Thursday, October 20, 2016

The path toward service as a permanent deacon

This is a translation of a revised version of a talk I delivered at the Major Seminary Our Lady of Suyapa, the national seminary, in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, on September 20, 2016, at the invitation of the seminary rector, Father José Mario Bacci. 

On July 15, 2016, Bishop Darwin Andino ordained me a deacon for the diocese of Santa Rosa de Copán, Honduras. I am the third permanent deacon ordained in Honduras, the first in our diocese, and the first celibate permanent deacon in Honduras. 

If you had told me three years ago that I would be an ordained deacon, I would have given you all the reasons why not. Now I think I can give you some reasons why.

I believe that I am a deacon because this is the way the God wants me, at this stage of my life, to live out my baptismal commitment – to love God and love my neighbor, believing in God, and letting myself be formed into Christ Jesus, prophet, priest, and servant-king – with the help of the grace of the sacrament.

At the end of August, my pastor, Padre German Navarro, asked me about my experience as a deacon. In one sense, I am not doing much more than what I was doing before my ordination – training catechists and leaders of youth groups, preparing materials for workshops, visiting distant communities, bringing them communion. Some things have changed: I am baptizing, preaching, burying the dead, and assisting at the altar. But, looking from the outside, not much has changed.

I think that not doing much new can be seen as a confirmation of my ordination. Looking back, I see a pattern emerging that has led to my ordination and my ministry as a permanent deacon. There are threads that God has woven in my life so that I assume the mantle of deacon.

I grew up in a blue collar family, outside of Philadelphia. My father wasn’t Catholic, but I was raised as a Catholic, studying in the parish grammar school.

This was the time of the beginning of the civil rights movement and I began to be aware of the racism and injustice in the United States.

I thought I had a vocation to the priesthood with the Franciscans and spent high school and two years of college in their minor seminary. I left because I was not mature enough to really live as a priest.

Those seminary years, 1961 – 1968, were very formative for me, marked by a number of events.

The Second Vatican Council, 1963 to 1965 was an important event for the church and for me, as I saw the church opening to the world.

I had developed a strong interest in the liturgy and this became closely related to social justice. In the US, the movement for liturgical reform was tied very closely with social justice, beginning in the 1930s with the work of a Benedictine monk, Fr. Virgil Michel, and others.

Those seminary years were the years when the civil rights struggle became more intense, with the nonviolent struggle of US blacks and the nonviolent leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr.

In my high school years, I became aware of the holocaust and Nazism. I was a Little concerned about what seemed to be a weak response by the Catholic Church and wondered how I might be called to respond to social evil.

During these years, the war in Viet Nam intensified. Even though I would have a religious exemption when I registered for the draft, I still wondered if I could ever participate in war.

When I left the seminary, I began to study philosophy at a Jesuit university, the University of Scranton. I was involved in the church as well as in anti-Viet Nam war protests. Afterwards, I studied four years in graduate school in New York City at a private university, where three of my professors were Jewish émigrés from Nazi Germany. I got a Masters’ degree but left New York before finishing my doctorate.

I worked for several years in a variety of jobs.

First I taught for two years in a small Catholic high school in Indiana – religion, freshman English, choir.

Then I moved back to Scranton where I worked in a home for children and youth with social, psychological, and behavioral problems. I also taught philosophy part-time at the university,

After several years I was informed that there would not be any opportunities to teach the following year. So I applied for a position with the Vermont Ecumenical Council as coordinator of efforts to promote peace from the perspective of faith.

I worked there for 13 months and then spent six months as a volunteer for the Fellowship of Reconciliation, an interfaith pacifist organization.

I returned to graduate studies, this time at Boston College, another Jesuit university, where I taught two classes a semester, took three or four classes for three semesters, and prepared to write my dissertation.

In my fourth semester there, after finishing all the classes and pre-doctoral examinations I needed to take, I only had to write the dissertation.

But I felt a certain restlessness. I loved teaching and was ready to write the dissertation but I felt something missing.

I saw an ad for a position at St. Thomas Aquinas Church and Catholic Student Center at Iowa State university in Ames, Iowa, working in campus ministry and justice and peace ministry. I had heard of the parish. The combination of working with students and justice and peace work from a faith perspective responded to my vision of my calling. I applied for the position, went for the interview, and was hired.

There The parishioners introduced me to the situation of Central America, especially the refugees fleeing the wars in El Salvador and Guatemala. In 1985 I made my firsts visit to Central America and fell in love with El Salvador, which I visited many times. Monseñor Oscar Romero, now blessed, became a great inspiration for my ministry.

