A love expressed with joy

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Deacon Eric Shafer can't get through more than a few minutes without laughing. And it's a contagious laugh. The transitional deacon, who will be ordained a priest June 8 at the Cathedral of St. Thomas More in Arlington, seems to communicate what Pope Francis referred to in a homily last month as "the joy of being loved by God."

"I've always had a joyful spirit about me," said the 31-year-old Catholic convert during a recent interview. And, he added, being with parishioners, serving them pastorally and sacramentally, "really draws out that joy."

Deacon Shafer was born Nov. 15, 1981, to Brenda and Jerry Shafer. His father, who was in the Army, died when he was 16 and his mother remarried.

Although he grew up an unbaptized Baptist, he was attracted to Catholicism even as a small boy. He remembers seeing images of beautiful Catholic churches in movies and thinking the Catholic Church was the real deal, that it was "The Church," he said.

After he graduated in 2000 from Fauquier High School in Warrenton, Deacon Shafer attended Northern Virginia Community College for a while, eventually moving to Charlotte, N.C., to work for Wachovia Bank. He dated a Peruvian girl who was culturally Catholic, and he thought about converting to Catholicism to marry in the church.

The relationship ended in 2002 and he found himself still considering conversion. It was a pivotal time for him.

Deacon Shafer had known he wanted to do some kind of service work, either as a police officer or a firefighter, or to follow in his father's footsteps in the military.

The year after his breakup, he made the decision to join the church and the Army.

He went through basic training at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., and was stationed at Fort Drum, N.Y.

At the 2003 Easter Vigil, Deacon Shafer was received into the Catholic Church. That night a decade ago was "the highlight of my life," he said.

The journey to that moment was a bit bumpy at times, he acknowledged, but overall "it was a lot of fun." Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults classes opened up a whole new world to him, and he was able to understand the details and depth of the faith he'd felt so drawn to since he was young.

As a new Catholic, the life of Blessed Pope John Paul II was a special inspiration, and his death was another turning point in his life.

"My desire to be a priest had always been there, but I really didn't recognize it until then," he said. Inspired by the pope's holiness and strength, Deacon Shafer wanted to model his life after him. "It was then that I really started to think about the priesthood."

While on leave from the Army in 2005, Deacon Shafer met with Father Brian G. Bashista, Arlington diocesan director of vocations, and started to consider a vocation more intensely. He eventually enrolled in the Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus, Ohio, earning a bachelor's degree in philosophy in 2009. Deacon Shafer recently completed his final year at Catholic University's Theological College in Washington.

His diaconate year was spent at All Saints Church in Manassas, the largest parish in the diocese. While at times it was stressful to juggle demanding seminary and parish responsibilities, Deacon Shafer knows balancing multiple demands is part of being a parish priest - and it's a job he's ready to jump into wholeheartedly.

"After so many years preparing, you want to do the things you've been learning about, the things that God created you to do," he said.

"There are guys who struggle with doubt in seminary, but I honestly felt this is God's call for me. I didn't always know how it would all work out, but I felt really secure in the call. It's a grace and I'm so grateful for it."

And along with gratitude, he'll no doubt continue to answer the call with a steady dose of laughter and much joy.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2013