This morning, Thursday, September 29th, Cardinal Sean O’Malley ordained thirty seminarians of the Pontifical North American College in Rome, Italy to the diaconate. Hailing from various dioceses in the United States, Deacon Andrew Larkin of the Diocese of Savannah was among them.
Cardinal O’Malley stressed that for deacons, the towel must be as important as the stole. This beautiful image serves as a reminder that deacons are ordained primarily to serve the people of God, not only to fulfill a liturgical function. They must live out the corporal works of mercy. Early in his homily, the Cardinal offered a strong appeal for the Church to focus in her ministry to immigrants. He shared that as a newly ordained deacon, he was assigned to work with Spanish-speaking immigrants rather than being sent on mission to Easter Island. He stated, “if you yet do not speak Spanish, learn it.”
The ordination of deacons at the Pontifical North American College is always held before the start of the academic year of the Pontifical universities of Rome. The ceremony occurs at the Altar of the Chair of Saint Peter Basilica. The Altar of the Chair is a stunning bronze altar designed and built by the great Bernini. It is believed that inside the reliquary kept within the altar is kept a small wooden chair from where Saint Peter taught when he lived in Rome two thousand years ago. The chair, or cathedra, is a symbol of the teaching authority of a bishop; hence the church where the bishop’s chair is kept, his cathedra, is called a cathedral. Saint Peter’s Basilica holds the chair of Peter, symbolizing the teaching authority of Peter’s successors. The chair of the Pope, who is the Bishop of Rome, is kept at the cathedral of Rome, the Basilica of Saint John Lateran.
Three cardinals, about ten bishops, several hundred priests, and over one thousand laypeople gathered for the momentous occasion this morning. The choir sung beautifully and brass instruments played magnificently. The music filled every corner of the basilica.
After the ordination, guests were invited to the seminary for a reception.
When a man is ordained a transitional deacon, he makes three promises: celibacy, prayer and obedience. These are lifelong commitments made at the diaconate ordination which continue once the deacon is ordained a priest. In a way, it all begins at diaconate so this moment is crucial in the life of a man heading to ordination to the priesthood.
Every deacon is asked by the ordaining bishop if he has resolved to remain celibate for the sake of the kingdom and in lifelong service to God and mankind. Celibacy is a gift from God which allows a man to love with an undivided heart, setting him apart to participate in a unique role within the mission of the Church. The celibate man willingly forgoes marriage for the sake of God’s Kingdom where he chooses to radically imitate Christ. Though a gift, celibacy must be nurtured by and grounded in prayer and healthy relationships. A celibate lifestyle certainly is counter-cultural and challenging, yet Jesus Christ strengthens those he calls with the necessary grace to persevere. In the words of Pope Paul VI, celibacy is “an answer of love to the love which Christ has shown us so sublimely.”
A deacon also promises to maintain and deepen a spirit of prayer, faithfully praying the Liturgy of the Hours for the Church and the whole world. The Liturgy of the Hours is the ancient prayer of the Church which consists primarily of the praying of psalms. Since early days, monks prayed at different times of the day as a means to sanctify their day, and over time, this practice developed into official hours of prayer throughout the day. Every deacon commits himself to pray this official prayer of the Church which is generally prayed five times a day.
Lastly, every deacon promises obedience to his ordinary (bishop) and his successors. As the promise is made, the deacon kneels with his hands together and the bishop wraps his own hands around the hands of the man being ordained. This promise is grounded in the firm conviction that the Holy Spirit continues to guide the whole Church and that through it, the whole body of the Church can remain united. Obedience to one’s bishop ensures a common vision in the Church. Truly a liberating experience, obedience frees a man from his own worries and pettiness in order to fulfill his role in the larger picture of God’s Kingdom.
I conclude with beautiful and challenging words which are said to the newly ordained deacon by the bishop as he receives the Book of the Gospels, “Receive the Gospel of Christ, whose herald you now are. Believe what you read, teach what you believe, and practice what you teach.”