Serving the Suffering Church: The Serenity of Surrender
“We are not self-sufficient; by ourselves we flounder: we need the Lord like the ancient navigators needed the stars.” — Pope Francis, “Urbi et Orbi,” March 27, 2020
Diaconate couples have a deep understanding concerning the peace and serenity that comes with surrendering to God. As Pope Francis highlighted in his recent extraordinary “urbi et orbi” message in March, if we truly want that peace that surpasses all understanding, it starts with surrender; recognizing who God is and who we are not. Or as it says in John 15:5, without God we can do nothing. “Faith begins when we realize we are in need of salvation,” the pope stressed.
Knowing just how essential surrendering is in the Christian walk, we in the diaconate community have much to offer on this crucial message of “letting go and letting God.” Doing so, right now, during this tumultuous time in our world, could provide much-needed insight for those struggling to make some sense of things or to merely manage their daily lives, which have been turned upside down.
Let’s start by thinking back to the days when formation began. Our lives as married couples changed dramatically, almost overnight. We had a new normal that, in many ways, was often challenging; today, society as a whole is undergoing a new normal. In describing the current situation due to the rocking of our boats caused by the coronavirus pandemic, Pope Francis referenced Jesus calming the storm on the sea of Galilee that shook the apostles to the core (see Mark;s Gospel, chapter 4).
“The storm exposes our vulnerability and uncovers those false and superfluous certainties around which we have constructed our daily schedules, our projects, our habits and priorities,” Pope Francis said.
The diaconate journey takes a great deal of vulnerability right from the start. Both husbands and wives must lay themselves bare as they answer many questions and go through intense scrutiny during the initial interviewing process. Once applicants are accepted, both husbands and wives surrender to God as they continue discerning his will.
Life suddenly looks and feels very different than before. It’s a whirlwind or a storm, so to speak, of activities as well as uncertainties. Trying to balance work and home in the middle of classes, internships, formation weekends and retreats can add to an already busy lifestyle for most families already stretched and stressed in our hectic world.
And let’s not forget that amid all the prayers, classwork, conferences and nonstop juggling of child care, meal preparation, sacrificing weekends and evenings at home, there is never a guarantee of ordination. All during the journey questions arise, not to mention the doubt that can often creep in as you wonder what God has in mind and if the diaconate is really his will, or is it preparation for a different type of vocation.
We’re human and God can handle the questions, of course. When we think about those formation days, whether a recent memory or something from the distant past, most diaconate couples that I know agree that the surrendering happened daily, as it says in Psalm 40:9, “I delight to do your will, my God; / your law is in my inner being!”
We didn’t know the outcome, but we kept praying and putting one foot in front of the other. If we think about those days and reflect a bit further, the formation journey was great preparation for life as a deacon couple, and gave us some preparation for what’s going on currently. After all, expecting the unexpected is a regular occurrence that hardly ended with formation.
How many times lately have we altered our family plans when the deacon is called to the bedside of an ailing or dying parishioner? How often has date night been canceled because a deacon must fill in for Father at a baptism class or wedding rehearsal?
Sound familiar? All of those to whom we minister, not to mention ourselves, are learning that the busy balancing act continues, as does the vulnerability of not knowing what is going to happen next. The situation with closures and shutdowns or quarantines are going to be with us here in the United States at least through the end of April.
But then what? Will children go back to brick-and-mortar schools? Will moms and dads head back into the office? How do we readjust once again and go back to the way things were? Will things ever be the way they were? And how do all of us face the very real and honest fears about the vulnerability of our health since the pandemic has impacted the entire globe, including every state in the union, with the projected death toll at over 100,000? That’s downright frightening.
As a result, we’re all being laid bare right now in more ways than one. Our boats are being rocked. We feel like we’re taking on water and are about to sink or crash into the emotional and spiritual shore.
Diaconate couples can look back at the experience of the often stressful formation process, as well as along with the 24/7 life of a diaconate family, and remind brothers and sisters in Christ to do as the pope reminded the city of Rome, the world, and the Church — “invite Jesus into the boats of our lives.”
The pope said: “Let us hand over our fears to him so that he can conquer them. Like the disciples, we will experience that with him on board there will be no shipwreck. Because this is God’s strength: turning to the good everything that happens to us, even the bad things. He brings serenity into our storms, because with God life never dies.”
He added, “The Lord asks us and, in the midst of our tempest, invites us to reawaken and put into practice that solidarity and hope capable of giving strength, support and meaning to these hours when everything seems to be floundering.”
Lent 2020 will no doubt be one for the history books — and I know it might seem like a stretch, because maybe I’m a cockeyed optimist — but what a great time to see the current situation as a huge opportunity rather than a major obstacle. Think of how comforting it would be to share the ups, the downs, the unknowns of the diaconate life with those struggling to keep their heads above water.
There’s a common misconception in the Christian world — that those in ministry have it all together. How refreshing, reassuring and comforting would it be for our communities to see us letting our guards down by sharing our own struggles with past and present uncertainties?
People need to realize that the serenity of surrender doesn’t mean we sit around like bumps on a log or in a boat, just waiting for misery to strike. It means using our God-given skills and intellect to face each day and handle the tasks at hand, however unique they may be, while at the same time trusting in God. Or as another great Catholic teacher, EWTN foundress Mother Angelica stated, moving forward regardless of how seemingly unsteady the steps might be, “Faith is one foot on the ground, one foot in the air and a queasy feeling in the stomach.”
Teresa Tomeo is the host of “Catholic Connection,” produced by Ave Maria Radio, and the author of “Beyond Sunday: Becoming a 24/7 Catholic” (OSV, $14.95).