Friday, April 3, 2009

The Summit

Today's Word:
Jeremiah 20:10-13 (Sing praise to the Lord, for he has rescued the life of the poor from the power of the wicked)
Psalm 18:2-7 (I called upon the Lord, and He rescued me)
John 10:31-42 (Jesus further repudiates his claim to be the Son of God)

Nobody stood and applauded them
So they knew from the start
This road would not lead to fame
All they really knew for sure
Was Jesus had called to them
He said "come follow Me" and they came
With reckless abandon, they came

Empty nets lying there at the water's edge
Told a story that few could believe
And none could explain
How some crazy fishermen agreed to go where Jesus lead
With no thought to what they would gain
For Jesus had called them by name
And they answered:

We will abandon it all for the sake of the call
No other reason at all but the sake of the call
Wholly devoted to live and to die for the sake of the call
The sake of the call

Drawn like the rivers are drawn to the sea
There's no turning back, for the water cannot help but flow
Once we hear the Savior's call, we'll follow wherever He leads
Because of the love He has shown
And because He has called us to go
We will answer:

We will abandon it all for the sake of the call
No other reason at all but the sake of the call
Wholly devoted to live and to die

Not for the sake of a creed or a cause
Not for a dream or a promise
Simply because it is Jesus who called
And if we believe we'll obey -

We will abandon it all for the sake of the call
No other reason at all but the sake of the call
We will abandon it all for the sake of the call
No other reason at all but the sake of the call
Wholly devoted to live and to die for the sake of the call
For the sake of the call

--For the Sake of the Call
Steven Curtis Chapman

Jesus said, “Foxes have dens to live in, and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place even to lay his head.”

He said to another person, “Come, follow me.” The man agreed, but he said, “Lord, first let me return home and bury my father.” But Jesus told him, “Let the spiritually dead bury their own dead! Your duty is to go and preach about the Kingdom of God.”

Another said, “Yes, Lord, I will follow you, but first let me say good-bye to my family.” But Jesus told him, “Anyone who puts a hand to the plow and then looks back is not fit for the Kingdom of God.”

(Luke 9:58-62, New Living Translation)

It was a mere five months after my son's birth and three after I received my certification in lay ministry that I went on to formation for the diaconate.

There was an interview that both my wife and I gave with the priest who was formation director. He was a very likable person, astute when it came to theology. He couldn't manage his way out of a paper bag without assistance, but that was neither here nor there; he at least readily admitted that. We did well with the interview, which I now see as a sign that our marriage is on strong footing. I admit that a lot of that strength came from my wife's deeper sense of commitment in love. It is something I now know better. It would be severely tested.

All in all, twelve men came in to the formation class. All but one was married; and toward the end there would be a considerable amount of nudging that the unmarried one continue toward the full priesthood. I was not the youngest (I came in second); nor was I the only one with children still at home (there were at least four others, but I had the youngest). Two were from the same city in which I lived; one other, like me, 'majored' in music ministry.

There was nothing distinguishing from an academic standpoint that happened in those two years. Having said that, there are two points that were made rather clear from the beginning.

All of us, as we had during lay ministry formation, were to have a mentor available. It should not be our pastors, as they were generally too busy to be of any deep service. (Plus, at any time they could be reassigned.) Unlike the past, however, our priest-director said that the best people to serve in that role were our wives! In fact, active participation by our wives was encouraged. (In future formation groups, it would be required.) As we had an infant child, it became necessary for my wife to stay at home apart from one or two occasions. We discussed what happened at each session - which wasn't a great deal. Part of why this was so was the second clear point: While the training and information is ideal, each parish setting and each pastor's authority had a bearing on what you could actually do within your faculties as an minister. Actually, that point had been made many times, going all the way back to the music workshops Brother Jesse had me attend as a cantor. Our director was not keen on the idea of presenting a lot of material that might never get used; he rather saw the pastors directing their new deacons into the roles that would best complement their own. Further, he saw formation as the building of a community; a sacred brotherhood, much like the Apostles in theology but more like the Elks or the Moose in real practice. Those lines became apparent as our merry band evolved over the two-year process. Some of it came naturally, as the furthest distance my colleagues lived from each other stretched nearly 100 miles.

