Monthly Archives: October 2011

For All The Saints

A pirate, a vampire, and Cyclops from the X-Men.  These are a few of my favorite costumes I wore as a kid on Halloween.

Halloween has experienced an increasingly virulent “love-hate” relationship among Catholics over the past decade or so, particularly since the advent of the Harry Potter phenomenon.  Judging from the plethora of articles and blogs on the topic, Catholics seem to be divided into two camps.  The first says, “Reject Halloween at all costs since it is the devil’s holiday and only serves the corrupt the hearts and minds of our children.”  The second says, “Oh, come on!  What’s the big deal?  There’s nothing wrong with kids playing ‘make believe,’ having fun and getting candy.  It’s not like they think Halloween is for real.”

I believe this time of year presents our children with a tremendous faith-learning opportunity where the emphasis should be not on Halloween itself but on the Feast of All Saints.  They need to know the history of All Saints, its tacit connection to Halloween, and how it has become distorted by the secular culture.

In a nutshell, the Feast of All Saints was established shortly after the implementation of religious pluralism in the early 4th century.  During this time, Christians desired to formally honor the martyrs who gave their lives for the faith, and the Feast of All Saints was established and celebrated on May 13th.  In the year 844, Pope Gregory IV moved the Feast of All Saints from May 13th to November 1st, where it remains to this day.

This is where the connection to Halloween comes in.  “November 1st marked Samhain, the beginning of the Celtic winter.  Samhain was the Celtic lord of death, and his name literally meant ‘summer’s end.’  Since winter is the season of cold, darkness and death, the Celts soon made the connection with human death.  The eve of Samhain, October 31st, was a time of Celtic pagan sacrifice, and [the Celts believed that] Samhain allowed the souls of the dead to return to their earthly homes that evening.  Ghosts, witches, goblins, and elves came to harm the people, particularly those who had inflicted harm on them in this life. […] To protect themselves from marauding evil spirits on the eve of Samhain … the Druids (the priests and spiritual teachers of the Celts) built a huge new year’s bonfire [and] offered burnt sacrifices [of] crops, animals, even humans.  People sometimes wore costumes of animal heads and skins” (Reverend William Saunders, “All Saints and All Souls,” Arlington Catholic Herald, 2002).

Despite the spread of Christianity throughout the known world, the collective memory of some of these Celtic customs remained.  Hence, the Christian Vigil for the Feast of All Saints, or All Hallows Eve celebrated on October 31st, became Halloween.  Instead of observing the Christian custom of remembering deceased loved ones in a special way, the culture exploited elements of pagan rituals and practices to create what has become a pseudo-holiday.  Nevertheless, it is clear that All Saints day evolved out of a purely Christian ethos and not from pagan idolatry.

Then what should we do about the kiddos?  To what extent and level parents choose to inculcate Halloween into the lives of their children is a prudential decision.  However, Halloween is an occasion to help children not only appreciate the true significance of this time of year, and to remember and honor those who have gone before us marked with the sign of faith (i.e., baptism) but also challenge them to become saints in their own lives!

In order to become saints, we don’t need to be great theologians like Saints Augustine or Thomas Aquinas.  We don’t need to be martyrs like Saints Felicity and Perpetua.  We don’t need to be great leaders like Saints Louis and Benedict.  We don’t even need to perform great works of charity like Mother Theresa or Martin de Porres.  In order to become saints, we must allow ourselves to be totally consumed by the fire of God’s absolute love.  We become saints by fulfilling Christ’s command to love the Lord our God with our whole heart, with our whole soul, with all our mind, and with all our strength.

To be saints means that we must seek union with the Father in love through the deepening and strengthening of our relationship with Jesus in the Holy Spirit.  Jesus’ call to sainthood begins with his command to us: you must “be perfect just as your heavenly Father is perfect“ (Matthew 6:48).  Holiness is a calling by God to share in His very life through desiring and striving for spiritual perfection in love.  The way of holiness molds, shapes and forms us into the Body of Christ–into Jesus himself.

To become a saint always involves a receptive listening to both the Word of God and to the Church.  Saint Monica shows us that sainthood involves fervent and constant prayer, because it is only through prayer that we can come to know God better, and knowing Him better, we love Him better, and in loving Him better we find our true happiness in Him (cf. Thomas Merton, Praying the Psalms, 12).  The more we “act under God’s Spirit”, the more we seek to know and to do God’s Holy Will in our lives, the more we implore the assistance and grace of the Holy Spirit, the more we grow in holiness and the closer we come to sainthood.

