Pro-Cathedral, Saturday 4 June 2016 11am, Feast of Saint Kevin
One of the significant achievements of the Vatican Council’s reflection on the Church was the restoration in the Latin Church of the ministry of deacons. The Oriental Churches had always clearly maintained the office of deacon in the liturgy and in the community. In the Latin Church, however, the deaconate had been reduced to a final step on the road to the priesthood. In the mind of ordinary Catholics the office of deacon as a fundamental element of the ministry of the Church had been lost.
Vatican II reminded us of what the office of deacon is. The deaconate is a specific calling to a ministry of service conferred by the imposition of hands.
Lumen Gentium says: “Strengthened by sacramental grace, in communion with the bishop and his group of priests, [deacons] are called to serve in the Diakonia of the liturgy, of the word, and of charity to the people of God”.
The deaconate is therefore a permanent ministry with its own characteristics. It is not a stop-gap solution invented to address a fall in the number of priests. The restoration of the deaconate, if anything, should be provoking a deeper reflection on the plurality of ministries and charisms which are present in the Church. The deaconate is not a substitute but a call to witness a particular dimension of the mission of the Church.
When we say that the mission of the deacon is a ministry of service, we are affirming that the deacon in the Church is in a special way a sign and a witness to the Christ who came “not to be served but to serve”. The deaconate is not a substitute for priests; the ministry of the deacon indeed can also be a ministry to priests, recalling us priests to more effectively witness to service in our own lives.
Whenever any ministry in the Church loses the characteristic of service then it can quickly degenerate, degenerate into the opposite to ministry, to the temptation towards self-centeredness, towards using ministry really for our own prestige. When sacred authority is exercised not as ecclesial service, but in our own interest, then a true betrayal of sacred authority takes place.
All service in the Church must be marked by humility. Authentic humility is not easy. One can paradoxically be proud to feel humble. One can feel chuffed when others say that we are humble. That is not humility. Jesus showed us his true identity and that of the Father through humbling himself and emptying him and he “did not consider his equality with God a thing to be exploited”. We can only witness to the power and the truth of Christ when our witness is truly marked with the mercy and compassion of Christ.
Jesus himself, then, is the true model for those who would aspire to the deaconate. The reward of the deacon’s office is not any personal glory or social recognition, but rather the grace that comes from living a life of service to the glory of God.
You, dear friends, who today are called to the ministry of deacons, have to learn to disentangle your life from everything which hinders the radical newness of the Gospel from breaking through into the realities of our time. The Gospel reading reminded us that when we set our on missionary journey we set out only with the most meagre self-comforts. If you disentangle yourself in this way you will allow Jesus to appear and appeal to the life of each person you encounter.
Vatican II listed some of the tasks which belong to the deacon, but these are not listed as an exhaustive list, much less as a list of things which the deacon can do, as opposed to laity or priests or bishops. This is important in Ireland where for so long ministry and priesthood were almost identical. The significance of ministry is not linked with “what you can do”, compared to “what a priest can do”. Difference in ministry is always something mutual and complementarity, rather being in competition of conflict.
I was amused at a comment of Pope Francis recently where he said that as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, when he would visit parishes, very often a priest would say to him: “There is a very good man, very active in the parish, do you think we should propose him to become a deacon?” And the Pope said he always relied: “Why not leave him as a lay man! You are telling me that as a lay person he is doing great things, let him continue to do great things as a lay man. We do not have to ordain everyone”.
Pope Francis warns continuously about the dangers of clericalism: “Clericalism forgets that the visibility and sacramentality of the Church belong to all the People of God not only to the few chosen and enlightened”.
“The visibility and sacramentality of the Church belong to all the People of God”. We need to stress the complementarity of ministries within the Church and enhance especially the ministries of lay men and women.
I am haunted by a quote of Emeritus Pope Benedict on the occasion of the Beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman. He said: “The service to which Blessed John Henry was called involved applying his keen intellect and his prolific pen to many of the most pressing ‘subjects of the day’”.
If the place of the Church in the current social and political discussion in Ireland risks becoming increasingly marginal, this is not just due to some sort of external exclusion; it is also because the Church in Ireland is very lacking in “keen intellects and prolific pens addressing the pressing subjects of the day”.
This is a role especially for competent lay men and women well educated in their faith. The contribution of the Church to the improvement of society will not be attained simply by negative political commentary. It will not be attained by morbid and depressive analysis of the woes of the Church. It will never be attained by religious media which allow themselves to be reduced to mere blogs of clerical gossip. It cannot be attained by creating a neo-clerical Church, focussed just on priests.
What we need is a vibrant affirmation of the “Joy of the Gospel”. It may seem a paradox, but a without vibrant lay affirmation of the “Joy of the Gospel” we will never produce priestly vocations. A Church which does not at all levels radiate the “Joy of the Gospel” is a Church doomed to stagnation, closed in within an unreal comfort zone, focussed inwards rather than reaching out and embracing the marginalised and bringing them the Joy of the Gospel through our service.
We should remember that the need for diversification of ministry in the early Church, referred to in Chapter 6 of the Acts of the Apostles, became evident to ensure that the distribution of bread to widows could be more effectively attained. “Bread to widows” needs to be translated by us into what today are the needs of the marginalized.
The Church in Dublin rejoices in the grace of today ordaining eight new permanent deacons. In the name of the entire Church community in Dublin, with all its varied ministries, I welcome you and the contribution you can bring, as we all, with our many and diverse gifts, pledge to work together in the mission of enlivening our faith in Jesus Christ and sharing with others the “Joy of the Gospel”.
- The ordination to the diaconate of 8 me takes place in the Pro Cathedral tomorrow morning Saturday June 4th at 11am
- There are already 14 Permanent Deacons in the Archdiocese of Dublin
- The areas of ministry entrusted to Permanent deacons fall under three general headings, Altar, Word and Charity. Deacons can assist the priest at the celebration of the Eucharist; they can celebrate Baptism and Marriage and preside at funerals. They also facilitate visiting the sick, prisoners and the bereaved and promoting awareness of the social teaching of the church.
- In partnership with priests and parish pastoral workers, their role includes supporting the structures, which allow for the wider participation of the lay faithful in a range of ministries in the parish and in the wider community.
- The permanent diaconate is a voluntary part-time ministry, for married or single men, however if deacons have taken early retirement or reduced their work commitments they may be able to offer a greater time commitment.