At various points along the way, my pastor asked me about the formation process and how it was going. I told him what I thought he wanted to know. Remember, anything you say may be held against you at a later point. Never in my life would that have been more true, but that's a subject for another day.

As the band of disciples moved closer to the end of our formation period, two distinct events took place that affected us. One of us left the field, as it were. It was the other musician; his wife had indicated things were not going smoothly enough and there would be lots of problems if he were to be ordained. I remember he was visibly upset and bitter about having to drop out. There were rumors for a time afterward that were not flattering.

Six months before our planned ordination, the diocesan bishop at the time reached the age of 75, which is the mandatory retirement age for the American Catholic priesthood. As required, the bishop sent his letter of resignation to Rome (as the Vatican appoints and reassigns bishops). However, as our bishop was in good health, he would remain in his post until a replacement was named. With the bishop in support of the diaconate, we would still be ordained unless a new bishop was named first. And only weeks ahead of the planned date, a new bishop was named by the Vatican. We had already gone through our formal petitioning process; and now it was possible that it had all been for nothing. Further, the incoming bishop would not be formally installed until June; at the time of his appointment he was working at the Vatican. After a flurry of intercontinental correspondence, the word came. The new bishop supported the diaconate; our ordination would go through as planned; and the retiring bishop would confer the Sacrament of Holy Orders to the eleven of us (along with one seminarian being ordained transitionally, as a prerequisite to the full priesthood).

There was one final formation session before ordination; for this, our wives' presence was required. Our facilitators included other deacons and their wives. We went in our own corners; the men to discuss what their lives were like after ordination, and the women to do the same from their perspective. Following this, my wife and I had a very serious discussion about what each of us had picked up from the session. She asked me, point blank, if I were ready to do this. I answered yes. She obviously meant for me to look at this question from angles I hadn't really considered. Our son had just turned age two. I was working a full-time job an hour's drive from home. We weren't all that well off financially. We were getting by, but that meant living with one car. We were considering homeschooling our son for a variety of reasons, which meant a heavy burden of planning his studies. There was a possibility, unconfirmed at the time, that our son had a learning disability. I was already tying up parts of eleven days a month with ministry-related activity: I was still singing, a member of the parish liturgy commission, giving a monthly sacramental prep class for the parents of children to be baptized, and wakes for the deceased on demand. It was stressful. It was all the more stressful because, even though my wife is the most wonderful, loving, and supportive person in the world to me, she didn't share all my beliefs. In accepting Holy Orders, I was placing a great burden on her. Our lives could get put under a microscope, and it wasn't always going to look pretty.

I did not want to reconsider. I had come so far. I did not know if I would ever again have the opportunity to step in where I was about to go should it be delayed. I made assurances and promised to the best of my ability that I would not let service as an ordained minister get in the way of love or responsibility to my wife and son. (And in the end I honored that promise because I was shown demonstratively what I'd been taught all along, the one thing that surpasses all knowledge, science, and logic. I honored that promise because love is the only thing that matters; the only thing that lasts. It is the foundation on which all else, including faith and hope, is possible. Of course, I didn't say that at the time; and I nearly threw everything away before I began to understand.)

On Saturday, May 14, 1994, at eleven o'clock in the morning on a sunny day in Rockford, Illinois, I joined my ten classmates and the seminarian (who was pulling the in-parish part of his training in my church). We were ordained to the office of deacon in the Roman Catholic Church. My wife and son were present; as were my eldest sister and my parents. It was the third proudest day of my life, after the dates of our wedding and the birth of our son. I had made it. I had accomplished what I had set out to do. I had answered the call: "Here I am, Lord - I come to do your will, send me!"

And with no knowledge of what the future would bring, I brought my family into a new era in our lives. We had set sail on a new leg of the journey...with the anchor rusty, the support rope fraying, an unseen hole in the bottom of the boat; and many more questions than answers.

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