By Jerry Duggan
In his early 20s, Jim Griffard was searching for his purpose in life. He attended a White House Retreat, where he became acquainted with the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius and discernment in an Ignatian context. Those lessons have proved transformative for Griffard throughout his life. Four decades later, he serves as a permanent deacon at St. Francis Xavier College Church in St. Louis, also spending much time serving nearby Loyola Academy.
Griffard’s path to this assignment was not always clear. Growing up in a Catholic household, he looked up to several religious men and women as role models, including his parish priest and religious sisters. The example of faith they set for him was so powerful that Griffard decided to enter the diocesan seminary at the start of high school at what was then known as Prep Seminary North in suburban St. Louis.
In time, he discerned that the priesthood was not right for him. He got a college degree in business and began working as an accountant. He felt called to keep his faith at the forefront of his life, though. This included a particularly strong call to care for the needs of others, so he returned to college and got a degree in social work from SLU, which Griffard applied as a social worker in public school education systems for 32 years.
Once he had found a career that was tailored to his passions, however, Griffard continued to feel a restlessness. He was happily married and had three young children but felt called to something more. He began training for the permanent diaconate in 1994, and, after assignments at several parishes, today serves the parish community of St. Francis Xavier College Church.
Griffard has found the permanent diaconate has allowed him to follow his sense of call to his vocation as a husband and father and quench his spiritual thirst as an ordained minister. The permanent diaconate enables him to call others to a full share in their baptismal vocation of service, too.
“As a permanent deacon, I am able to do everything an ordained priest can do with the exception of two things – consecrating the body and blood of Christ, and absolving anyone of their sins,” he said.
He has enjoyed all of his assignments in the diaconate but finds his ministry at College Church to be particularly fulfilling.
“The community at College Church is rich in talented people and ministries,” he said. “With such a great community in place, I’m just here to serve them however I can.”
Initially, Griffard got his feet wet with as many areas of the parish community as he could. He helped start and then chaired the parish’s commission on adult faith formation (religious education) and helped with baptisms, funerals and weddings, among other responsibilities.
Recently, he has shifted his work to help fulfill a different part of the parish vision: to be anti-racist.
“Breaking down barriers to people of color, and promoting a more diverse, inclusive spiritual community is a priority at our Church,” he said.
Over time, this general focus has branched out to Loyola Academy, a nearby Jesuit middle school that serves a socioeconomically disadvantaged, predominately African-American student body.
“Part of our strategic plan at College Church is to collaborate more extensively with other Jesuit apostolates, and Loyola is in our parish boundaries, so we have focused a lot of effort on building a stronger partnership with them,” he explained.
While remaining a permanent deacon at College Church and helping with liturgies and sacraments, for the last few years Griffard has focused his energy as director of pastoral care at Loyola.
In this role, he oversees the spiritual formation of Loyola’s students in addition to serving as, effectively, a campus minister. He coordinates all-school Masses and prayer services, striving to make them as engaging as possible for students.
“We try to bring in a variety of different celebrants and speakers to keep things interesting and get students familiar with the different roles they can take on – a lector, an acolyte, a gift bearer, and so on,” he described. “The goal is to get students to actively engage with the Mass and prayer service and see that they, too, can be part of the celebration.”
He also coordinates days of service for the student body and faculty at local organizations such as the St. Vincent de Paul Society and Guardian Angel Settlement Association.
“There are a lot of logistical things to work out with days of service, but ultimately, seeing students give back to their community makes it all worth it,” he said.
Griffard also designs and executes annual retreats for students and oversees faith formation efforts for the school’s faculty.
While he has found his ministry at College Church, and, by extension, Loyola Academy, to be most rewarding, he sees it as simply a continuation of the way he has lived his life for decades.
“Starting way back at that White House Retreat, the seeds of finding God in all things and being of service to others in whatever way possible were planted in me,” he reflected.
He sees his ministry as a permanent deacon, and even as a social worker in public schools, as an application of those principles.
“Deacon actually comes from the Greek word diakonia (diakonos) which translates to ‘servant,’” he said. “In all of my ministries as a deacon and in my career as a social worker, I’ve always been there to serve.”