The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

20 Years of Diaconal Ministry

Three weeks from today (May 24) I will celebrate the 20th anniversary of my ordination to the permanent diaconate. It seems like yesterday, so I'm having a little trouble coming to grips with the fact that it's been 20 years since that special day.
Ordination - Fall River Diocese - Bishop Sean O'Malley
As this anniversary approaches I have been drawn to reflect on both my life and my ministry during those two decades. Although much has certainly happened in my life and the life of my family, I find myself wondering whether my ministry has borne very much fruit. This is probably a natural reaction, and I should just turn it all over the God and trust that, through His grace, I have done more good than harm.

I suppose the years my brother deacons and I spent in formation were reasonably effective in preparing us for our ministry. But even so, the subsequent 20 years were filled with so much that was unanticipated and unexpected.

Hospital chaplaincy, for example, was one of those ministries I intentionally resisted. Except when absolutely necessary, I had avoided hospitals. I didn't like being around sickness and, to borrow a phrase from a younger generation, "Hospitals creep me out!" And then, about five years ago, Dear Diane volunteered the two of us as hospital chaplains at The Villages Regional Hospital. Now I find myself looking forward to our assigned days, largely because I learn so much from those whom I visit. I trust I have been able to offer them some comfort, but I know they've been a constant source of joy to me.

As Diane and I visit these wonderful patients, going from one hospital room to another, I can't help but recall St. Paul's words on how God, to demonstrate His power, calls us to our weakness:
[The Lord said to me,] "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness." I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me. Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong [2 Cor 12:9-10].
My experience in other ministries has been similar. Before arriving at my present parish, my knowledge of things liturgical was pretty much limited to those rites in which I was directly involved as a deacon. I'm certainly no liturgist. But then, to my surprise, my pastor made me the nominal head of our liturgy committee. Today most parishioners believe (wrongly) that I am personally responsible for everything liturgical that occurs in the parish. And their varying views of what constitutes proper liturgy can result in some interesting feedback. I strive, however, to do all for God's greater glory and trust that our liturgies will please Him and strengthen the faith of His people. I try to learn from my mistakes and, once again, in weakness we are called, and I hope I will continue to be a willing servant.

My previous parish on Cape Cod was blessed with many young families and so Baptisms were frequent. What a joy it is to bring a beautiful new life into God's Church through this sacrament. Yes, infant baptisms are always joyous occasions, so different from funerals. In those days I was occasionally called on to conduct an evening vigil service for a parishioner who had died, but because I was still working full-time, I rarely assisted at funerals. But now, ministering in a parish that serves thousands of retirees, baptisms are rare and the various funeral rites have become a major diaconal ministry. This, too, was unexpected.

As a veteran and retired naval officer, I am often called on to conduct committal services at the National Cemetery just down the road in Bushnell, Florida. It is a distinct honor to complete the funeral rites for our veterans who have given so much of their lives for others.

Since Diane and I "retired" to Florida 13 years ago, the one ministry that has been a constant in our lives is the Wildwood Soup Kitchen; and, again, it was Diane who brought it about and "volunteered" me. Along with a few hundred other volunteers representing over 30 local churches, we serve God's people when they come to us hungry and in need of His love. Diane is the Thursday cook and I'm the Thursday captain (an ambiguous title that means I do whatever the cook tells me). This past Thursday we prepared and served or delivered 393 meals so the need is great. This is another of those ministries that took me by surprise and has resulted in much joy.

We deacons, of course, are at the lowest level (the order of the diaconate) of the three Holy Orders. Above us are our priests (the order of the presbyterate) and our bishops (the order of the episcopate). And this is very good indeed. Because of my many years as a naval officer, I am quite used to following orders and am happy to do whatever is asked of me. I suppose I was pre-formed to be a deacon.

Most pastors -- sadly, not all -- like having us around because we willingly relieve them of much time-consuming parish work, freeing them to carry out the important pastoral work expected of them. Being a lowly deacon -- a servant -- then is a reward in itself. But we must be careful not to revel in our lowliness, for pride can infect even the most lowly among us.

And this leads me to perhaps the most surprising aspect of my ministry as deacon. Before I was ordained I can't recall any parishioner ever asking me for advice on things spiritual. It just never happened. After all, I was simply another parishioner. What could I know? (The honest answer, of course, was, "Not much.")

But once I was ordained things changed. I had been a deacon for less than 24 hours when a parishioner approached me and wanted some advice on how best to encourage his wife of 30 years to convert to Catholicism. As I recall, she was an Episcopalian who attended Mass with him every Sunday. My first thought was, what do I know about Episcopalian to Catholic conversion? The answer, of course, was little or nothing. And so I asked him, "Why are you asking me for advice?" He looked surprised and replied, "Because you're a deacon." I then asked, "I've known you for years. Why didn't you ask me before?" His reply? "You weren't a deacon then."