Christ tells us that the road to sainthood passes through not only love of God but love of our neighbor as well.  Like Saint Francis of Assisi, God chooses us, his saints, and sends us off on our mission.  The world is the field in which the word of God is sown.  Through our efforts as evangelizing saints–as sowers of the seed of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, as living witnesses to the goodness, beauty, and truth of our Catholic faith–the world will bear succulent, rich fruit.  Yet, we may not know what fruit we are producing because it is God who picks and distributes the fruit of our labors!  We may never know how someone was touched by something we said.  We may never know how things turned out after someone has come to us for advice.  We may never know how someone’s life was changed when they met Jesus in us.  But as His saints, we know that “God’s love has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, and it is in this outpouring of love that the God who wishes to reveal Himself achieves his purpose and goals” (Hans Urs von Balthasar, You Crown the Year with Your Goodness, 209).

Saint Therese of Lisieux once said, “In order to enjoy the merciful love of Jesus, it is necessary to humiliate ourselves, to acknowledge our nothingness, and this is a thing that many are unwilling to do.  God wants humility of heart.  When He sees that we are convinced of our nothingness . . . and appeal to Him, He stoops towards us and gives with divine generosity.”  “Following Christ means going with him into the Father’s vineyard—the world—to share in the work of redemption” (von Balthasar, 211).  In this world of sin and darkness, poor and humble saints shine brightly.  Through them, the light of Christ ignites our hearts and inspires us to respond lovingly to the Father’s tender embrace.

The bottom line is this: we are responsible and will be held accountable for teaching our children the faith and helping them to fall ever more deeply in love with Jesus.  In our love of God and neighbor we too become saints, which should cause us to rejoice and be glad, for our reward will be great in heaven.

©2011 Deacon Harold Burke-Sivers

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Called to Serve

I receive so many requests for advice about discerning a call to the diaconate that I thought it would be beneficial to share my thoughts on vocational discernment with those men who are currently in diaconal formation and those who feel they may be called, or are at least thinking about it!

Here are some things to consider as you discern God’s will:

First of all, you MUST be a man of humility, prayer and service.  You MUST also be faithful to the Magisterium, that is, to the teaching authority of the Church.  These are non-negotiable!

Next, if you are married, you must already be serving well in the diaconia of the family. While in formation, my classmates and I were told again and again that our priorities are: (1) marriage (2) supporting the family and (3) the diaconate.  My next bit of advice: work really hard on (1) and (2)!

The last thing the Church wants is for marriages to end because men are too busy “being deacons.”  In fact, I know of dioceses that take this so seriously, they do not allow men to start the official discernment process until their children are teenagers.   Our Archbishop, however, doesn’t want all of his deacons to be elderly, retired men!  Ultimately, being a deacon is not about “what you do” but who you are:

“By virtue of sacramental ordination, the deacon acts in the name of the whole Church and of Christ, and raises the meaning of service to an efficacious sign of grace. […] The deacon is not someone who performs sacramental signs; the deacon is a sacramental sign of Christ the Servant. […] In living out this commitment in such a public, consecrated and permanent way, the deacon stands forth as a sacramental witness that the kingdom of God, made visible in Jesus Christ, has arrived.” (Rev. William T. Donovan, Ph.D., The Sacrament of Service: Understanding Diaconal Spirituality, Green Bay, WI: Alt Publishing Co, 2000), 7-9.

“. . . The very way of life that the ordained deacon is supposed to stand for is at the heart of what it means to be human, and . . . what it means to be Christian. […] The sacrament of Orders in diakonia is the sacrament of the movement from ego to fuller self through care for others, the very dynamism of human and Christian existence!  In this way, the diaconate confronts the family of believers and the whole world with a grace-filled sign of the presence of God through a life of service.” (Ibid, 26).

“Just as Christ emptied himself in kenosis [self-sacrifice] for the sake of helpless sinners, so I am called to find my true self by emptying myself and taking on the needs of others.  This is what the life of the deacon sacramentalizes for the sake of the whole church.  Service of others is the dynamic of transcendence; service is spirituality.” (Ibid, 27).

My wife had major concerns while I was in formation.  While I was in graduate school studying theology (a Master’s degree or equivalent is required in the Archdiocese of Portland in Oregon), my first two children were born.  My wife was pregnant with our twins and was due “any day” a week before ordination!  At the time, I was also the youngest permanent deacon ever ordained in the archdiocese (I was 36 years old).

Part of the formation process in Portland includes current deacons and their wives speaking to men in formation and their wives about what life is like after ordination.  The deacon wives were very honest and my wife found this to be very helpful.  In addition, since I have a full-time job and young children, the diaconate board wanted to limit my hours of service in my assigned parish.  The pastor at that parish along with my wife and I sat down and discussed a schedule that would limit me to between fifteen and seventeen hours per month of “active duty” in the parish.  “Active duty” is defined as the amount of time I spend in the parish away from the family.

