Nothing could stop God’s will once he surrendered to it.
He began his formation in 2006. As he and his classmates entered the home stretch in 2010, that’s when pneumonia put him in the hospital, and that’s when his cardiologist told him and Becky that unless he received a heart transplant, and soon, he wouldn’t survive much longer.
That presented another dilemma. That heart could only come from a person who had just died and who had given permission for vital organs to be harvested.
That was nothing to pray for, Becky said.
“Of course not,” she said. “You had the knowledge that in order for somebody to live, somebody would die. But that’s not what you pray for. You pray for the acceptance of God’s will, whatever it was.”
Deacon McNeal stubbornly refused to quit.
“I missed no classes,” he said of his continued formation under Deacon Dwayne Katzer.
“Dwayne will tell you that there were a couple of times he should have sent me home. All of the men in my class knew I was going down hill quick.”
On Feb. 14, 2011, the call came: Report to St. Luke’s immediately. His new heart was waiting. Their thoughts and prayers with the donor and his or her family, Ralph Joe and Becky hurried to the hospital as fast as they could.
Though not a routine surgery by any stretch, the odds were strong that he would receive his heart and recover in plenty of time to be ordained, as scheduled on June 4, with the men God had also called with him.
McNeal got his life-saving heart. Then three days later, it suddenly stopped beating, and he fell into a coma. He woke up two weeks later. He spent another three in St. Luke’s intensive care unit.
Bishop Robert W. Finn rushed to Becky’s side at St. Luke’s as soon as he got word that Ralph Joe was failing.
The bishop promised Becky that Ralph Joe would be ordained, in his hospital bed if necessary, as soon as he was conscious enough to respond.
McNeal did regain consciousness, eventually. But he graciously declined Bishop Finn’s offer. He was going to be ordained, as God had scheduled, in the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception with the men God sent to share formation.
“We are family,” he said of his classmates. “I was going to be with my family, no matter what it took.”
March turned into April. April to May. Doctors still refused to discharge him, and perhaps not without good reason.
In late May, McNeal’s six-foot frame withered to 120 pounds. His arms and hands were masses of purple from multiple stents and transfusions. Every bone, every muscle, every joint in his body ached.
With less than two weeks to go before ordination, the doctors told him there was no way he was leaving the hospital.
“Oh yeah?” McNeal told them. “You tell me what I have to do to convince you.”
So they laid down the rules.
“I had to show them I could walk some distance on my own, and that I could get up and down out of a chair on my own,” he said. “But I was truly at that point in time that I would do anything and everything in my power to show them I had enough strength to do this on my own.”
And he did. And on Tuesday, May 31, he was discharged in time for the ordination rehearsal on one condition — he had to return on Friday, the ordination eve, for one more check-up.
Becky and Ralph Joe didn’t stick around for a second opinion.
“We scrambled to gather things and flew out of that hospital before anyone could change their minds,” Becky said. “Ralph and I were on our own clouds of happiness.”
And so were his classmates, who had no idea McNeal would be with them until they saw him at the rehearsal, painfully walking down the aisle of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Becky at his side.
“We were all surprised to see him,” said Deacon Chuck Koesterer. “But then we were concerned about how we were going to pull this off without disrupting his health.”
With the assistance of Deacon Ralph Wehner, director of the diocesan Office of Sacred Worship, a plan was devised. His new brother-classmates would help, and McNeal would process down the aisle where he would be seated, and remain seated. At the point where those to be ordained present themselves to the bishop, his brother-classmates would help McNeal up the predella — the altar platform — where another chair would be waiting for him and he would remain seated.
When it came time for the laying of hands to ordain him as a deacon, his brother-classmates would kneel before the bishop. Then the bishop would come to McNeal.
But one last obstacle remained. When Ralph Joe and Becky kept their Friday ordination eve appointment, their surgeon told them he detected spots on chest X-rays, and that McNeal was to be admitted immediately for surgery the following Monday.
“The surgeon said he didn’t want him getting sick over the weekend, and he didn’t care what our ‘social calendar’ looked like. He was the surgeon,” Becky said.
“I watched Ralph’s face fall and his shoulders sag. His disappointment was displayed in every fiber of his being,” she said.
Becky first took up the argument.
“I told him that I knew the road to the hospital very well and if something happened, I could find my way,” Becky said.
