Wisdom 2:1-22 ("Let us beset the just one, for he is obnoxious to us")
Psalm 34:17-23 (The Lord is close to the brokenhearted)
John 7:1-30 (Jesus teaches openly at the Temple; "Look beneath the surface so you can judge correctly")
Looking back now, the three years I spent in lay ministry formation were probably the most pivotal of all. A lot was happening; a lot was learned; and a lot presented itself that began to cast the seeds of aspersion that would ultimately become the weeds that nearly choked me.
I learned an overview of the history of Catholicism. Granted it was from a pro-Catholic bias; still, it didn't smack of the anti-Protestantism I was fed as a child. Included was the development of the sacraments of the Church. Did you know that marriage, the sacrament of Matrimony, was not officially defined as such until roughly the 15th Century?
I picked up an interest in the way the Gospels each present a different portrait of Jesus. Mark, the first written, is short and sweet; Jesus is depicted as a man of action, and is shown to be annoyed at times with his disciples. Matthew went to great lengths quoting the Old Testament to prove to Jewish converts that Jesus was indeed the promised Messiah. Luke, the traveling companion to Paul of Tarsus, extended on Matthew, showing Jesus as Lord of all people, Gentiles and Jews alike. John, unlike the others, took his followers and readers on a wordy theological discourse - it's no surprise that much of his Gospel is read at Mass during Lent.
There were fifty people taking the various seminars in my 'class.' Of these, eleven of us were in the program as prerequisite for the diaconate. I would get to know most of these people well. One happened to be a neighbor of mine, living two blocks away and attending the parish in which I grew up and spent 13 years singing in the choir. We started carpooling, which gave us an opportunity to discuss class material, as well as the facilitators who presented it.
The first year passed without much fanfare. I noted, though, as did most of my colleagues, that the program director and many of the facilitators (who happened to be women) were all pushing for the use of gender-free ("inclusive") language when referring to God. It was distracting at best and irritating at worst. True, God can be anything God wants to be, and as humans we can't possibly fathom all of it. Yet there were two rather obvious distinctions: nobody can doubt that Jesus was male (Luke even goes as far as to mention circumcision in the infancy narratives); and Jesus often referred to God as "Father", even using the word "Abba" - an Aramaic term of endearment much like our use of "Dad", "Daddy", or "Papa." Still, most of us managed to push past this most of the time. It's interesting to note that our class of fifty was the last group this director had; she was replaced before the next group started.
During the summer hiatus between years one and two, my wife and I learned that she had become pregnant, and that we expected our child to be born the following January. But no sooner than we had become used to the idea that a child was indeed coming, we lost him. Just before class was to start up again, my wife miscarried. It was in the 19th week of pregnancy. As the baby was far enough developed, he would have to be delivered as if he had gone full term. It was a very devastating moment for us both.
When it happened, besides all the grief my wife and I experienced, there was one thing notably missing. We had asked to see Fr. B., my pastor at the time, so that my wife could receive the Sacrament of the Anointing (of the Sick). I had already posthumously baptized our child. But Fr. B. never showed up. I tried to rationalize why he couldn't have come. School was just getting started, and his presence would be needed in front of all the students. That excuse only flew so long, though. He could have even come to our house after my wife was released from the hospital, and he didn't do that either. About three weeks later I finally summoned up enough nerve to ask why he never showed up or offered to be available. He admitted he couldn't cope with the deaths of infants and children. All well and good for him, but isn't this one of the biggest areas where a minister is needed? The community of my classmates were ultimately the arm of the Church that reached out to me during the weeks following our loss. Their compassion and concern helped me, and through me, my wife.
Coming to realize that my parish had no real grief ministry, I recognized that this was something on which to focus in the second year, if at all possible. I was not disappointed. One of the sessions in the second year dealt with grief ministry. It was given by a priest I'd known from my home parish, the one in which I grew up. He had been chaplain at one of the Catholic hospitals for years; he knew his material and presented it well. I would come to rely on much of what he presented.
The other big highlight of the second year was a class that was presented in a very unique way. Ultimately, it dealt with the symbolism we have been taught, what it means to us, and more importantly, what it's supposed to mean. Forty-nine out of fifty people didn't understand what the teachable moment was. The one who 'got it?' Yours truly. Boy, did that have my buddy disgusted!
Certification in this formation process required the development and implementation of a pastoral project; a program started or enhanced at the parish on consultation with the pastor. It also required a mentor from the staff of facilitators. Through discussion with my wife I had decided to develop a bereavement ministry focusing on perinatal (pre-birth) loss. I was put in touch with a person in a neighboring diocese who had already developed some guidelines there; I used this as a model. I chose as my mentor the facilitator from the class on symbolism, the one I 'got' ahead of my classmates. It was enough to get me through. I received my certification.
The proposed project never really got implemented. By the time I was certified, our son had been born; and it could have been seen as a psychological stumbling block, ministering to people with perinatal loss with an infant child. Instead, I was moved into the broader grief ministry (which the parish didn't really have), and I began to be called upon to visit families at the funeral home and offer the wake service prayers. This was the foundation required for entrance into diaconal formation.
All in all, these were three very important years. In them, I learned all I would ever learn - from an academic perspective - about how to be an effective minister. I also learned that there are some things in life that no amount of training, no amount of foreknowledge, no degree of anticipation can adequately prepare you. In those times, all it can do is help keep you rooted in faith and hope, and in the belief that this, too, shall pass. God is with you, even when you can't see past the moment.