The parishioners also moved me to direct contact with the poor and I began to involve others indirect service to local poor.

In 1992, I spent seven months of a sabbatical in El Salvador, working for six months in the parish of Suchitoto with the Salvadoran pastor and five US sisters. They sent me to work in the farthest region of the parish, a four hours walk from the city of Suchitoto. I lived with a family, sleeping in a hammock to avoid displacing anyone from a bed.

It was a time of great blessing – working with the people, helping the pastoral work, training catechists, and living with a family – eating tortillas and salty beans, going to the river to bathe, using a primitive latrine. But I woke each morning with a deep sense of thanksgiving.

I also began to teach classes at the university, in both philosophy and religion. I also worked a bit with the national Catholic Campus Ministers Association, planning a national convention.

I was generally content – and planned to continue until retirement. At times, I looked for other positions – but almost always seeking to combine faith and peace and justice, often with students.

But something happened. Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans.

Soon after this happened, a college student I worked with bothered me so much that we organized a group to go help in New Orleans for the 2006 spring break. We worked with Catholic Charities, cleaning out and cleaning homes which had flooded.

One day we went to empty the house of a black woman who had raised her children and grandchildren in the house. As we were emptying out the house, with her looking on, God hollowed out a place in me, emptying my heart.

God was calling me to something more. It was a classic case of what Ignatius Loyola called the magis.

Sharing this with my spiritual director, she asked me, “Why?” My immediate response, without thinking was, “To serve those most in need.”

Two months earlier, I had told her that I was content with my work and had no intention of changing it. But now, I wanted to change, leaving the security of my employment.

What had happened? I had encountered a real person suffering, which provoked a meditation of the limitedness of life. I experienced a lack of attachment to my possession. But, above all, God opened me, he hollowed out a place in me, so that God could fill it with a life of service more committed directly with the poor.

I had a friend whom I knew from Suchitoto. Sister Nancy was working in the dioceses of Santa Rosa de Copán, Honduras. She arranged a meeting with the bishop, Monseñor Luis Alfonso Santos, who gave me a green light to work in the diocese.

Bishop Santos wanted me to work in campus ministry at the Catholic University campus, but I wanted something more. Some Franciscan sisters opened the way for me to help in a kindergarten in a poor neighborhood as well as to visit the local prison helping in a literacy program. I also often visited Hogar San José, a home for malnourished children under five, run by the Missionaries of Charity.
A priest invited me to visit his parish, Dulce Nombre de María, and I soon began to regularly visit the parish helping with catechists and other projects, after consulting with the bishop.

Later, in 2009, Monseñor Santos asked me to help in Caritas as associate director. I worked as a volunteer there and helped in some projects and had the chance to participate in several national Caritas projects on peacemaking. I especially enjoyed the opportunity to help the diocesan program in Catholic Social Thought and prepare a book for the base communities. It was a real blessing to work with leaders in several of the deaneries of the diocese.

I continued to work in the parish of Dulce Nombre even as I worked with Caritas.

But at the end of 2014, after consulting the new bishop, Monseñor Darwin Rudy Andino, I left Caritas to help full time in the parish.

One night, during the three days Bishop Darwin was celebrating 500 confirmations in the parish. Padre German Navarro, Monseñor Darwin, and I were sitting around the dinner table. After asking me about my education and formation, the bishop asked me to consider the permanent diaconate.

A few months before that, Padre German had also suggested it but I explained to him some of my concerns – including the possibility that the diaconate could create – or widen – the breach between me and the people I serve. I still had those concerns, but I promised the bishop to consider his proposal. By the way, Padre German had not mentioned to the bishop his conversation with me. The bishop’s question came from himself.

I immediately began to study the diaconate, reading articles, books, and church documents in English and Spanish. I talked with some of my friends here and in the US. I e-mailed a priest friend – whom I’ve known since summer camp after fifth grade. He had been the director of the diaconate in his archdiocese.

And I prayed.

Two months later, I told the bishop that I was open to beginning the process.

Why the change?

The first article I read was an interview with Deacon William Ditewig,[1] which gave me a good idea of the meaning and roots of the permanent diaconate.

The Nazis imprisoned many Catholic priests and Protestant pastors. More than 2,500 were held in the Dachau concentration camp. There various priest began to discuss the situation of the rise of Nazism: “…why wasn’t the church able to somehow influence society to prevent all of this from happening? What can we do in the future so this doesn’t happen again?”

