Deacon Ralph Torrelli: Focused on Evangelization
Q. How did you discover your vocation?
A. My parents were loving, caring, hard-working, and honest people who made sure my twin sisters and I were baptized and confirmed in the Church. But they were Catholic in name only, as they did not attend Mass or pray at home. So, after confirmation at age twelve, I stopped going to church. At nineteen, I met and began dating Mary, a beautiful Irish-born Catholic from Donegal.
One Saturday evening after our third date, I was driving Mary home to Brooklyn, New York. It was a congested area with six lanes each way. As we crept along at fifteen miles an hour, with lots of stoplights, Mary asked, “Will you pick me up for church tomorrow?” I said, “I don’t go to church!” She replied, “Stop the car!” She then exited, saying, “I’m not going out with a heathen. I’ll walk.” She slammed the door and started walking. Here I was, halting traffic—horns blaring, and people screaming threats and obscenities. I got out of the car and, while pleading for Mary to get back in, I promised to take her to church. She did. We went to church together the following Sunday morning—and we’ve been going ever since. We were married a year and a half later. We have two children, three grandchildren, and six great-grandchildren. On May 23, 2021, we celebrated our sixty-second wedding anniversary!
That experience not only brought me back to the Church, but it was a wake-up call that made me appreciate how much I needed God. I realized I wanted my depth of faith to match what Mary had. Even though she cared about me, Mary was willing to risk losing me. The strength and conviction of her Catholic faith stirred a hunger I previously didn’t have—to experience more of God in my life. With much prayer and Mary’s encouragement, the Holy Spirit filled that hunger with seven years of participation and leadership in the Catholic charismatic renewal and prompted me to go deeper into servant-leadership. In 1977, I was accepted into diaconate formation and was ordained a deacon in 1981 for the Diocese of Trenton (New Jersey).
Q. What are the signs of God’s presence in your vocation?
A. The threefold ministry of a deacon consists of liturgy, word, and service. Each deacon functions in those ministries to varying degrees. Most of my efforts have focused on evangelization: preaching, teaching, conducting parish missions, and days of renewal. I also contribute to the diocesan newspaper by writing a column on the Scriptures, I serve as an RCIA director, and a homiletics instructor for deacon candidates in the diocese.
Each ministry requires a constant oneness with the Holy Spirit for wisdom. God’s presence is often evident after preparing to preach a homily without notes. God may give insight when I’m driving to church or speaking to someone before Mass—a pearl that fits nicely into the homily. These are definitive signs of God’s presence that I have come to rely on.
During the COVID-19 lockdown, Mary and I began sending our family daily prayers and Scripture commentary via text messages. That ministry has expanded to nearly one hundred friends and parishioners.
The Holy Spirit guides us with fresh manna daily. Our daily prayer routine consists of the Divine Mercy Chaplet, the Liturgy of the Hours, the rosary, and Mass. We pray for the needs of others and acknowledge the many responses confirming the efficacy of our prayers as signs of God’s presence in our lives and in the lives of those to whom we minister.
Q. What gives you hope in the Church today?
A. I have never lost hope in the Church and don’t expect I ever will. My hope flows from the Scriptures, apostolic tradition, and the teaching magisterium of the Church. In Matthew 16:18, Jesus says to Simon, “So, I say to you, you are Peter and upon this rock I will build MY Church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.” This confirms the Church is a divine institution administered by flawed humans who may make mistakes. But no human mistake will ever destroy the Church’s permanence.
Jesus’ great commission, spoken to his apostles, gives me hope: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19–20). The fruit of his commission continues to be the priesthood. I see hope in the many holy, dedicated, and talented priests who bring the faith and sacraments to many and evangelize to those who have not yet accepted the faith. There is a shortage of priests, but Jesus knowingly predicted these challenges. It is incumbent on every Catholic to pray for an increase in vocations to the priesthood.
I see great hope in the number of lay ministers serving the Church, including those who give witness through stories of conversion. Communicating the faith has brought many people home to the Church. One ministry that provides great hope is FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students). It solicits recent college grads to dedicate two years of missionary service on US campuses. They minister to college students who are most vulnerable to walking away from the Church and losing their faith.
Q. What role does prayer play in your life now?
A. Prayer has always been and must continue to be the foundation of my life and ministry. Without prayer I am relying on my own ability, wisdom, and zeal to accomplish things that are beyond my power to achieve. Praying the Liturgy of the Hours daily, the prayer of the Church, connects me to all bishops, priests, and deacons around the world who pray them as well. It also connects me to the saints and angels in heaven who offer prayers of praise, worship, and thanksgiving to God continuously.
Biblical history overflows with incidences of God’s life-altering intervention in human affairs because men and women “prayer warriors” believed in the effectiveness of heartfelt prayer. I recommend five forms of spontaneous prayer that can help empower anyone’s prayer life.
Pray the desires of your heart. The God of love dwells in our heart, and nothing is impossible for God.
Pray persistently to emulate the Lord’s faithfulness in never giving up on us and to build a close relationship with God.
Pray expectantly, knowing that God will answer our prayers according to his divine will, his loving nature, and his promises.
Pray boldly! Baptism and confirmation gift us with the Holy Spirit, not the spirit of cowardice (1 Corinthians 12:4-10).
Pray specifically. This builds faith and awareness of God’s presence and helps us to look for God in every encounter we have.
Praying the psalms is another regular practice of mine. The psalms are a school of prayer. They provide models to follow, and they inspire us to voice our deepest feelings and aspirations. They fit the times, seasons, and patterns of our lives and are adaptable to the moods, needs, interests, and difficulties we have in any given moment. I turn to the psalms for encouragement, solace, wisdom, and protection.