Ralph Joe added his two cents. “I asked him that if he wasn’t going to do the surgery until Monday, then why did I have to be in the hospital on Saturday?”
“He was having none of that and walked out of the room,” Becky said.
The couple sat in the room for what seemed like an eternity. Then through the closed door they heard muffled, unintelligible voices involved in a spirited, if not heated, discussion.
The surgeon walked back into the room, told the McNeals they could leave, but to report back to his office on Tuesday and expect to be admitted into St. Luke’s.
They returned the next Tuesday, following his ordination, and were surprised when the nurse greeted McNeal with, “Good morning, Deacon.”
“We didn’t realize she knew,” Becky said. “She told us she was a member of one of our parishes with a deacon, and she went toe-to-toe and nose-to-nose with the surgeon on Friday. She told him this was NOT a social engagement, but rather an appointment with God.”
“She told him he didn’t understand,” Deacon McNeal said. “She told him, ‘You don’t have any power over this one.’”
Ordination went smoothly, though Becky admits to being an emotional wreck — until she realized that God was right beside her.
“There were so many emotions tumbling over each other all at once, it is hard to separate them into small boxes and keep them tucked away,” she said.
“I still had a gravely ill husband with a future surgery hanging over our heads,” Becky said. “I needed to gather all the things Joe would need for the day, including medications, equipment for several tests we would need to run several times that day, a bag for the contingency of an emergency drive to the hospital should the need arise. I had to help Ralph get himself ready for the day, carry all the stuff to the car myself, then finally the drive to the cathedral. Before we ever arrived, I had done a day’s work.”
When she arrived, everything she had gone through for months came into crystal focus, she said.
“I was immediately struck by the enormity of the church, not just the size of the physical structure, but rather how big God is and how small I am,” she said.
She saw the about-to-be ordained deacons and their wives, “brothers and sisters to us, raising us in prayer, responding to our needs, true meaning of the word community” and she thought of the long list of people who were at her and Ralph Joe’s side every step — her brother in Oregon whom she would call in the middle of the night knowing he would listen, the scores on her e-mail lists whom she kept in touch, and knew they were praying for “acceptance of God’s will, whatever it was.”
“I felt gratitude for each person who had touched our lives this spring and throughout our lives. I was overwhelmed by each name or face that popped into my brain,” she said.
Then came her greatest realization.
“I didn’t do anything that entire spring,” she said. “God had done it all.
“A sense of peace overcame me when I realized God had given Ralph his dream of being a deacon,” she said. “The gift of a heart had been a long journey, and was now a new beginning.”
Deacon McNeal had one more surprise at his ordination.
He remained seated, as instructed, his head bowed in prayer, as his classmates laid on the predella in front of the altar, just before, one by one, they were to kneel before the bishop at his cathedra and receive the imposition of hands and the Sacrament of Holy Orders.
The bishop began to move to where McNeal was seated. McNeal instead rose from his chair, and began slowly, painfully, walking across the perdella to the cathedra and the bishop.
His classmates tried to fight the tears, some more successfully than others.
Not so Deacon Katzer, who led the class through their long formation, and was standing at the ambo when McNeal make the excruciating walk to the cathedra. “I was blubbering like a baby,” he said.
At that medical appointment the following Tuesday, when the nurse told them that she went to bat for Deacon McNeal, they got the first great piece of news in months.
The surgeon who wanted Deacon McNeal admitted four days earlier had taken a second look at the X-rays and decided they didn’t show what he feared. They were told to return in two weeks.
When he came back two weeks later, Deacon McNeal had begun to recover so fast that the medical staff was stunned.
In the year since, Deacon McNeal has gained 60 pounds, has been able to exercise regularly, and has been able to take on every task his pastor, Father Lloyd Opoka, has asked him, including directing the St. Matthew’s Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults program.
“He’s very helpful. He gives me relief from the homilies once a month and he is willing to take on other stuff,” Father Opoka said.
“And he’s good for my humility,” the priest quipped. “People tell me his homilies are better than mine.”
There is one more thing Deacon McNeal wants to do if he can organize his thoughts, his gratitude and emotions enough.
The St. Luke’s transplant recovery clinic, by law, can’t tell him the name of the person who donated the heart that is now beating in his chest.
“I do have the opportunity to write a letter to the donor’s family and it will be forwarded to them. They may or may not write me back,” he said.
“But I think about that life that was given up all the time,” Deacon McNeal said.