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Feature News | Monday, November 13, 2023

Humble yet honored

Hundreds recognized for service to the Church on archdiocese's 65th anniversary

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MIAMI | Why them?

They did nothing special.

Others work just as hard for the Church.

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.

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.


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 hospitals.

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 parishes.

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 applause.

As he did at the 2018 event, Archbishop Wenski reflected on the growth of the Church in South Florida. He drew laughs when he suggested that the growth began not only with an influx of World War II veterans, but via air conditioning.

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 said.



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.

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.


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 us.”

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 Florida.”

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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