The Deacon, the Family and the Sacramental Life
Ways to encourage families to live their faith in ordinary ways
Deacon Greg Ollick Comments Off on The Deacon, the Family and the Sacramental Life
The deacon is called to be a prime example of Christian discipleship at work, at play, in the Church and in the family. One of the most fundamental aspects of Christian discipleship is living the “sacramental life” — being a visible sign of God’s invisible grace to everyone we meet. In and with the family is the primary place where we are called to live this life. I believe that family ministry is a very important part of the deacon’s life, and one of the best ways that we can influence our culture is to help families live the sacramental life together.
Someone once said that “a sacrament is the sacred bubbling up through the ordinary.” St. Augustine called a sacrament “a visible sign of God’s invisible grace.” In this broad view of sacrament, Jesus is considered the “first sacrament,” the first really visible sign of God’s invisible grace. If Christ is the first sacrament, the Church is the “second sacrament,” called to be Christ to the world in every generation.
The Christian family is also called to be a sacrament. They are called, like the Church, to be Christ to one another, as well as to the broader community. By becoming what they are called to be, the family lives the sacramental life, and the sacred can bubble up through the ordinary things of everyday life. What on earth can be more of a sign of God’s grace than the authentic self-giving love of a fully committed married couple whose love for each other brings life and spills out upon their children and with them onto those beyond the family? This, I believe, is the new vision of the Christian family for the 21st century. Family ministry is a critical part of the deacon’s ministry, and this means preaching, teaching and living the sacramental life.
Our modern culture offers much distraction and makes it especially difficult for the family to live a sacramental life. In my ministry as a permanent deacon, I hear from parents about just how difficult it is.
One mother recently complained to me about how hard it was to raise her seven school-age children, help them with their homework and get them to all of the school and extracurricular functions and events while both parents work in demanding full-time professional jobs. She asked me how in the world she is supposed to fit in practicing their religion other than getting them all to Mass on Sunday and Parish School of Religion (PSR) on Wednesday evenings. She said that their home was certainly nothing like a domestic church. Instead, she said that it was “constant crisis and chaos.”
Amid this, believe it or not, there are still many ways for a family to live a sacramental life, because God uses the very ordinary things of life and ordinary people to do the extraordinary, to transform people, families and culture. Christians must not separate faith and life. What people do with their days is a fundamental part of who they are.
In even the busiest of worlds, all families can agree to eat at least one meal per week together in solidarity with one another as a community of life and love. My family, though the kids are grown and we live in separate towns in metro Atlanta, comes together for a meal at least once a week. The conversion stories of certain family members have caught on and inspired other family members.
Many studies have explained the benefits of the family meal. The more often a family eats together, the less likely children are to drink, smoke, take drugs, be overweight, have eating disorders, get depressed or consider suicide. In addition, they are more likely to do well in school, delay sex, avoid drugs, eat healthy food, have a good vocabulary and use good manners.
Adding a simple prayer of thanksgiving, expanded by each family member identifying something that they are thankful for, makes this meal sacramental as everyone can then see and hear a visible sign of God’s invisible grace. The family meal (if only once a week) can become sacramental if conversion is shared, a prayer of thanksgiving is rendered to God and the social order is changed. This meal can even have a Eucharistic character. Eucharist means thanksgiving, and the Eucharist is a meal of covenant-union (communion). The members present at this family meal share communion with God and with one another. That itself is a form of prayer. At the end of a Eucharistic celebration, there is a commissioning by the deacon, a sending forth to be what the community is called to be, a sacrament — a visible sign of God’s invisible grace.
This can truly be a beginning (and a profound one) for any family, even the ones with all that “crisis and chaos.” As deacons, we have the opportunity to teach these things in numerous settings including marriage prep, sacramental prep for parents, RCIA, adult faith formation and from the pulpit.
Parents in busy households can live a sacramental life by tithing and letting their children know why they are doing it — for example, family members may have to go without certain things so that others might have the necessities of life. This is a good example that children are unlikely to forget.
One young father wrote a tribute to his parents that he shared with a radio talk-show host. In it, he said that his parents taught him, by example, the importance of sacrifice and giving by placing an offering they could barely afford in the second collection at Sunday Mass, done to help those who were less fortunate than they were.
Acts of Kindness
The regular example of self-giving can go a long way. This is indeed living the sacramental life as we demonstrate being what we are called to be — a visible sign of God’s invisible grace.
That same young father mentioned something else about how his family lived the sacramental life. He said, “You taught me, by example, that acts of kindness are natural outpourings of a loving heart when you mowed the elderly neighbor’s lawn instead of just our own.” This is leading by example.
Even with all the “crisis and chaos,” this family found the time to work together once a month helping those who could not do simple things for themselves. They visit elderly persons in retirement/nursing facilities around town, talking to them and doing light tasks around the apartment/house. The husband is now the leader of our parish extraordinary ministers of holy Communion to the sick. They are living the sacramental life together.
Deacons are in the ideal situation for family ministry. We go where most priests do not. As Catholic Christians, we are all called to live the sacramental life. If it doesn’t happen in the family, it’s not likely to happen elsewhere. Let’s encourage everyone to take a look into the heart of their family life and assess how, together as family, they might do better as we all continue to grow in Christian discipleship by striving always and in solidarity with one another to live the sacramental life.
DEACON GREG OLLICK, M.A., is ordained for the Archdiocese of Atlanta. He teaches sacramental theology online at Saint Joseph’s College of Maine. His ministry includes the RCIA, adult faith formation, retreats and missions, the New Evangelization and the Eucharistic Revival.