Letter to a new deacon

One of the Redemptorist priests I met last week on retreat was Fr. John McKenna. He was excited to share with me the news that a friend of his from a previous parish was about to be ordained a deacon for the Diocese of Wilmington. (The deacon is Jim Mueller—one of nine men ordained Saturday.)

Over the weekend, Fr. John sent me a copy of a letter he wrote to Deacon Jim. Reading it over, I couldn’t help but think: “Every deacon should be blessed with a priest like this in his life.” With Fr. John’s permission, I share it here:

Dear Jim:

With God’s help I will be with you, your wife and family and a big contingent of the parishioners from Our Lady of Lourdes parish tomorrow for your ordination. Thank you for saying Yes to God’s gentle but persistent call and invitation. Thank you for your long hours of sacrifice to prepare not just for this day, but for your ministry. You have always been a blessing for the parish, and now you will be even more.

Once I was at a ceremony of final profession for two Redemptorists. The preacher began his homily, “ You have no idea what you’re in for!” From all of us, “veterans” there were roars of knowing laughter. I tell you the same. We who minister to God’s people get a special glimpse into peoples’ lives. We are with them in key moments of joy, sorrow, pain, and transitions. There will be blessings beyond belief as you are invited into the lives of people in deeper and different ways.

Ministry to the Dying

Jim, you cannot but help to be changed by accompanying a person who is dying, to walk with people in their grief and loss, to gather them into the heart of God with prayer.

Jim, I give you an awareness that I grew into only while I was in Seaford. I started to sing at the bedside of those who were dying. I pray out loud, even if the person is unconscious. “Cor ad cor loquitor” the motto of Cardinal Newman, “Heart speaks unto heart.”

When I pray at a bedside, I tell the dying person, that he/she is loved, that she is surrounded by family, that we celebrate your life, your dedication, your sacrifice, we thank you. I pray/say that the family promises to continue to care for each other. I tell them that there is another family waiting for him/her. To trust what you have believed.

Hold hands, hug, stroke their hair, and be gentle. This prayer is as much for the family as for the person who is dying. Dying is “being born into eternal life,” as the Prayer of Saint Francis says. It is holy ground. It is being like the Virgin Mary, Magdalene and John the Beloved at the foot of the cross.

I try to sing gently. I would like their passing from this world to eternity to be gentle. Some songs are so gentle and appropriate:

Hail Mary, Gentle Woman,
Hail Holy Queen
Be not Afraid,
Take Lord Receive, my liberty, (Prayer of Saint Ignatius)
Prayer of Saint Francis,
Lord you have come to the seashore.(Pescador de Hombres)

Once I was listening to a Christmas carol, Away in the Manger….. The third verse is a gentle lullaby…..” Be near me Lord Jesus, I ask you to stay, close by me forever and love me I pray. Bless all thy dear children, in thy tender care, and take us (them, you) to live with You there.” That verse fits perfectly at that time. And it is a lullaby for one who is going to sleep in the Lord.

Gentleness, touching, gathering a family in prayer, the healing power of music helps people at a very rough time. Your gift of music can be a very powerful part of your ministry. It has already been so, when you have helped with funerals. Keep music, good music as a big part of your life, ministry and preaching and teaching.

RCIA Mentoring those on a Faith Journey

Another powerful place is the RCIA program. Fr. Joe Hurley loved it dearly, and he mentored so many into our faith family. I urge you to make this a good part of your ministry.

Marriage

Marriage Prep….Boy do we need good married people to teach by example our younger people. So few get married now, and marriage is really suffering. My hope is that as a deacon, with a solid marriage, and with life experience you can be very effective in pre-marriage work and as a person of trust when couples struggle.

Preaching

When I preach I try not to start right with the Scriptures. Jesus, the storyteller uses images and human situations that were part of people’s ordinary lives: farmers, sowing seeds, pruning branches, shepherds caring for the sheep, a dangerous road from Jerusalem to Jericho.

His stories are not bedtime stories, but wake up stories….they draw in, they intrigue, they are about ordinary life that people see every day. Someone once said that Jesus was killed because of his parables, because they unmasked the powerful, and the hypocrisy of the religious leaders. When they unmask the person has to make a decision. When Nathan told a parable about a rich man with many sheep and a poor man with a little lamb that was more a pet, he knew his audience. David was a shepherd at heart, even when he let power go to his head as king. Nathan’s story of the rich man killing the poor man’s lamb, has drawn David in so well, that he is furious. “Who is that man?” “That man is you.” David was unmasked in his sin, but it led to conversion. The chief priests were unmasked, but it led to plotting the death of Jesus. “It is better that one man die than that we lose the nation.”

I have always believed that it is nice that God spoke to the people of Israel in the desert and to the people of Jesus time is true…..but that God also speaks to his people today in their ordinary lives is equally true.

Bishop Sheen said “What good is it that Jesus was born in Bethlehem if he is not born in Birmingham” (He was working in Great Britain at the time). It’s true, “the Word of God is living and active.” It is not a Bible lesson but a belief that the same God, who spoke to all those people back then, has something to say now. You are his instrument as a preacher.

You listened to me enough to know I try to start with a story. People are still settling in, from the bringing reluctant kids to church, trying to find parking, thinking about the plans for the rest of the day. You have to get them to listen. A homily that begins like a professor, talking about esoteric things in the Bible is a remedy for disaster. But “Once upon a time….” Works all the time…. But so does. “I was in the supermarket the other day and ……or do you remember…..