I suppose this man might well have had a better grasp of the effects of ordination than I. After all, as the Catechism affirms when discussing the ordination of deacons:
"The sacrament of Holy Orders marks them with an imprint ("character") which cannot be removed and which configures them to Christ, who made himself the 'deacon' or servant of all" [CCC 1570].
The parishioner seemed to understand that with ordination comes a configuring to Christ (however imperfect) and that the Holy Spirit would be there to assist me as I struggled to respond to his need.

During my years as a naval officer and later as a consultant and teacher, I was often called on to advise people on a variety of issues, some personal and some professional. As a deacon, however, I must be especially careful since the advice given often relates to a person's journey to salvation. It is not something to be taken lightly.

Let me conclude this post with a few thoughts on giving advice -- things I've learned, often the hard way, over the years.

First of all, giving advice can sometimes be dangerous. If the advice turns out to be wrong, or if it is misinterpreted, the advisee will often turn on the advisor, blaming him for any undesirable outcome. Of course, this is inherently unfair since advice is just that: merely advice. It is offered, not commanded. And the advisee must still decide whether to accept or reject it. He cannot abdicate his responsibility for actions taken, regardless of the advice he has received. Of course, the advisor has a responsibility to give his best advice.

The best advice for advisors?

Know your subject, and know it well. Don't give advice on subjects about which you lack expertise.

Know the other person and their level of knowledge. The only way to do this is to ask questions, and continue to do so until you are comfortable with the answers. (It's hard to be quiet when you're an expert.)

The perceived quality of advice is usually based on a combination of the recognized knowledge and experience -- the expertise -- of the advisor. An effective advisor not only knows his own limitations, but also understands the capabilities and temperament of the one he advises. Advice that cannot or will not be followed is no advice at all.

When the advice relates to human activity, other factors, many of them unknown or unanticipated, can influence the outcome. All other things being equal, the more specific the activity, the more predictable the outcome, and the more likely the advice will be sound.

For example, Dear Diane once advised me on the best way to make a hard-boiled egg, a snack I particularly enjoy. The task is specific, with relatively simple steps, and if I follow her advice closely, the desired outcome is always achieved, and I, the advisee, am content.

But if, for some inexplicable reason, I were called on to plan and prepare a complete, multi-course dinner for eight guests, and do so personally without Dear Diane's active supervision, no amount of specific advice would prevent a disastrous outcome. The main task is well beyond my current capabilities and the specificity needed would overwhelm me. In this instance, the best advice would be to call a caterer.

Advisors also get into trouble when dealing with generalities. We can think and speak in generalities but you and I don't do general things. All of our actions are specific. And to make the transition from the general to the specific is never easy.

Some years ago a young man came to me for some spiritual advice. I was not a spiritual director, merely a deacon, but something in my homily that morning got his attention, and so after Mass he approached me in the sacristy. I was in a bit of a hurry, so when he told me he felt "spiritually empty," I asked him about his prayer life. He responded that he had none. My advice? I tossed him a few spiritual platitudes and ended with, "You have to deepen your prayer life and develop a personal relationship with the Lord."

Was this good advice? Well, I suppose so, in a general sort of way. But then, fortunately, I noticed the look of complete confusion on his face and realized he didn't know what I was talking about. A few minutes of dialogue convinced me he didn't know how to pray. I also learned that he hadn't been in a church since his Confirmation almost 15 years earlier.

The Holy Spirit had drawn that young man to Mass that morning and in my haste I had almost sent him away empty. Indeed, he would have left in worse shape spiritually since my initial advice was, to him, incomprehensible. Eventually we met several times to discuss prayer and spirituality, and I'm happy to say that he is now an active parishioner.

I'm also happy to say that I leave most spiritual direction to those better trained than I to perform this challenging work. But answering others' questions on their faith, advising them on specific issues, helping them understand God's enduring love for them -- all this and more have been a wonderfully surprising part of my diaconal ministry for the past 20 years. I don't know how long our loving God will allow Diane and me to minister to His people, but any time is a blessing for which we thank Him daily.

1 comment:

  1. Congrats to you Deacon Dana! I just celebrated my 30 years anniversary April 25th. It's amazing I lasted so long. I also turned 80 this past March 12th. Life is rapidly passing by, although I'm more involved in diaconal ministry now than I ever was. Busy, busy, busy, with wakes, burials, Communion Services, nursing home visits, spiritual direction for Altar/Rosary society, weekly prayer group, wow, I feel like a kid again! I'll retire when they put me in that pine box! :-) Blessings+ to you and yours.
    Deacon John Giglio (N.E. Pa.)