Brothers and sisters in Christ:
This past weekend, I experienced the blessing of a retreat for the deacons of the diocese. I know it was what I needed because as I write this it is days later, and I am still going over in my mind many issues that our retreat master brought up. One idea he mentioned that was not new to me, but which is frequently on my mind, is the concept of the "ministry of presence." Let me give you an example or two of what I think this means.
My wife Rosemary is a hero of mine. (And no, it's not because she puts up with me.) She and her staff of four other women teach a program in seven Catholic grammar schools and the New Brunswick middle schools where they present to the children a sense of their own self-worth, the importance of respect, and the value of waiting until they marry before engaging in sexual activity. Rosemary comes home with some real horror stories as you might imagine, but she has been doing this for over two decades now and the positive results in that population over that time have been real. In the New Brunswick schools (and to a lesser extent in the Catholic schools), most of the children come from single parent homes, some do not have permanent homes at all, some are targets of gang recruitment, and many experience other very serious problems at home (abuse) or at school (burnt-out teachers or uncaring administrators – at least in their minds). As a result, over the years Rosemary has seen many of these children look to her staff for support. Many children have confided to her staff deeply personal things they will not tell anyone else – one or two have even shared feelings so desperate that they had contemplated suicide. (Such children are, of course, referred to those who have professional training to deal with these problems.) The point: Rosemary and her staff are not there to be these children's mothers, yet when that is what seems to be called for, they are there...they are present to those children. The children somehow pick up on the fact that here are people who will show them compassion.
When I was going through diaconate formation, I worried about how to minister to those who are sick or in mourning. I have never felt confident in speaking with families who have lost a dear one. My words sound trite to me, and I worry about saying "the wrong thing." Soon after I was ordained, a very wise and experienced deacon advised me to just be present to the family. In other words, what people who are hurting (whether emotionally, physically or spiritually) need more than anything is to have someone who cares just be with them: to provide a shoulder for them to cry on, a pair of open ears to hear their pain (or open eyes if their pain is expressed in silence), or a hand or two to grasp in the course of sharing a prayer.
It strikes me that there are so many people in our world who are lonely…who feel like outcasts…who have no one who is present to them. Is there a "black sheep" in your family who is looking for reconciliation? Is there a co-worker at your office who is shunned by most, and as a result does not experience the simple kindness of a conversation? Is there a fellow parishioner you know who is grieving a lost loved one, or is in an assisted living facility where she or he rarely receives visitors? Is there a baptized fallen away Catholic in your neighborhood who is struggling with their marriage or difficult-to-raise children, and you know they have not even thought about turning to the Church for help or guidance? These are opportunities for people to see Jesus through and in us.
As we draw closer to Advent and the Christmas season, we will inevitably be thinking about what presents to give to others. But it is more important to give our presence to others…and for that, it does not need to be Christmas.
Peace, Deacon StephenBACK TO LIST