...service of the poor is the logical consequence
of service of the altar.
Basic Norms for the Formation of Permanent Deacons, 73
For several decades ago, I have connected worship with service to the poor and the pursuit of justice. Perhaps it was in the early 1960s when I attended a meeting of the Liturgical Conference. Several speakers connected the liturgy with care for the poor.
Dorothy Day is perhaps the greatest example of a person who tried to live this in her life. The Catholic Worker houses included feeding the poor and worshipping the Lord. I saw here several times – once at Mass in Rosary parish in the Lower East side and once at a Friday night clarification of thought at the Catholic Worker around the corner. She was at home in both places.
Some of her inspiration came from the Benedictine monk Father Virgil Michel, a pioneer of the liturgical movement in the US, who saw the relation of the altar and the world. In the February 1940 issue of Orate Fratres, he wrote:
What the early Christians thus did at the altar of God, in the central act of Christian worship, they also lived out in their daily lives. They understood fully that the common action of worship was to be the inspiration of all their actions. They knew well that their common giving of themselves to God and to the brethren of Christ was in fact a solemn promise made to God that they would live their lives in this same love of God and of God‘s children, their brethren in Christ, throughout all the day. Unless they did that, their action before God would be at best lip-service, a lie before God.
The deacon is meant to show sacramentally the connection. As Pope John Paul II said to deacons in the US in 1987:
...the word of God inevitably leads us to the Eucharistic worship of God at the altar; in turn, this worship leads us to a new way of living which expresses itself in acts of charity.
Rev. Paul McPartlan makes this clear with a beautiful image:
The deacon stands at the altar and prepares the gifts with clean hands, but he stands also where the practical need is greatest, getting his hands very dirty.
There should exist no gap between the altar and the world. Indeed, we bring ourselves and all the world to the table of the Lord – so that the bread and wine may be transformed in the Body and Blood of Christ and so that we may be transformed into the Body of Christ in a world that will be transformed by Christ.
As Bishop (now Cardinal) Walter Kasper said in a 1977 speech:
Through his ministry in liturgy, preaching and diaconia, [the deacon] has the chance make people aware of the link between faith and life. In his service at the altar he sets the needs of man on the table of the Eucharist; and of course he includes them in his preaching. He has to make the parishes sensitive to all situations, where need exists and to motivate them to work with each other and for each other.
As my friend Fr. Tim Shugrue has said and written, the deacon ought to make the needs of the poor made known in his homilies.
Some writers have suggested that the deacon ought to have the ear of the bishop so that he can share with him the needs of the poor and marginalized in the diocese. A bishop at the Council of Trent wrote that all the needs of the people are mediated to the bishop by deacons.
I don’t know if I have the courage to do this. But I do feel that God may be calling me to another step to serve those most in need by being a sign of the real connection between life and the table of the Lord. And then may the Lord give me the grace to listen to the poor and share their concerns with the People of God – including the bishop.
Maybe in this way, I can begin to help our parish live out the vision of the Entrance Hymn of the Salvadoran People’s Mass:
Vamos todos al banquete
a la mesa de la Creación,Cada cual con su taburetetiene un puesto y una misión.
We are all going to the banquet
to the table of Creation.
All of us with our stools
have a place and a mission.
Timothy Shugrue, in an article in the collection Forming Deacons: Ministers of Soul and Leaven:
It would be a real contribution to the life of the community if, every time we heard a deacon, we came away with an insight into possibilities for responding to a need that his natural sensitivity, strengthened by the grace of orders, has helped us to recognize or feel with greater intensity and with the idea that some practical remedy is within our reach.