Dcn. Steve Kramer, a New Yorker who teaches at Milwaukee’s seminary, interacted with mission-goers at St. Anthony the Abbot Church during the second morning of a two-day Lenten event. (Catholic Herald photo by Jenny Snarski)

Jenny Snarski
Catholic Herald Staff

Personal conversion and communal transformation were the complimentary themes of the Lenten mission preached by Dcn. Steve Kramer at St. Anthony the Abbot in Cumberland March 2-3.

Dcn. Kramer is the director of Homiletics and Assistant Professor of Pastoral Studies at Sacred Heart Seminary and School of Theology in Hales Corners. Cluster director of religious education Elaine Ricci heard him speak when he led the permanent deacons’ retreat for the Diocese of Superior in October 2018.

Ricci knew he would be a good fit for their parishes and said the deacon “lived up to the hype” she built up for the Lenten mission.

Both a 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. session were offered Monday and Tuesday with the same content to accommodate parishioners who wanted to avoid driving in the dark.

During the first day’s preaching, Dcn. Kramer spoke on some general considerations for Lent. He shared handouts with ideas such as asking a family member or friend to suggest Lenten resolutions and sacrifices; internal fasting and reconciliation of troubled relationships; and the giving up of attitudes – comparison, entitlement, distraction and busyness, negativity, people-pleasing and feelings of unworthiness among others.

The idea of Lent as a time for transformation and deeper conversion was presented as necessary – both during Lent and beyond – individually and as a community of believers.

The deacon, ordained in 1994, shared personal stories and examples throughout his preaching. His own vocational story of the call to the permanent diaconate was shared the second day in light of introductory comments on prayer.

After being approached – and tag-teamed – by the two priests in his parish, Kramer was only in his early-30s, working full time and raising a family with his wife. Travelling three days a week for work, he had “hours and hours on the road” to reflect and pray about it.

Initially the invitation had gone “in one ear and out the other,” the deacon motioned, but their persistence paid off.

Dcn. Kramer then “played the game – the ‘give me a sign’ game” with God. During just a short amount of time, he saw a 19-wheeler with G.O.D. printed in large letters on the sign. Although it was an acronym for Guaranteed Overnight Delivery, Kramer knew it meant otherwise for himself.

Challenging God to “do better than that,” he then saw immediately in front of him mud flaps advertising “Deacon.”

Distracted by the “mere coincidence,” the final “two- by-four blow” was the last name “Deacon” on a mailbox in a driveway Kramer turned around in after making a wrong turn.

He confessed being skeptical of the answers God gives to prayers when it isn’t the hoped-for response. Asking those present to think on their own experiences, the preacher noted the almost universal dynamic of pursuing God only after all other options had been explored.

“When things are difficult, you realize how important God is,” he said.

Kramer recounted the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

Living on Long Island, he had numerous neighbors who worked in Manhattan or were police officers, EMTs and firefighters. Immediately, the churches were full to triple their capacity.

“They knew where to go when the ‘you-know-what’ hit the fan,” Kramer said, but not four weeks passed and “we were back to normal … people returned to their complacency.”

The point the clergyman was making was that moments of crisis and difficulty are “not the only time to pray.”

To iterate, handouts of James Dillet Freeman’s poetic prayer “I Am There” were distributed and read. Written in 1947 and left on the moon by the Apollo 15 astronaut James Irwin, the words are a reassurance that God is present and attentive, even when his action is not acknowledged or understood. The prayer calls the reader to assent to his peace.

The deacon gave participants time to reread it and take silent time for personal reflection.

“God is bigger than Cumberland … God is the creator of the universe,” Kramer affirmed and asked for comments from the crowd.

These included the need to “get yourself out of the way” to see God’s action, the “basic piece of faith that God is with us” even when we fail to find him and how the first section of the prayer speaks in universal terms, the second part becomes more personal.

“We can say prayers,” he went on, “but do we pray prayers?

“We can recite the Our Father while we’re brushing our teeth, but do we pray our prayers?”

Moving from prayer to action, Dcn. Kramer spoke about who needed evangelizing and ways to go about it.

He said that Christians, non-Christians and even Catholics need their faith tended to, although those not identifying with any particular religion are especially in need.

For this, invitation was set forth as primordial, with preaching close by.

“Invitation might bring them back, but what will they receive when they get there?” Dcn. Kramer asked.

Commenting on non-religious millennials, he asserted that young adults want “to see boots on the ground. Faith in action.”

Referring to the corporal works of mercy found in Matthew 25, Kramer said they want to see coherence between word and service, proof of God’s creative action in the here and now.

He then reviewed the words and gave ideas for each work that might not be as traditionally familiar: feed the hungry by freezing a meal for a sick parishioner or person recently widowed; give drink to the thirsty through donations for clean water access in Third World countries and by conserving water used at home; shelter the homeless not merely through monetary donations but local action where “we often don’t see them.
They have become part of the landscape.”

Visiting the sick can be carried out by giving blood, bringing animals or children to nursing homes and playing music for those in a memory care unit where non-verbal dementia patients might break into songs from their youth.

Visiting prisoners, Kramer admitted, is not for everyone, but worthy of being considered. He confirmed the large numbers of persons who have “honest jailhouse conversions.” And burying the dead by reaching out to family members of the deceased, participating in or starting ministries that offer funerals for people who have died without any family; even planning your own funeral or certain aspects of it.

Last but not least was giving alms to the poor, the often easiest and least-committing work of charity.

Dcn. Kramer encouraged evangelization that starts with finding peace in one’s own heart and then making positive connections based on common ground with others.

“Openness to God, fidelity to the Gospel … no matter what you know,” he said, there is always more to learn.