That was the reaction for many of those honored at
the 65th anniversary service for the archdiocese.
Archbishop Thomas Wenski agreed – yet he didn’t – as
he conferred several levels of honors, including the Jubilaeum Cross, to nearly
250 parishioners across South Florida.
“They are honored not because they are different,”
the archbishop said at the service Oct. 22, 2023, at St. Mary Cathedral. “They
are honored because they are representative of the dedication and devotion that
so well characterizes the parishioners of this local Church.”
A standing-room-only crowd of more than 850
clustered in the cathedral for solemn vespers, one of several events for the
archdiocesan anniversary. The first was a Mass Oct. 7 at the cathedral, where
the archbishop paid homage to his predecessor prelates, plus community leaders.
The third was a gala at the Miami Beach Convention center, including music by
the soul group Earth, Wind and Fire.
At the vespers, Archbishop Wenski handed out
several types of awards. Two men were promoted to higher ranks in the Order of Saint Gregory
the Great. Four people received the Papal Cross Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice for
evangelization and care of the faithful. Three others received the Papal Medal Benemerenti,
a Greek cross with the papal coat of arms. Twenty more received the Primum
Regnum Dei Award, the archdiocese’s highest honor, established by
Archbishop Coleman F. Carroll, founding shepherd of this diocese.
Among the recipients of the Benemerenti –
whose name means “well deserved” – was Judge Steven Leifman of the county
criminal court. The medal is given by the pope to people of any or no faith who
promote the Gospel or seek the common good.
Photographer: JONATHAN MARTINEZ | FC
Hon. Steven Leifman receives the Papal Medal Benemerenti from Archbishop Thomas Wenski during the Archdiocese of Miami's 65th anniversary vespers service, Oct. 22, 2023, at St. Mary Cathedral.
Judge Leifman, who attends Temple Beth Sholom on
Miami Beach, has worked for nearly 24 years to develop programs that treat the
mentally ill, rather than allow them to cycle in and out of jails and
In that quarter-century, the new diversion programs
have reduced arrests and police shootings, and even saved the county $120
million thus far, Leifman said. Next up will be a one-stop treatment and
residential center in northwest Miami.
“I was stunned” when Father Ryan Saunders,
priest-secretary to Archbishop Wenski, told him a month earlier that he would
receive the medal, the judge said. “Recognition from the pope is an honor and
an incredible validation of the work I've been doing.”
Leifman echoed other awardees that day. “I
sometimes feel I get more from the people I serve than I give. There is no
greater gift than watching people recover.”
The longest award list was for the Jubilaeum Cross,
given to two members from each of the archdiocese’s 109 parishes. Established
by Archbishop Wenski in 2018 for the archdiocese’s 60th anniversary, the Jubilaeum recognizes those who witness to the faith in service to their
The 218 awardees, many of them married couples,
were called to the front of the sanctuary. There they were given a gold-plated
pin with a crucifix bearing two transepts, signifying the authority of a
bishop. Friends and family looked on, occasionally bursting into cheers and
He also noted the diocese faced its first big test
just months after its birth, as refugees fled the Cuban revolution. They were
only the first of many groups who arrived seeking freedom, he said.
“The pastoral challenges of receiving and welcoming
newcomers to our Church are no less urgent today than when the diocese began in
1958,” Archbishop Wenski said.
Hence the need for servants who assist the Church
with their gifts and time, he continued. He called service the highest calling
of every Christian, pointing out that even the pope is called Servus
servorum Dei – “Servant of the Servants of God.”
“In honoring the contributions of these members of
our local Church, we remind ourselves that all these gifts are given not for
personal reward but for the building up of the Church, the Body of Christ,” he
A PLAN FOR US ALL
For some of the recipients, though, a commonly used
word was “overwhelmed.”
One was Barbara Romani, who’s been with Our Lady of
Guadalupe in Doral for 23 years. She has worked with the church as an
extraordinary minister of Communion, chairperson of the finance council, member
of the parish council and coordinator of English-speaking lectors.
Photographer: JONATHAN MARTINEZ | FC
View of the piazza in front of St. Mary Cathedral at the reception which followed the Archdiocese of Miami's 65th anniversary vespers service, Oct. 22, 2023.
“I'm overwhelmed, it’s humbling,” Romani said. “At
Our Lady of Guadalupe, there are beautiful people who do a lot. “I don’t do
things to get recognition,” she continued. “I believe God has a plan for all of
Echoing her sentiments was Donna Weddington, a
volunteer at St. Bonaventure in Davie since the 1990s. She's an extraordinary
minister of Communion and leads the parish Rosary Guild, whose members make
rosaries for churches and missions. She also works with the Knights of
Columbus’ Columbiettes, wrapping gifts for families served by the St. Vincent
De Paul Society.
Still, Weddington protested: “There are so many
people at St. Bonaventure who do so much. I can't imagine how difficult it must
be to select just two from each parish. It’s quite an honor. I get a little
teared up just thinking about it.”
Julie Williamson of Corpus Christi Church, Miami,
admired the mix of Jubilaeum awardees – men and women, Anglos and Hispanics –
often from the same parishes.
“I love the mix of cultures, the unity of people
from all kinds of backgrounds,” Williamson said. “I'm happy I'm in South
Williamson, a retired attorney, is a trustee of the
Florida Cultural Heritage Center, created by Corpus Christi’s Father Jose Luis
Menendez. She works pro bono with a new immigration clinic along with Catholic
Legal Services. And she's founding president for Martha/Mary Concerts.
“All the work is focused, one way or another, on
bringing the community together,” she said.
After vespers, the honorees lined up again – this
time for a reception on the piazza in front of the cathedral. There they found
two long tables with catered treats. Archbishop Wenski joined them, noshing,
chatting and posing with parishioners for selfies.
Looking around, he mused: “The Church in South
Florida is very much alive. The best years are in front of us.”
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