Homily of Bishop Donal McKeown at Ordination to the Diaconate of Andrew Black

05 May 2013

Homily of Bishop Donal McKeown at Ordination to the Diaconate of Andrew Black

A quarter of St John’s Gospel (Ch 13-17) – from which we have just heard – is given over to the discourse and actions of Jesus with his disciples at the Last Supper. Moving from the washing of the apostles’ feet (including those of Judas), Jesus speaks of his relationship with the Father, the role of the Spirit and the implications of these for our understanding of what the Church is – and of what ministry means within the Church. On this Sunday before the feast of the Ascension, we hear of Jesus’ promise that the Church will not be left alone, even after his departure. The Spirit, who blows where he wills, will teach, encourage and lead the Church. Thus, in the first reading, we heard of how the Spirit enabled the early Jerusalem community to discern the way forward out of an apparent insoluble impasse. And, in the reading from the Book of the Apocalypse the Spirit enables John to see beyond the reality of persecution and failure to the belief that Jesus has been victorious over the worst that human beings can do to themselves and to each other.

Andrew, you are to be ordained into ministry in the Catholic Church in the diocese of Down and Connor. You have undertaken a long journey as you have sought to be true to God’s calling in the depths of your heart. Those involved in your formation have tried to prepare you for the major decisions involved today, specifically the commitment to a life-long celibate ministry in this diocese. Your journey has involved major decisions about church and vocation. But today, the church in this diocese formally and publicly recognises your call by ordaining you as a Deacon. Thus, I thank all those who have been involved in your formation for ministry, here and in Italy.

Today I wish to focus on three elements of the diaconal ministry.

Firstly, the traditional understanding of the diaconate has been that it is in the diakonia, the service of the needy that is referred to in Acts 6. Of course, the word in used on over 30 other occasions in the NT and mainly does not refer to service of the poor. But Pope Francis has made it very clear in his first days and weeks that work with those on the fringes of church and society is not peripheral to church life. If we are to be a body of Christ’s disciples, good news to the poor has to be at the core of who we are. The fulcrum of the church’s life has to be at the margins. A church with its power base at the centre of society may well reach out to the margins. But it cannot be a church for the poor and a church of the poor. Thus, your ministry of service is not just a passing phase of your calling. Rather it is a sacrament of the Church’s identity. You are to be an incarnation now – and, please God, in future priestly ministry – of Jesus’ passion to heal and to bring the good news to the poor. A Church that goes only to the nice and wants to not get its hands dirty, is not a kind of sacrament or sign of intimate union with God and of the unity of all mankind. [1] Speaking to newly ordained priests on Vocations Sunday, two weeks ago, Pope Francis said words that apply to you, Andrew, as well.

carry out the ministry of Christ the Priest with constant joy and genuine love, attending not to your own concerns but to those of Jesus Christ.  You are pastors, not functionaries. Be mediators, not intermediaries….. Keep always before your eyes the example of the Good Shepherd who came not to be served but to serve, and who came to seek out and save what was lost. [2]

The Church in Down and Connor faces many challenges. As in every generation, the primary focus in re-evangelisation is not that of ‘getting people back into church’. We are not just one more power base, jostling for influence in society. The ministry of Jesus was centred on healing people who were trapped in sin and ostracised, people whose relationships with God, their society and themselves were broken. The proclamation of the Good News is a gift, not a constraint. Learn to spend your life in the service of people that they may have life and have it to the full. (Jn 10:10). Live and speak in such a way that the most needy, oppressed and hurting can find in you the smile that Jesus brought to the roads of Galillee. As Blessed John Paul II said twelve years ago, We must ensure that in every Christian community the poor feel at home..,. the charity of works ensures an unmistakeable efficacy to the charity of words.[3] We have to learn how to walk the Gospel walk and not just talk the Gospel talk.

