How we face death reveals our love for life

Gary Schaaf is the Executive Director for the Archdiocese Mortuary and Cemeteries.

“Even the weakest and most vulnerable, the sick, the old, the unborn and the poor, are masterpieces of God’s creation, made in his own image, destined to live forever, and deserving of the utmost reverence and respect” – Pope Francis, Day for Life Greeting, July 17.

As the Executive Director for the Archdiocese Mortuary and Cemeteries, I have a unique vantage point from which I reverently watch people struggle with some of life’s most profound questions, including “What happens when we die?” On almost a daily basis, I see people dealing with the impact of losing a loved one, wondering what happens next. As though life were an ocean, death seems to propel many people into deeper waters.

What strikes me as obvious after watching these families grapple with the death of a loved one is the depth of loss that is felt by all families, regardless of the age of their loved one. Our Catholic faith teaches us about the dignity afforded each and every life, regardless of age. From the widow who has lost her beloved spouse after 50 years of marriage, to the young parents dealing with the loss of their baby only months after conception, we see real loss and real grieving. We are reminded in each of these circumstances that neither the size, condition, nor age of one’s body impacts the reality of their soul.

One day every month, we bury babies who have died in utero. As sad an event as this is, watching the reverence for the lives of these young souls makes me deeply proud of my Catholic faith. Many families participate in this service, which we provide at no cost. It is clear that all present are impacted and that not one of those young souls will be forgotten. It is also clear that the depth of loss is hard to understand for someone who has not experienced it – an observation gleaned from watching the empathetic embraces between mothers who are going through these services at the same time.

Although difficult in so many ways, it is also moving to hear the stories of those who have accompanied a loved one at the end of a long life through the suffering that so often accompanies death. Much more often than not, we see how these difficult trials draw families together in ways that were never anticipated. Frankly, we see pure, self-sacrificing love on display in ways that words can only partially describe.

Observing the sacred moments surrounding the deaths of the faithful departed has only strengthened my faith in our Church and our collective mission to protect the lives of all who are living, from the moment of conception through natural death.

Although I never anticipated my job at a Catholic Cemetery would so significantly impact my perspective on life, I feel privileged to have witnessed people of faith handle with grace and courage the reality of death, and further privileged to share those observations.

COMING UP: How deacons give life to the Church

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The calling and ministries of the diaconate are as varied as the men who serve in it. For Deacon Don Tracy, the call to the diaconate was a long one, and his first years as a deacon didn’t match his expectations.

“Feeling unsettled with a restless heart for many years, I did not understand at the time that I was experiencing the first stirrings of my call to the diaconate by the Holy Spirit. As I searched to find the peace that was missing in my life, I went down several false paths, believing that a career change to one of the service-oriented professions would give me the tranquility I desired,” Deacon Tracy said.

“I eventually discerned that I should not change careers…but those feelings came to a head when I joined a men’s group called ‘That Man Is You.’ I felt as if I were being turned inside out and sought the help of deacons for guidance. With their assistance, I began to discern that my restless heart came from God calling me to the diaconate,” he added.

But shortly after becoming a deacon, his first ministry became caring for his wife, who was diagnosed with cancer shortly after his ordination.

“For the next two years, my life was far different than the deacon brothers I was ordained with who were beginning ministries in their parishes and for the people of the archdiocese,” Deacon Tracy said. “Instead, my ministry as a husband and deacon was to care for my wife through what seemed like countless medical appointments and hospital stays. And when my dear wife entered her final weeks on earth last year, I did everything I could think of to help her get to heaven.”

His ministry to his wife as she passed from this world to the next profoundly changed his life — now, he hopes to begin a ministry to those who are struggling through illness or are grieving the loss of loved ones.

Deacon Tracy’s ministry to his wife in the first two years of his diaconate was just one way he was personally called to serve; many deacons, in addition to assisting the pastors in their parish, do much more than we realize.

On average, the 207 deacons spend 60 hours a week serving, between their normal jobs, family obligations, and ministries, according to Deacon Joseph Donohoe, director of deacon personnel at the Archdiocese of Denver.

Deacons assist the priest by ministering baptisms, witnessing marriages, performing funerals and burial services, distributing Holy Communion and preaching homilies.

Outside of this, they also assist in teaching RCIA, baptism preparation, marriage preparation, Bible studies, funerals, retreats, parish missions, visiting prisons and juvenile detention centers, bringing communion to sick patients in hospitals or hospice, visiting the elderly, working with immigrants and working in homeless shelters.

“We’re active in [sacraments], but we also have an obligation as deacons to respond to the archbishop in areas of ministries outside of the parish,” Deacon Donohoe said. “And this is in addition to their secular work and family obligations. So they’re very dedicated, and they do this for love of God. They’re not paid, their obligation is to the archbishop and the Church.”

Deacon Kevin Heckman of Blessed Sacrament Parish spends much of his ministry in Children’s Hospital. After getting a job there in 2009, he introduced himself to the hospital chaplain and asked if there was anyone doing Catholic ministry or communion service, and the chaplain “jumped at it.”

“I developed a relationship with the chaplains and got called to visit patients and bring communion to people. I’ve done about 50 emergency baptisms and praying with families. It’s been really rewarding, and I know that I have a special call to hospital ministry,” Deacon Heckman said.

Deacon Heckman has had the privilege of praying with a mother and her stillborn baby — just one of many experiences that he “won’t ever forget” in his service as a deacon.

Quite frankly, I am in awe of the deacons in the diocese, they are so dedicated to their ministry, and each time I talk to one of them, I get inspired and filled with awe over some of the things they do.”

So what does the call to the vocation of the diaconate look like?

It’s different for everyone, Deacon Donohoe said.

“Some guys get beat over the head. Others are less clear, it’s really just a continuous conversation with God, wanting to do his will. And if his will calls them to the laying on of hands by the archbishop, then he allows God to lead him in that direction,” Deacon Donohoe said.

If a man feels what he suspects may be a call to the diaconate, the process of discernment is years-long, similar to that of a priestly or religious vocation.

“They need to be called by God, and they need to be called by the Church. So it’s a four year process, from the time of the applications to the time they’re ordained, and it’s a discernment process,” Deacon Donohoe said. “There’s an intense amount of prayer involved, as well as a looking into their soul and spirit to discover what God is calling them to. Sometimes God is just calling them to the formation, and not ordination, and many times, they are called to ordination. It’s really a powerful experience.”

The stories of Deacon Tracy and Deacon Heckman are just a few of many men who are offering their lives to Christ through their vocation as a deacon.

“Quite frankly, I am in awe of the deacons in the diocese, they are so dedicated to their ministry, and each time I talk to one of them, I get inspired and filled with awe over some of the things they do,” Deacon Donohoe said. “They all have these stories that are just tremendous, because they’re all in prayer. They all want to listen, and they want to love God and the people of God.”

Not only are these men faithful to God’s will and serving his people, their families are tremendous witnesses to the world as well.

“Deacons in this diocese are tremendously dedicated to their ministry and to their family and they set a very positive example to the secular world in witnessing the true presence of Jesus Christ and the Church to a world in need of [him], including their marriages,” said Deacon Donohoe. “It’s not just the deacons, it’s their families. Their families give up much for their husbands and dads to be deacons, but they also do that for love of God.”

For more information about the deacons of the Archdiocese of Denver, visit archden.org/office-diaconate.