Sermon at the diaconate ordination Sept. 8
This year we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the restoration of the permanent diaconate here in the United States, as a result of the Second Vatican Council. This certainly is an occasion truly to celebrate. That was carried out at the recent Diaconate Congress held in New Orleans July 22-26. Present for that celebration was Pope Francis’ representative in the United States, the papal nuncio, Archbishop Christophe Pierre. In his remarks at the end of the opening Mass for the Congress, Archbishop Pierre rightly praised the permanent deacons for their humble service of charity, proclaiming the word and leading the faith community in prayer. He expressed the personal greetings of Pope Francis to the deacons as he stated that the permanent diaconate has particularly flourished here in the United States where 165,000 permanent deacons carry out their ministry in varied ways. He stated, “In my travels throughout the United States, I have seen how permanent deacons continue to serve through their hard work and generous service. Deacons have been able co-workers with their bishops, priests and laity in many dimensions of ecclesial life, especially the apostolate works.”
Archbishop Pierre referred to words used by Pope Francis to describe deacons as “pioneers of the new civilization of love.” Actually, Pope Francis quotes these words from St. John Paul II who used them frequently. Pope Francis made reference to this phrase in the preface of a book on the permanent diaconate titled “The Diaconate in the Thought of Pope Francis: A Poor Church for the Poor.” This book was recently written by an Italian permanent deacon and has not yet been translated into English. What the pope says in this preface about deacons is most fitting for these men who are to be ordained as deacons today as well as it is for all of our deacons.
Pope Francis expresses that “the Church encounters in the permanent diaconate the expression and, at the same time, the vital impetus to be converted into a visible sign of the diakonia of Christ the Servant in human history. The sensitivity for the formation of a diaconal conscience can ever be considered the fundamental theme which ought to permeate Christian communities.” Pope Francis makes clear, as he has on many other occasions, that the deacon is to be a representative of Christian living as a model for all the faithful. The deacon is not separated from others because of his ordination, but is ordered to be, in the everyday sphere of life, what all are called to be.
Archbishop Pierre, in his remarks at the diaconate convocation, truly echoed the sentiment of Pope Francis in this regard. He stated that all of us, through our baptism, are called by the Lord to live a life of service for others especially in our families and communities. Deacons lead us as a Church in the works of charity in a particular way. He addressed the deacons with these words: “We look to you in some ways as the conscience of the Church. We ask you to find those who are in need and to invite us to serve them. When we forget them or fail to be people of charity as a Church, we ask you to be our conscience to call us back to what God asks.” My brothers to be ordained today, David and Martin, this is the vocation of service to which you are called and to which we look to you as a conscience and guide. As a “poor Church for the poor,” we cannot forget the poor but also we cannot forget that we are poor in many ways and sometimes in our relationship to the Lord. You remind us, as men living in the world, that the poverty of a lack of relationship with the Lord is the greatest poverty. This will many times cause us to overlook the physical poverty which is present among us in so many ways.
Archbishop Pierre also reminded the deacons that evangelizing is also at the core of the diaconal vocation. Again, as men living your ministry in so many walks of life, you will be “pioneers of the new civilization of love” by how you live and work in your walk. As the nuncio questioned, “This is Christ’s school, isn’t it? Don’t forget the job is Jesus’. Otherwise it is your job, your work, right? No the work is Christ’s. It is one thing to serve at the altar. It is another to be an evangelizing force in the world.”
The archbishop’s words are in close proximity to those of Pope Francis in his preface of the book on diaconal ministry when the pope states, “The service of diaconal ministry finds its identity in the act of evangelizing, as John Paul II said in a homily in 1979, addressed to a group of new deacons, and reminding them of the words of the handing to them of the Book of the Gospels during their ordination: ‘Receive the Gospel of Christ, whose herald you have become. Believe what you read, teach which you believe, and practice what you teach.’”
David and Martin, to be ordained you will hear soon these words addressed to you today to remind you of who you are and what you are to be about. As St. John Paul II continued in his words, “So then, you are called to carry the words of the Acts of the Apostles in your heart. In your role as deacons you come to be and are associates of Peter, John and all the apostles. You help in the apostolic ministry and share in his proclamation. As the apostles, you also ought to feel impelled to proclaim the resurrection of the Lord Jesus in word and works. Also you are to experience the urgency to do good, to be of service in the name of Jesus, crucified and risen, and the urgency to carry the word of God to the life of his holy people.”
As we look to these men who will be ordained deacons today, it is fitting that we recall they become ministers of the Church on the feast of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary who is the model for all vocations and ministries within the Church. Mary truly is, without any question, the “pioneer of the new civilization of love.” Mary is the woman who lived among others, not as separate from them, but as one who lived her vocation from God as a reminder for all to live theirs, not because she preached her faith in words but because she preached it in the loudest words of action. In this manner she truly was the evangelizer to all she encountered and in a particular way to the apostles both before and after the Lord’s resurrection. She was an evangelizing force in the world and never forgot that her work, her job, was that of her Son. She was the beginning of the “poor Church for the poor.” Mary reminds us, as the Constitution on the Church of the Second Vatican Council tells us, the Church in its call to be perfect and sinless has reached that state, despite all its faults, sins and failures, because Mary was without sin. She in a most concrete way is our conscience.
Often in medieval art, when the angel Gabriel appears to Mary announcing that she is to be the Mother of the Lord, he is portrayed as a deacon. Vested in an alb and deacon stole, and sometimes even wearing a dalmatic, the angel brings the message to Mary of her unique role as the Mother of God. Especially in the art of the Netherlands, these scenes have a eucharistic theme with a table present representing an altar and Mary, herself, evoking the image of a tabernacle, holding the real presence of Christ. The deacon angel announces, in this depiction of the ministry of the altar, that Mary is to be the bearer of the Word. This scene of Mary and the deacon is most significant to you, David and Martin, today as you become bearers of the Word through your willingness to conceive that Word within you and to live so that others can hear the call to them.
When the deacon is assisting at the altar, he exhorts us at the end of Mass with words to go forth in peace in order to live what we have received through the Eucharist. These are most fitting words for the office of the deacon as he reminds us that the Lord continues to be with us as we go home to our families, to our different responsibilities, to the joys and the sorrows of everyday life, to the sick and those who are in need, and to the very depths of our own hearts. These words of the deacon are words to our conscience that we must live what we have celebrated at the Eucharist even though we do so in an imperfect manner. As we continue with this Rite of Ordination, we give thanks for David and Martin who will be ordained as deacons, and to all of our deacons as we are reminded we are one family of God in which we find the meaning of our lives.
May Mary, our Mother and model, whose birth we celebrate today, be with all of us and may God who begins this good work in you continue to bring it to fulfillment.