This has worked out very well!  I have been faithful to these hours since ordination and found that I am still able to be very active in the parish.  I teach RCIA and handle the spiritual preparations for baptism, confirmation and marriage.  I train altar servers, lectors, extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion, and attend parish council meetings.  I also found ways to “cheat.”   Since I have a flexible schedule, I will occasionally conduct parish business meetings during the work day.  These hours do not count toward my “active duty” time since, during the day, I would be away from the family anyway!

I have three very busy and active apostolates.   I am the Founder and Director of DynamicDeacon.com, a Christian evangelization and apologetics organization dedicated to the promotion of Catholic values, principles, and teaching through which I speak extensively throughout the United States and overseas.  I am featured on The Greatest Commandments: A 40-Week Spiritual Journey for Married Couples, a vibrant marriage enrichment program rooted in Biblical values designed to help husbands and wives know God better, trust Him fully, and love Him completely throughout the journey of married life.  I am also the President of Servant Enterprises, a non-profit organization that hosts an international institute for Catholic male spirituality, coordinates dynamic speaking tours and life-changing retreats, and develops products and services that support family life.

None of this happens unless my wife gives her okay.  She is a great barometer and does a fantastic job keeping me grounded.  If you are married, your wife’s support is critical to serving well as a deacon.  Being a good deacon starts with being a good husband and father.  The Church has great wisdom in this area:

“In particular, the deacon and his wife must be a living example of fidelity and indissolubility in Christian marriage before a world which is in dire need of such signs.  By facing in a spirit of faith the challenges of married life and the demands of daily living, they strengthen the family life not only of the Church community but of the whole of society.  They also show how the obligations of family, work and ministry can be harmonized in the service of the Church’s mission. Deacons and their wives and children can be a great encouragement to all others who are working to promote family life.” (Pope John Paul II, “The Heart of the Permanent Diaconate”, address given in Detroit, September 19, 1987.)

“The Sacrament of Matrimony sanctifies conjugal love and constitutes it a sign of the love with which Christ gives himself to the Church (cf. Ephesians 5:25).  It is a gift from God and should be a source of nourishment for the spiritual life of those deacons who are married.  Since family life and professional responsibilities must necessarily reduce the amount of time which married deacons can dedicate to the ministry, it will be necessary to integrate these various elements in a unitary fashion, especially by means of shared prayer.  In marriage, love becomes an interpersonal giving of self, a mutual fidelity, a source of new life, a support in times of joy and sorrow: in short, love becomes service.  When lived in faith, this family service is for the rest of the faithful an example of the love of Christ.  The married deacon must use it as a stimulus of his diaconia in the Church.” (Congregation for Catholic Education and Congregation for the Clergy, Directory for the Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons, no.61.)

“Married deacons should feel especially obliged to give clear witness to the sanctity of marriage and the family.  The more they grow in mutual love, the greater their dedication to their children and the more significant their example for the Christian community.  ‘The nurturing and deepening of mutual, sacrificial love between husband and wife constitutes perhaps the most significant involvement of a deacon’s wife in her husband’s public ministry in the Church’.  This love grows thanks to chastity which flourishes, even in the exercise of paternal responsibilities, by respect for spouses and the practice of a certain continence.  This virtue fosters a mutual self-giving which soon becomes evident in ministry.  It eschews possessive behaviour, undue pursuit of professional success and the incapacity to programme time.  Instead, it promotes authentic interpersonal relationships and the capacity to see everything in its proper perspective.” (Ibid.)

If you are married, you should ensure that your wife’s concerns are heard and validated.  It is important to see what her comfort level is.  Both of you should then talk to your pastor, whose support is also very important.  If your wife feels she would like you to wait until the kids are older (if you have kids), then wait.  The diaconate will still be here when you and your family are ready.

One last thing: I started feeling a call to what I believed was the priesthood back in the seventh grade.  After graduating from college and working for a year, I joined a Benedictine monastery and began working toward the priesthood.  That was a great plan—but not God’s plan!  I ended up getting married several years later and then discerning a call to the diaconate a few years after that.  You should think about what you can do to serve the Lord and his Church in case you are not called to the diaconate.  The only way to know for sure that you are called by God to the diaconate is when the bishop lays hands on you!

I will be praying for you (and your wife) that God’s will be done.

©2011 Aurem Cordis and Deacon Harold Burke-Sivers

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