On July 21, four men will be ordained as deacons in the Archdiocese of Edmonton. Grandin Media is profiling each of them. This is Steven Defer’s story.
For Steven Defer, a former lay chaplain in the Canadian Forces, the journey towards the diaconate has been one of service and duty, both in and out of uniform.
“For me at least, it dictates much of my life – the relationship between obedience and freedom. Most of our world would see freedom as an opportunity to be disobedient, but my whole life as a soldier has oriented me to understanding freedom that starts with obedience,” he said. “That’s the difference.”
Defer served in Bosnia and Afghanistan before becoming the coordinator of the Office of Life and Family for the Archdiocese of Edmonton. On July 21, he will be among the four men ordained to the permanent diaconate. Archbishop Richard Smith celebrates the Mass of Ordination at St Joseph’s Basilica.
“For me, life as a deacon is not about what I do, it’s about who I am,” Defer said. “It means orienting yourself in a sense towards a life of service because this is just who you are now.”
That service isn’t surprising for a farm kid, the oldest of four, who was born in Winnipeg but grew up in a devout Catholic family on a wheat farm in Brunkild – “a real one-horse town” of 89 people.
“I find it surprising that everyone I knew bought bale pickers after my brother and I left town. We were their bale pickers!” Defer, 50, said with his trademark self-deprecating humour.
At 18 Defer joined the military with dreams of becoming a fighter pilot as in the movie Top Gun. “If Tom Cruise can fake it, I can do it for real. But they told me I’m too tall, too uncoordinated and I can’t see well enough and you can’t be a pilot!”
Instead, Defer remained in the military and studied engineering. He met and married his wife Nancy and they welcomed Matthew, the first of three kids. Defer was an army signals officer for about 10 years before he was sent to Bosnia in 2000.
Defer knew he had some sort of religious vocation, but his answer was always “no” until Sept. 11, 2001, the day al-Qaeda terrorist attacks hit the World Trade Center in New York.
“I said ‘I’m not going to be bound to a desk the rest of my life when we’re going to war.’ After Sept. 11, I knew our country was going to go to war and I was going to be a part of that. This is who I am.”
Armed with a master’s degree in divinity, Defer was a “chaplain at war.” He worked with wounded soldiers in Afghanistan and at CFB Edmonton, where he first discerned the call to become a deacon.
Defer recalls an afternoon in 2011 when he baptized children of soldiers who were headed overseas. He and other chaplains had received special permission in the absence of a priest.
“I can only describe it as a John the Baptist moment. You know when John says ‘I’m not worthy to do this’? I felt that in a way that escapes words,” Defer said. “As I hold this beautiful baby in my hands, it occurred to me that the author of the sacraments is not me. It is in fact Christ. I had an overwhelming sense of ‘I’m doing this with you. Her salvation is My gift to the world.’”
Defer retired from the military in 2015 and began work at the Archdiocese that year. Four years ago, he began his studies to become a deacon with the same lifelong sense of duty.
“It’s not an insignificant amount of work” Defer said modestly. “If I were recruiting you, I would say, ‘This is not going to be an easy four years.’ But I caution you to say, to paraphrase what Pope Benedict said, we’re not made for comfort, we’re made for excellence. It’s about sharpening the spear of your own heart. There’s this constant invitation to a deeper integration into the nature of faith. That’s the toughest part and it’s also the most beautiful part.”
Defer said he hopes diaconate formation has made him a better Catholic husband, father to Matthew, 24, Nicole, 20, and 18-year-old Simon, and neighbour. It also strengthened his relationship with Christ, the Church, his bishop and his family.
That relationship is best illustrated in the moments before Steven’s flight to Bosnia in 2000. Defer and his son Matthew, then six, were playing in a cavernous hangar when Defer’s name was called to leave.
“My son realized I’d left and he was running behind me trying to say goodbye and he couldn’t catch up to me. My wife always tells the story that she really got a sense of the husband she had and the son she had. A vocation doesn’t separate us but it tests and strengthens the relationships that you have.
“It does focus us on what really matters. I learned through that experience with a six-year-old son and the 10 months I spent over there, that I love to be a father,” Defer said. “I wrote to him every him every day. He’ll still tell you he learned to read and write because Dad wrote to him every day.
“I hope what I give people is the opportunity for people to be very intentional about the relationships that matter in their lives, because the diaconate ultimately is a relationship.”