Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
We gather this evening in great joy, surrounding our candidates for the permanent diaconate with our hopes and prayers.
Before anything else, I would turn our thoughts to my predecessor, Archbishop Daniel Bohan, who had a dream for diaconate in our Archdiocese. For him it was about implementing Vatican II. Bishop Dan felt the need for explicit diaconal ministry in order for the Church to be fully the Church. He brought Brett Salkeld in as Archdiocesan theologian specifically to build and lead a local diaconate formation program. He hoped for a long term program that would transform our Archdiocese, focusing us on service and outreach. He wanted to leave us something concrete and transformative when he was gone. In a certain sense, we could say this was his legacy project.
Brett relates that on the very first diaconate formation weekend, Bishop Dan joined the candidates and spouses and formation team to share his vision of the diaconate. His enthusiasm for the diaconate and his joy that, finally, this program was beginning, had a deep impact on the candidates. They knew they were part of something very valuable for him. They are very grateful for his leadership and vision which led, for many of them, to the fulfillment of a call they had felt for years and not known what to do with. For others, this program awakened in them a recognition of a call that they had not even had words to identify. Today we trust that Bishop Dan is celebrating with us and we remember and acknowledge his vision and commitment with joy and gratitude.
A few further words of thanks before the homily proper: thanks to Brett, for leading the program with an enthusiasm and rigour that has been contagious and defining; to Deacon Barry and Sheila, who were a major support for the candidates and the program, present for most weekends and available to help with anything; and to others involved in your formation. We are deeply grateful. Profound thanks also to the spouses and family of the candidates. This has been a team effort, a family affair, and it will continue to be, requiring an enormous amount of generosity from yourselves, and a vocation in its own right. Today is a momentous day for all of you - candidates, spouses, families. It has been a commitment long in the making.
It is also a momentous day for the parishes you will serve, and for the parishes from which you come, who have also played a role in forming you as disciples; to you also our thanks. And without doubt it is a momentous day for the Archdiocese. Something new is being born here. We have had two permanent deacons ordained for this archdiocese before, and one of them is here, Deacon Joe; the other, Deacon Bob Williston. But this is the beginning of a new moment in the church here, with the ordination of nine permanent deacons, about to start serving the church in a new way.
Let me say at the outset that not everyone is convinced that this is a good idea. To be a blessing, which will win the hearts of those who have their doubts about all of this, you as permanent deacons will need to point us to the Word, and to service, and to the link between them, in a new way. You will need to show the church through your actions that deacons don’t reduce the role of the laity in the church, but affirm all of us in our baptismal callings. You will be called upon to expand the church’s outreach to heal the wounds of the world in which we live, with tenderness and compassion. I am confident that you can do this. Let your lives of integrity and generous commitment be the strongest argument for a permanent diaconate as a gift to the church.
For diaconal ministry to be seen as a gift, it needs to be the work of God, not having its origins with ourselves or yourselves; but the work of God, what God wants to do in the world, through the church, through permanent deacons.
We think of two pillars of the diaconate being word and service, and sometimes we hear discussion about which of these takes priority. I would suggest that this is a false dichotomy, and that it is the relationship between the two which is to define your ministry in the church.
You are to proclaim the Word. There is only one way to do that meaningfully, and that is to have your life grounded in the word. We almost chose a reading from Deuteronomy as the first reading for tonight, but instead let me point to 3 sentences from Deuteronomy as a starting point, about the intimate relationship you are to have with the word of God. Deut 30:14: “the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.” Deuteronomy 11:18: God saying to the people of Israel, “Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds; tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads.” Deuteronomy 32:47: “They are not just idle words for you - they are your life. By them you will live long in the land you are crossing the Jordan to possess.”
A Nash lecturer at Campion a few years back told the story of how he, as a young son of missionaries in China and studying at a boarding school, would sometimes take the Bible into his bed, cover himself with his sheet, take out a flashlight, and read the Word of God. One day the dorm supervisor came along and asked what he was doing. He responded that he was “in bed with the Word.” A bit provocative, but the point is clear: we are to be grounded in the Word. Of course as Christians, the first central mystery of our faith is that this Word takes flesh in Jesus of Nazareth. He is the divine word who comes in search of us, who comes in unfathomable nearness to show us the way. Today’s Gospel from Luke relates a very important part of that way, where Jesus tells his disciples, who are busy arguing who is the greatest, that while in the world those with authority lord it over others, it is not to be so among them. In the world, the one who sits at table is considered greater than the one who serves. But Jesus says, “I am among you as one who serves.” God comes as servant, and invites his disciples to do likewise. That is important for all of us baptized in him, and it is pivotal for deacons.
The other great mystery of our faith is that this Word made flesh, Jesus, not only serves, but gives everything, that we might have life. This Word is crucified on the cross. It is killed. It is buried in the tomb. And this Word rises from the tomb, because nothing can keep it buried, and it proclaims the ultimate victory and power and glory of love, love fully given, love which reigns over all. This risen Word sends the Spirit to enliven the church. This is the Word who calls you, the Word you are sent to proclaim.
Jesus spoke his word by Incarnation, by becoming and living what he proclaimed. This Word is meant to be spoken with lives lived. In a few minutes you are going to be handed the book of the Gospels and you will be told in no uncertain terms: “Meditate on the law of God, believe what you read, teach what you believe, and put into practice what you teach.” These are beautiful words, words which summon you to know and love the Gospel message, to receive it, to proclaim it, and indeed to mould your entire life according to it. It is to be a word made incarnate by serving; by being a servant. It's the ‘practice what you teach’ clause that expresses the real costliness of the enterprise. You are being called to integrity.
