The readings for daily mass during this past week provide a glimpse at life in the early Church. On Saturday, we heard about the ordination of the first deacons. Yesterday and today, the story continues with one of those deacons, Stephen, being called upon to witness in a way that hopefully none of us will be called to.
My confirmation name is Stephen. I chose it not because of that Stephen, though for a number of reasons that now seems to be quite appropriate. No, I picked that name because of the faith story of another witness with the same name, Steven McDonald. When I was in high school, I was very interested in law enforcement. I seriously considered pursuing it as a career. One day I was in the library during my lunch break, thumbing through a copy of Reader’s Digest when I came across an excerpt from a book called The Steven McDonald Story. It was written by a New York City police officer who was shot in the line of duty. The wound left him paralyzed from the neck down.
I was so fascinated with this man’s story that I tracked down a copy of the book and read it cover to cover in one weekend. I was particularly moved by how his faith, and the faith of those around him, got him through that difficult time. He went on to forgive the young man who shot him. “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60) Thanks to a post by Deacon Greg, I have learned that he is still out and about, sharing his experience with others. A few months after reading the book, when I was asked to provide a confirmation name, I could not think of a better one than that!
Nearly twenty years later, I am in the very beginning stages of preparation for another sacrament. As you may know, I am actively discerning a call to the permanent diaconate. Last week, Katie and I went for an interview. I was asked “How did I see ministry as a deacon fitting in to the rest of my ministerial life?”
An interesting question. It is one with which many deacons and prospective deacons surely struggle. After all being a deacon, in and of itself, is not a ministry, is it? Serving the poor, teaching religious education, assisting the priest during mass – those are all ministries, but lay people can do all of those. What does being a deacon add?
I found myself providing an answer I never thought of before (Ain’t the Spirit grand?) I said that I did not think it would so much change my ministry, as reorient it. Most of us choose ministries because we enjoy them. However, as a servant of the church, a deacon is called to serve where he is needed. In the early days of the church, that need was in providing fairly for the widows and orphans. Today, it may be somewhere else.
This past week provided a good example. Deacon Gordon Cartwright is a very close friend of mine. He has volunteered to return to helping with RCIA in our parish. It is a ministry he truly enjoys and I knew he was very excited to take part in our catechetical session this past Sunday. Right before Mass began, his wife Gloria came up to me to tell me that Gordon would not be at RCIA today. The pastor in a neighboring parish fell ill, and Gordon was asked to lead a Sunday Celebration in the Absence of a Priest.
He wrote me the next day to apologize for missing RCIA. I am sure you would agree there was no need to apologize. He was doing what deacons do. He was serving the needs of the Church with no regard for his own desires. I guess it would be safe to say that Christ’s prayer in the Garden is the prayer of all deacons: “Not as I will, but as you will.” (Matthew 26:39)
Only God knows whether I will ultimately be ordained a deacon. But I do know that I am called to be more “deacon-like” in living out my faith. At home, at work, and at church.