Cathedral of the Risen Christ
May 24, 2019
Bishop James D. Conley
Bishop Finn, my brother priests, deacons, consecrated religious, seminarians, families of our ordinandi, dear brothers and sisters in Christ -- welcome to the Cathedral of the Risen Christ.
We are gathered here this evening to pray for these five men before you: these sons, brothers, and friends, who will in a few moments receive the Sacrament of Holy Orders through the laying on of hands and the prayer of ordination. They are to be ordained deacons of the Church, the first of the three degrees of Holy Orders, the others being priesthood and the episcopate.
In our second reading today taken from the 6th Chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, we learn that in the early Church, as the numbers began to grow rapidly, the twelve apostles summoned the body of disciples together and said: “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brethren, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” And so the first deacons were ordained.
It might appear, at first glance, that the first deacons were ordained exclusively to perform the corporal works of mercy – serving the tables – which is to say, feeding the hungry and distributing alms to the poor and looking after the widows & orphans – while the order of priesthood was reserved more to the spiritual works of mercy.
But the love of God and the love of neighbor can never separated. The charity we extend to our neighbor is infused and inflamed by our love of God. And it is because of our faith, that we go out of ourselves and extend the love of God to our neighbor and to those who are in need. St. James reminds us that “faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”
While it is true that you five men will be ordained to the “transitional” diaconate, to distinguish you from those men who are called to the “permanent” diaconate, there is no indication in the Acts of the Apostles that the diaconate itself was intended to be a temporary or transitory configuration. It cannot be so with the Sacrament of Holy Orders. All the degrees of ordination, as with the sacraments of baptism and confirmation, configure the recipient with a permanent or indelible sacramental character, a spiritual branding if you will, which changes you completely and forever, and configures you more perfectly “to Christ, who made himself the ‘deacon’ or servant of all” (CCC 1570).
Equally as mysterious, you will consecrate yourselves to God by making a promise of lifelong celibate chastity, “for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.” Again, the Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us so beautifully, “Called to consecrate themselves with undivided heart to the Lord and to the ‘affairs of the Lord,’ they give themselves with undivided heart to the Lord and to men. Celibacy is a sign of this new life to the service of which the Church’s minister is consecrated; accepted with a joyous heart celibacy radiantly proclaims the Reign of God” (CCC 1579).
While we will call you transitional deacons in view of your ordination to the priesthood a year from now, please God, there is a true permanence to your diaconate. With the diaconal sacramental character you will receive this evening, there is nothing transitory or temporary about your diaconate; quite the contrary, it is indelible and enduring.
There is a reason why the Church ordains candidates to the priesthood, first, to the diaconate. It is neither purely symbolic, nor just a relic from bygone times. We ordain these men to the order of deacon -- an order they will exercise full-time for a year -- to give them the occasion to savor and value more deeply that which they will bear for the rest of their lives.
It can be tempting for a busy bishop to forget that he is really a priest; or for a harried parish priest to overlook the fact that he is also a deacon. Were these orders all conferred in a single sitting, there would be a risk that this could become obscured. But where the Church confers one at a time, the degrees of Holy Orders, it does so in order that its future priests might nurture a pervading sense of their various ministries, having cherished them one-at-a-time along the journey of their vocations. This is why I always wear a dalmatic when I ordain deacons and priests, to remind me that I am still a deacon, and my diaconal order remains with me.
Because those primary tasks of a deacon, “to assist the priest in the celebration of the divine mysteries, above all the Eucharist, in the distribution of Holy Commmunion, particularly to the sick and infirm, in performing baptisms, in assisting at and blessing marriages, in the proclamation of the Gospel and preaching, in presiding over funerals, and in dedicating themselves to various ministries of charity,” are also the tasks of the priest and the bishop, these ministries are all bound up in the mystery of Holy Orders (CCC 1570).
As you men are ordained deacons this evening, you will continue your formation and preparation for ordination to the sacred priesthood. God willing, one year from now, you will be ordained priests of Jesus Christ. But with your ordination to the diaconate, you will now enter into the mystery of holy orders, and be configured anew to Jesus Christ.
Always remember your diaconal calling and sacramental configuration -- which is a call to serve and not to be served. It is a call to lay down your life for the love Christ and his people.
Saint Stephen was one of the original seven deacons in the Church. He was tried and sentenced to death for the testimony of his faith. Certainly, it was for his preaching (a spiritual work of mercy) that he underwent this trial; though his stature as a public witness for the Christian faith was probably due more to his outreach to the community. Indeed, the popularity in the Catholic imagination for the deacon-martyrs surpasses that, even, of the priest-martyrs.
St. Lawrence of Rome also comes immediately to mind. The deacon, Lawrence, found prominence in the mind of the pagan Roman authorities, in particular, for the perceived wealth he wielded in caring for the needy – but he righted this wrong perception on the morning of his trial by presenting, before the emperor, the poor and disadvantaged of the city, as representing the true treasures of the Church.
Treasuring the poor would seem, then, to be at the heart of what it means to be a deacon. Who then, can better embody this servant’s heart and love for the poor, than the poor man of Assisi, St. Francis? Unsurprisingly, St. Francis of Assisi was also a deacon. Francis never became a priest, despite the urging of others, on account of his humility. He considered himself unworthy of the priesthood -- not that any of us are worthy of such a gift – which is testament to Francis’ great poverty of spirit.
Everyone who has discovered his vocation, no matter what it is, knows that the Lord’s call is a mystery. We cannot understand why the Lord has chosen us for the things to which he calls us. The divine logic of Providence is never clear to us. But we know that God has called us, and that, however unworthy we feel, we must follow him.
“You did not choose me,” the Lord says to his apostles, “but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide.”
We can be certain that because the Lord has called us, in the grace of ordination he will give us the strength to respond to that call.
And may Mary, the humble handmaiden of the Lord, always intercede for you and keep you close to the Sacred Heart of her Son, Jesus.