A new Lenten discipline

George Weigel

For Lent 2016, I adopted a new Forty Days discipline in addition to intensified prayer, daily almsgiving, and letting my liver have its annual vacation: I quit sports talk radio, cold turkey.

This was not easy, as the purchase of a car with an XM radio years before had turned me into a reasonable facsimile of a sports talk radio addict. I’d listen to Steve Czaban when driving early in the morning, Dan Patrick when driving mid- to late-morning, Tony Kornheiser and Mike Wilbon on my way home, and whatever-was-available-that-wasn’t Stephen A. Smith at other times. I never called in, mind you. But I had half a dozen sports talk shows pre-set on my car’s XM system, and if nothing grabbed me among the nationally-broadcast yack fests there were always the locals in Washington and Baltimore.

It’s now been a year since I tuned-in to a sports talk radio program and I am, I hope, a better man for it – albeit no less a sports nut.

I should admit that, before I made the decision to shake off the coils of this addiction, the sports talk radio world, ESPN (from which I auto-liberated at the same time), and Sports Illustrated (which I’ve been reading since the fourth or fifth grade) were beginning to annoy me with their self-conscious political correctness. As if to prove that sports people, those who make a living jabbering about sports, and sports fans really aren’t knuckle-dragging Neanderthals, sports talk radio and a lot of the rest of the Sports Industrial Complex has become an avid promoter of the LGBTQ agenda, often in the silliest ways. Sports Illustrated may have something useful to say about the concussion epidemic in football; Sports Illustrated has nothing useful or sensible to say to the citizens of North Carolina about their views of “bathroom rights.” Enough of this was enough, and I was glad to be quit of it, as we say below the Mason-Dixon Line.

More positively, breaking the sports talk radio habit cleared my mind. I didn’t have to pretend that even the best of the talkers, like Mr. Patrick, weren’t constantly repeating themselves while trying to find that sweet spot where the millennials, and others with the disposable income advertisers crave, live and breathe and have their being. And when you get below the Dan Patrick level, there’s a ton of nonsense being talked to fill all that airtime, for there’s really only so much to be said about our games. Then there was the aggravation of artificially ginned-up hysteria. As mainstream television news became weather-hysteric after Hurricane Katrina, the sports talk radio world was indulging in one hysteria after another, all surnamed
“-gate”, of which Deflategate was the most ludicrous in breadth, depth, and length (if not necessarily in, er, volume).

Better yet, breaking the habit opened up all sorts of other possibilities while driving. I could pray the rosary. I could listen to a lot of good music – and I did, discovering classical masterpieces I hadn’t known before (like Handel’s Keyboard Suites), or finding renditions of previously beloved compositions I hadn’t heard before (like Anne-Sophie Mutter’s transcendent performance of the Dvorak Violin Concerto), or reliving the best of Sixties rock. What, I ask you, is the audiocast of “Pardon the Interruption” compared to that?

And then there was the happy possibility of simply driving in silence, seeing things I hadn’t noticed before, and thinking thoughts I hadn’t thought before, when I was being harried by prattle about the incomprehensible, like the NFL Combine or the Cleveland Browns’ draft choices. Silence, as Cardinal Robert Sarah argues in a fine book being published next month, is essential to the spiritual life. God came to Elijah, not as a sport talk radio host would – loudly – but as a “still small voice” [1 Kings 19.12]. That voice is hard to hear amidst the cacophony of contemporary life. If we wish to hear it more clearly, we have to tune out the static, turn down the volume, and listen to the silence.

So my fraternal counsel to fellow-Catholics of the sports-nut subdivision: take a break from sports talk radio this Lent. It’s a good discipline in itself, and it just might open you up to some surprising, if quiet, transmissions from another Source.

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.