Secondly, you are called to the service of the Gospel and to break it for people at the table of the Word[4]. That means that you are a servant of the Word of God. You are not its master. In saying that, I merely echo Pope Benedict XVI who stated quite clearly that the Magisterium… is not superior to the word of God, but is rather its servant.[5] Today you are beginning to be a disciple of Jesus in a new way.  But you remain a fellow pilgrim in a pilgrim people. You must expose yourself each day to the searching word of God that is something alive and active; it cuts like any double-edged sword but more finely. (Hb 4:12). Let the scriptures seep down into your heart and season both your imagination and your vocabulary. If you do not feel  uncomfortable when faced with the scriptures, then you have not heard the call to follow the Master who has nowhere to lay his head (Lk 9:58). But Jesus suggests in today’s Gospel that, for those who keep his word, he and the Father will come and make their home in them. Love the scriptures, find ways of communicating the core messages of the scriptures, take time to prepare your homilies. In preaching the Gospel, Peter, Paul and the other NT writers shared their own faith journeys in what they wrote. Know your theology but do not be afraid to testify to your own journey of faith – and how the Lord will continue to call you afresh to be his disciple.  And all of this encounter with the scriptures must lead to an increasingly articulate laity who can speak of the hope that they have (1 Pet 3:15), and to a deeper prayer life for the whole community of faith. Theology can keep God at a distance. Prayer is communion with the God who has come to make his home in us. The encounter with the scriptures must lead us to union with Jesus who is the Word made flesh.

And, thirdly, there is another emphasis in the diaconate, rather than the predominant one of service to the needy. J N Collins asserts that the deacon’s primary service is to the bishop and to the diocese. Whatever the scriptural arguments might be for that thesis, it is important to recognise that, today, you join a diocesan family in a new and definitive way. The first reading from today’s Mass shows how the unity of the church family is a priority. That is a unity of faith and action, of orthodoxy and orthopraxis. In a fragmenting world where different generations of people increasingly live in separate worlds, you become a minister of communion with Christ and with one another. Blessed John Paul II, writing in 2001, insisted that there is a huge need to promote a spirituality of communion, making it the guiding principle of education wherever individuals and Christians are formed.[6] We face a major challenge to become a church that reflects that spirituality in the face of individualism and factions. It is not always easy to seek the Truth in a way that reflects ecclesial unity. And in NI there is a huge need for the ministry of reconciliation – and, when Paul refers to that ministry in 2Cor, he uses the term diakonia.[7]  On a personal level, you know many of those challenges. But God has reconciled the world to himself in Christ and has entrusted us with the new that they are reconciled (2 Cor 5:19). Be a minister of reconciliation and communion within the church beyond it. Spend yourself as a diakonos of that reconciliation.

Andrew, you are taking a huge step in faith. But, with St Paul, I can say that I am quite certain that the One who has begun this good work in you will bring it to completion when the Day of Jesus Christ comes. (Phil 1:6) You have many friends who will encourage and support you. You will need them because there are many cold winds, which will try to stop you fanning into a flame the gift that God gives you through the laying on of hands. (cf 2 Tim 1:6). Be a humble servant of Christ and of his people. It is now almost 36 years since my own diaconate ordination on May 23rd 1976. I have been blessed in so many ways as I have stumbled to walk with the Lord. I hope and pray that you will look back on this day as one when you heard more clearly the call to die to yourself so that Christ can be born anew in you each day. Absorb those words from today’s Gospel, a peace the world cannot give is my gift to you.(Jn 14:27). And in all your years of ministry, may the peace of Christ reign in your heart.

[1] Lumen Gentium, para 1 in Walter M Abbott translation of The Documents of Vatican II, 1967, London, Chapman.

[3] Novo Millennio Ineunte (NMI)¸ 2001, para 50

[4] Sacrosanctum Concilium para 51

[5] Verbum Domini, 2010, para 47

[6] NMI, para 43.

[7] καὶ δόντος ἡμῖν τὴν διακονίαν τῆς καταλλαγῆς (2 Cor 5:18)