On deacons: “The most important homily they preach is the example of their daily life”

N.B. A shorter version of this post appeared in July.  I thought the entire message, though, was worth its own posting.  — DGK

Words of Counsel for New Deacons

by Bishop George Leo Thomas, Diocese of Helena

On June 29, a Friday, 17 men were ordained to the permanent diaconate for the Diocese of Helena.For nearly five years, they engaged in an intensive program of preparation through spiritual, intellectual, pastoral and human formation. Along with their wives and families, our deacons invested deeply and sacrificed greatly in response to this call from the Lord.

The members of our deacon class are distinguished by their high caliber and commitment, their long track records of parish involvement and a level of talent rivaling that of deacon classes across the land.

The permanent diaconate is built upon a threefold ministry of Word, Worship and Witness.

As ministers of the Word, deacons are commissioned to preach and teach in the local parish, faithfully representing the Gospel and the magisterium of the Church, forming, reforming, informing and ultimately transforming the hearts of the people through the light of the Gospel. During the ordination rite, I admonished the deacons to “receive the Gospel of Jesus Christ whose heralds you have become. Believe what you read, teach what you believe and practice what you teach.”

I advised them to be frequent guests at the table of the Word, seeking spiritual sustenance themselves before nourishing those entrusted to their care. Furthermore, I asked they never forget that the first and most important homily they preach is the example of their daily life.

As ministers at the altar, they are commissioned to carry out particular responsibilities in the name of the Church.

They receive the gifts of bread and wine from the people, and help to prepare the altar for the eucharistic liturgy. They give voice to the prayers of the faithful, and at the request of their pastors, they celebrate the sacrament of baptism, assist at marriages, bring viaticum to the dying and conduct the rites of funerals.

As witnesses to the Gospel, deacons are asked to animate works of charity among God’s people.

Both their ministries of Word and Worship point to this reality. Diaconal ministry helps our communities to make deep and meaningful connections between Word and charity, sacrament and service, worship and justice, always with a preferential option for the poor.

This threefold ministry of Word, Worship and Witness serves as the basic foundation for diaconal life wherever permanent deacons minister. But there is more. In the Diocese of Helena, I have particular expectations of those entrusted with diaconal ministry in this local church.

I offer seven hallmarks or special qualities that will help give diaconal ministry depth, flavor, color and texture.

1. The first of these hallmarks is the virtue of humility, described by both by St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine as foundational for all other virtues in Christian life.

The word “humility” comes from the Latin word “humus,”, meaning soil or ground. Humility is the spiritual soil that helps the other virtues germinate and flourish. Humility replaces arrogance, pride and hubris with a servant spirituality. Humility is the great equalizer that allows ministers of the Gospel to recognize the equality and dignity of every person. Humility allows us to become lifelong learners, able to seek and accept wise counsel and correction from others. In the words of Deacon Owen Cummings, who teaches at Mount Angel Seminary in Oregon, humility is the basis for collaboration, communion and collegiality. All are necessary for fruitful ministry.

2. The second hallmark is the universal call to holiness, a call that originates in baptism and is the goal of every Christian.

The beginning point for holiness of life is that deep, personal encounter with Jesus Christ. The very purpose of diaconal ministry is to introduce others to him, and to give Jesus a hallowed place in every heart and home.

Deacons are asked to help others encounter Jesus in their daily lives, especially through the Eucharist, sacraments, daily prayer and works of charity.

3. Diaconal ministry must redound in happiness.

St. Teresa of Avila prayed, “Spare me, O Lord, from sour-faced saints.”

Happiness is the byproduct of beatitude living and is an irresistible force for leading others to Christ. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the reason for our radical optimism and the source of our happiness, which the world never can rival.

4. Deacons are to be visible signs of hope.

In their pastoral ministry, deacons quickly become familiar with the many burdens our people carry. They soon discover a world of hidden and silent suffering and are commissioned to offer our people “the hope that does not disappoint.” (Romans 5:5) We know this hope has a name. His name is Jesus Christ.

Deacons in this diocese are to be visible symbols of hope, preaching and living the deeply-held conviction articulated by the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council: “Jesus Christ is the definitive answer to the question of the meaning of life.”

5. Deacon ministry is to be characterized by the charism of healing. Deacons are to be agents of healing, a prayerful presence among our people, a listening ear and a conduit for the healing of the Holy Spirit.

Deacons are to prefer persuasion over power, dialogue over diatribe and civility over censure. I ask them to make frequent use of the sacrament of reconciliation, pointing others to the divine physician. Through their example, they are to teach our people the power found in those three little words that can mend broken hearts: “I forgive you.”

6. Hospitality must be the next hallmark of diaconal ministry. Deacons are to ask constantly, “Who is not at the table?” They must help both parish and diocese open their arms in welcome and pastoral care.

A third-century document describes the deacon as the ears, mouth, heart and soul of the bishop, helping to extend apostolic ministry into every portion of the Church. Deacons are to be lived reminders that in our community, there must be no castoff people, no disposable souls, no throwaway communities. Their ministry must go beyond parish boundaries, to the prison and hospital, to nursing homes and shut-ins, to soup kitchens and shelters. They must minister among the people, helping all of us see in the eyes of every person the image of the Lord himself.

7. Deacons must reflect a lively sense of humor, described by author Richard Heffern as “the byproduct of living deeply.” Recall the wise counsel of the late pianist and humorist Victor Borge when he said, “The shortest distance between two people is a good laugh.” Diaconal ministry must be marked by buoyancy and lightheartedness that lift the hearts of the people, and bring joy into their lives.

These are the particular qualities that characterize not only the mission and ministry of the permanent diaconate, but also the lives of all, lay and ordained, who serve the mission of the Church.

We must keep the eyes of our hearts ever fixed on Christ the servant, who is our example and our hope, and is ever present among us “as one who serves.” (Luke 22:27)

Published in The Montana Catholic Online, Volume 28, No. 7, July 20, 2012.


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