P. T. Barnum once said, the key to acting is integrity. Once you learn to fake that, you’re in. But that’s the beauty of it. You can't fake integrity. It will shine through, or it won't shine through. That doesn't mean that you aren't going to make mistakes. You have your shortcomings and failings, and they aren’t going to go away any more easily after ordination. You are going to live by God's mercy, and every word you speak, let me repeat that, every word you speak, should reflect that mercy, the mercy shown by God who gives himself fully to us in his Son in suffering self-giving love, gives himself as Risen Lord to a miserable broken humanity who has just crucified the Son of God. That’s your standard for mercy, that’s the standard for all of us as disciples of Jesus. Every word you proclaim should be measured by that one word, mercy. Don’t just speak about that mercy, show that mercy. That’s the seedbed of the service which is to mark your ministry.
In the proposed homily for this celebration it says of the deacon, He will make himself a servant to all. Some of those acts of service are in the church: to bring God's word to believer and unbeliever alike, to preside over public prayer, to baptize, to assist at marriages and bless them, to give viaticum to the dying, and to lead the rites of burial. Then it speaks more broadly of service in the world: As a deacon you will serve Jesus Christ, who was known among his disciples as the one who served others. Do the will of God generously. Serve God and humankind in love and joy. It speaks of the integrity by which your ministry is to be recognized: From the way he goes about these duties, may you recognize him as a disciple of Jesus, who came to serve, not to be served. And later in the proposed homily: Express in action what you proclaim by word of mouth.
The first reading for today’s celebration also speaks of the service to which you are called. Jesus chose this reading to proclaim in the synagogue at the start of his public ministry, and it announced what he was going to make real:
to bring glad tidings to the lowly,
to heal the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives
and release to the prisoners...
to comfort all who mourn.
God wants to draw us into this mission, his mission. Here’s a little story which I first heard in a homily by Cardinal Echegarry in Rome:
After Easter, when Christ was about to ascend into heaven, he lowered his eyes to the earth and saw it plunged in darkness, except for some small lights over the city of Jerusalem. As he ascends he meets the Angel Gabriel, who was used to earthly missions and asks him: "What are those tiny lights?". "They are the Apostles gathered around my Mother, and as soon as I reach heaven my plan is to send the Holy Spirit to them so that these small sparks will become a great blaze that will enflame the whole earth with love". The angel dares to answer: "And what will you do if the plan does not succeed?". After a moment of silence, the Lord replies: "I have no other plans!".
God's mission is entrusted to us. It is a most intimate relationship. We are bearers of this mystery. In the second reading today, we hear a little bit about how this applies to deacons, as we hear about the first deacons. The Hellenist disciples had complained against the Hebrew disciples because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of goods. The diaconate was created, and the first deacons summoned forth, specifically to serve. Stephen was among those chosen.
Soon Stephen is being persecuted, and is martyred. As was pointed out at the recent conference on the diaconate, Stephen was not martyred for serving tea to widows. He was martyred because he boldly proclaimed Christ’s good news to the poor, Christ’s power to bring healing to the brokenhearted and freedom to captives. He was martyred because he took on Christ’s mission with the entirety of his life.
Pope Francis has called us as church to be attentive to the needs of those on the peripheries, those who are suffering and in need. Brothers, as deacons, I ask you to be preoccupied with injustice, to be actively concerned about those who are suffering in our midst, to be engaged in the lives of the poor, the struggling, the abandoned. Pope Francis noted, “I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.” Be artisans of justice, take time to listen to the poor, bring the mercy of God to those who are suffering; make it a priority, always.
One final story. Archbishop Jim Weisgerber sent me a poem a while back, entitled ‘Covenant', written by Sr. Margaret Halaska. It speaks of the gentle way in which God calls us to ever greater discipleship, but is ready to walk with us one step at a time. The poem is a dialogue, which goes like this:
The Father knocks at my door, seeking a home for his son:
Rent is cheap, I say
I don't want to rent. I want to buy, says God.
I'm not sure I want to sell, but you might come in to look around.
I think I will, says God.
I might let you have a room or two.
I like it, says God. I'll take the two. You might decide to give me more some day. I can wait, says God.
I'd like to give you more, but it's a bit difficult. I need some space for me.
I know, says God, but I'll wait. I like what I see.
Hm, maybe I can let you have another room. I really don't need that much.
Thanks, says God, I'll take it. I like what I see.
I'd like to give you the whole house but I'm not sure –
Think on it, says God. I wouldn't put you out. Your house would be mine and my son would live in it. You'd have more space than you'd ever had before.
I don't understand at all.
I know, says God, but I can't tell you about that. You'll have to discover it for yourself. That can only happen if you let him have the whole house.
A bit risky, I say.
Yes, says God, but try me.
I'm not sure – I'll let you know.
I can wait, says God. I like what I see.
Friends, as God looks down on us this evening, on the commitment and desire to serve rising from our candidates, on the support of their families and friends, on our yearnings to be a church seeking justice, a community that heals wounds by serving others, I think God likes what God sees.
Brothers, God calls you as you are to take this step into the diaconate. May God bless you each step of the way.
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