In less than 48 hours, on Saturday May 9th, my friend Deacon Sean Smith will be ordained a priest, to serve the people of God in the Archdiocese of Dubuque. With that, he will begin writing another chapter in a life that has included being a husband, a father and a deacon. It’s been a privilege for me to walk part of this journey with him, and I’m sorry I can’t be there for this great moment. (My wife and I were all set to fly to Iowa for his ordination, originally scheduled for Memorial Day weekend, but God and the coronavirus had other plans.)
Anyway: the following reflection, which he posted on Facebook Thursday morning, moved me deeply. With his kind permission, I share it here on The Deacon’s Bench. I think it says something to all of us about the grace of a vocation — whether to marriage, the diaconate or the priesthood. It is astounding how God puts us to use, and how we continue to bear the fingerprints of those who touched our lives. God love you and keep you, Sean. We’ll be cheering you on from Queens!
Last Sunday, I served as the deacon at the livestream Archdiocesan Mass. Archbishop [Michael] Jackels shared with the livestream congregation that the following weekend I was to be ordained a priest. That announcement brought about different emotions that I’ve been reflecting on since then.
First, I am very excited to be a priest! For those that know my multiple vocation stories (husband, deacon, priest), it has been a journey of a lifetime, and maybe multiple lifetimes. I could not be more excited to be a priest, about the parishes and people I will be serving, the other priests I’ll have the opportunity to work with, my seminary experience, the gift of the priests and seminarians of the Archdiocese of Dubuque. In short, I have absolutely no reservations about this path and embrace it in full freedom and with great joy!
At the same time, there are ways of being known, of identities, that will fade into the background. First, I miss my beloved Sara, and being known as her husband. As odd as it may sound, she is the person I most want to share in this joy of being a priest. When I reflect on this path, she is the first person I think of. Of course, she is with me in spirit, and while that is a powerful truth, it also does little to take away the pain of loss for the ways she is not with me. It is a both/and situation, understanding both the ways she is with me and the ways that she is not. Some may have heard me say that when Sara died that everything looked different, that the “Sara lens” was no longer present. The way I saw the world for over 30 years changed because I no longer saw it through the “Sara lens.” And no one I meet from now on will know Sara or me as her husband.
Second, I am leaving behind my “public” identity as a deacon. I say my public identity, because in reality my being a deacon is not taken away by my becoming a priest; being a priest is added to the reality of my being a deacon. At the same time, I will no longer be identified with being a deacon. And the truth is, I have loved being a deacon. I loved the earth-shattering way I received the call! I loved the path of formation that took place over 11 years from the first time I experienced God’s call, and my nearly 17 years living out that call. I love my brothers and sisters in our deacon community. Most of my wardrobe has a deacon cross on the breast, my car and motorcycle have deacon license plates. I even have a deacon tattoo! Along with being a husband and a father, being a deacon has been one of the greatest joys in my life, and it has been an honor to be and to serve as a deacon! I have seen God more clearly and powerfully as a deacon than I ever thought possible. And when I realized last Sunday that this would be the last time I would be serving publicly as a deacon, it also brought about a deep sense of loss. The world started to look a little differently because the “deacon lens” was a bit less present. No one I meet from now on will know me as “Deacon Sean.”
Earlier today I thought back to my wedding, and my ordination as a deacon. I thought of how much I loved the realities and identities that they each brought to my life and became the lenses through which I saw the world. I remembered holding Sara’s hand as we stated our intentions and made promises to each other before God, before the minister, and before the community, to be a witness to life and love as husband and wife. I remember holding her hand as my name was called to stand before God, before the Archbishop, and before the People of God, and state my intention and make promises to be a deacon for the rest of my life (and eternity).
Then I thought how in a few days, I’ll be in a church building that will be nearly empty, missing all the people not able to be there because of the coronavirus, but most especially missing the person to hold my hand as I am called to stand before God, before the Archbishop, and before the People of God, and state my intention and make promises to be a priest for the rest of my life (and eternity).The joy of that moment will be powerful, but it will not be the only emotion I’ll experience.
A few years ago, a friend of mine whose wife died while they were both still young and had many children at home told me that God revealed to him in his prayer many months after her death that he had been faithful to the promises that he made as a husband, that those promises had been fulfilled, and that he was free to make promises again, to view the world anew through whatever new lens God might offer. I have accepted that wisdom for myself; that I, too, have been faithful and fulfilled my promises as a husband and as deacon, and that I am free to make new promises and to view the world through a new lens.
Priesthood is that new promise and that new lens. And I can’t wait to see the world through that new lens. But like every time I need a new set of lenses to help me see differently, I keep the old lenses, too, remembering how they helped me see the world before, and reminding me how the new lens really builds upon the old lenses. And that is a great comfort to me.
Deacon Sean, husband of Sara.