I like to intrigue people, draw them in, have them wondering, “Where’s he going with this?” I believe that we have to paint with words, sensual words, set the scene. Let me give you an example.

Once I went on free day to a mall. I passed a small art shop and went inside. There were some beautiful paintings. One intrigued me. It was an old abandoned house. There were weeds growing, door off the hinge, windows broken, roof weathered. My thought was, “wow, what we consider an eyesore; this artist saw as a thing of beauty, worthy to be painted!” I even began to imagine what the story of that house was, and who had lived there and why was it abandoned?”

Later that evening I was coming home. I dropped in Wendy’s for supper. A panhandler in the parking lot asked me for money. I told him I didn’t have change that I would get him on my way out. That was a lie. I was hoping he would not be there when I left. I was eating my double meat hamburger and French fries there, when a woman was leaving the store. Both her hands were full of the food she had bought. She pushed the door with her butt, and her little daughter of 3 years old ran out. Before I could move, the panhandler saw the situation, and grabbed the girl, to protect her from the danger of the busy parking lot at night. The mother was grateful….. Then I saw it…..He was the abandoned, broken down house that life had worn down but that God, the artist has always seen in him, great worth and beauty.

I saw him, not the panhandler, the pain in the butt, the “drug addict” all the negative judgments I had made of him. I then bought him the same meal that I had been eating and gave it to him when I left.

I hope I was able to get you and those who listened to this story to see, a mall, a little art shop, a painting of an old house, the door off the hinges, the weeds, the broken windows, Wendy’s, a panhandler, a priest eating his hamburger, a mother with her hands full, a little girl who might have been run over. Then the “where is he going with this?” gets answered.
“There was a rich man who feasted splendidly every day, and a poor beggar named Lazarus at his door…….”

I told you half jokingly that because you are so gifted with music, you should end your homilies with a song. How would “ How many times can a man turn his head and pretend that he just doesn’t see?” from Blowing in the Wind sound in the context of the Gospel, my story, my awareness, and maybe have as a song in some people’s heads all day?

My story, my testimony, not from a place of virtue, but a place of my own spiritual poverty and “waking up” awareness, has a power in preaching. “I was blind but now I see.”

I will articulate for you one of the bedrock beliefs of my life and for ministry.

God became one of us, in the Incarnation. When the Son of God was born as a baby, he lived in a family. He walked this earth, laughed, cried, prayed, ate, slept, loved, and got tired. This world, these ordinary human experiences became the dwelling place of God. Anything that is as the philosophers say good, true, and beautiful reveals God. But we can add anything really human is holy. This world is “holy ground.

Some preachers seem to start that the world is corrupt, evil, and we have to inject God into this world. They believe that the deepest part of the human soul is a big pile of manure that Jesus covers with his white snow of his mercy.

I believe something different. “God looked on everything He made and saw that it was good.” Or as the Jesuit poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote,

“The earth is charged with the grandeur of God.”

Another poet, Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote

“Earth is crammed with heaven.
And every common bush, afire with God.
But only he who sees takes off his shoes
All the rest sit around and pluck blackberries.”

So preaching is not about injecting God into a Godless world, but of pointing out God, uncovering God, saying, look here, look there, look within, look for the good, the true, the beautiful, and the human.

My, and I believe the Catholic position is that before Original Sin, there was Original Blessedness, “God looked at everything he had made and saw that it was good.”

There is no doubt that sin broke the harmony of paradise where God and “man and woman walked in the cool of the evening talking. They were naked and did not feel shame.”

There is a manure pile of sin, but underneath the manure is the diamond of the beauty of God’s creation, and of his beloved children, made in His image and likeness. Jesus came to rescue the diamond that is the human soul that is under the pile of manure.

Preach, but most especially live incarnationally, God with us, in human flesh, in human messiness. Pessimism, tragic sense of everything is bad and getting worse does not help anyone. Give people hope….Every part of our lives should proclaim Good News. You are a good, gentle, compassionate man, and grace will build on your nature.

Baptisms

Baptisms are fun. I have been a priest for 36 years. I have never lost my joy at doing Baptisms. I have to be honest, sometimes when I have too many masses, or too many empty looking faces, saying Mass is sometimes a burden.

Confessions can wear you out, the constant barrage of human pain and suffering, and the consequences of bad decisions.

I have never seemed to lose enthusiasm with Baptisms. I never tire of this joyful moment, in the life of the family and the Church family. That innocent child, God’s Yes for the future, the love of the parents who will give their lives in daily sacrifice.

Was it Marty Haugen who wrote, Joshua’s Song? “Child of Wonder, child of grace…” A beautiful song like that enhances a Baptism and you have music in your soul, hands, and voice….use it. It also soothes fussing children down better than anything.

I am so, proud of you, Jim. May Saint Stephen, the deacon and first martyr give you the courage to proclaim Christ and the power of his resurrection boldly.

May Saint Lawrence the Deacon teach you that the riches of the Church are the poor. The Roman emperor, when he asked Lawrence to bring him the wealth of the church to stop a persecution. He brought the poor to him. They are the true treasure of the Church.

May Saint Ephrem the deacon, give you clarity as you explain the truths of our faith.

May St. Francis of Assisi, who was a deacon, give you joy, a sense of wonder at the beauty around you, and help you and your classmates to continue to “rebuild the Church” of Christ.

Blessings on your dear wife and children.

Pass this along to a deacon you know. I think it deserves to be pondered and prayed over by a lot of men answering the call.

And thank you, Fr. John, for sharing so much great wisdom with generosity, enthusiasm and love.