In their reflections they noted that the Church had visible images of Christ as priest and king, but it did not have a tangible image of Christ the Servant. And so they discussed the possibility of the permanent deacon where men with jobs in the secular world would have a role in connecting the Church with that world.

After the war several priests wrote major articles on the diaconate. In 1947, the Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner began writing about the diaconate as a permanent state of life.

In the same article, mentioned above, Deacon William Ditewig emphasized the centrality of service for the deacon – as a permanent vocation.

I read many of the documents of the Church. But paragraph 16 of Ad Gentes, the decree on missions of the Second Vatican Council, was the clincher. I was deeply moved when I read:

Where Episcopal Conferences deem it opportune, the order of the diaconate should be restored as a permanent state of life, according to the norms of the Constitution on the Church.60 For there are men who are actually carrying out the functions of the deacon’s office, either by preaching the Word of God as catechists, or by presiding over scattered Christian communities in the name of the pastor and the bishop, or by practicing charity in social or relief work. It will be helpful to strengthen them by that imposition of hands which has come down from the apostles, and to bind them more closely to the altar. Thus they can carry out their ministry more effectively because of the sacramental grace of the diaconate.

I realized that I had been trying to live – without ordination – the vocation of the deacon. Maybe, I pondered, I need the sacramental grace of the diaconate to live that life of service more profoundly, with greater conviction, and more attuned to Christ Jesus the Servant.

What became clearer to me, reading many books and church documents, was that, without knowing it, a diaconal/servant spirituality had been a part of my life for decades.


For me, the spirituality of the deacon has several aspects, including
      The deacon ought to live the kenosis, the emptying of Jesus, making himself servant.
      The deacon is an animator, a driving force for service.
      The deacon is a sacramental sign, an icon of Christ the Servant.
The deacon ought to make visible the link between faith and life, between the altar and the world.
The deacon is a martyr, a witness of Christ.

Kenosis, emptying:
     For me, the deacon ought to become like Jesus in his emptying, going lower in order to be a servant, a slave of all:
Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus,
Who, though he was in the form of God,
      did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.
Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave,
coming in human likeness;
and found human in appearance,
he humbled himself,
becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.

Philippians 2, 5-8 (NAB translation) [2]

Animator of service   
      Pope Paul VI said that the deacon is an animator, a driving force for service.[3] He doesn’t do everything, but animates all the faithful to live as Christ the Servant.
      Deacon James Keating has written:
The deacon possesses no unique power by virtue of ordination but possesses a mission in being sent by the bishop; he evokes from others the power that is theirs by baptism.[4]

Icon of Christ the Servant
The deacon is an icon, a sacramental symbol of Christ the Servant
      At their meeting in Puebla, Mexico, in 1989, the Latin American Bishops Conference wrote: Conferencia Episcopal Latinoamericana, Documento de Puebla, 697:   
“The deacon, co-worker of the bishop and the priest, receives his own specific sacramental grace. The charism of the diaconate, a sacramental sign of “Christ the servant,” is very effective in bringing about a poor, servant Church, that exercises its missionary function for the integral liberation of the human being.”[5]

Making visible the link of faith and life, especially with the poor
The deacon ought to make visible the link between faith and life, between the altar and the world.
      In a general audience in 1993 Pope Saint John Paul II said:
A deeply felt need in the decision to re-establish the permanent diaconate was and is that of a greater and more direct presence of Church ministers in the various spheres of the family, work, school etc., in addition to existing pastoral structures.[6]
      A little more pointedly, Father  Paul McPartlan wrote[7] that
“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.”  
This is what being a deacon means to me. But I’d like to share my interpretations of this quote which I “translated” into Spanish in this way:
El diácono atiende el cuerpo de Cristo en el altar con manos limpias y llega al altar con manos ensuciadas atendiendo el cuerpo de Cristo en los pobres y enfermos.
The deacon assists/attends to the Body of Christ on the altar with clean hands and comes to the altar with hands which are dirty from assisting/attending to the Body of Christ in the poor.
I made an even stronger interpretation:
 El diácono sirve en la mesa del altar con manos limpias, porque se le han ensuciado las manos sirviendo en la mesa del pobre.
The deacon serves at the table of the altar with clean hands because he has dirtied his hands serving at the table of the poor.
The deacon as witness, martyr
      The deacon is an ordinary minister of communion, and in a special way the minister of the chalice, the Blood of Christ. He prepares the chalice during the offertory, he raises the chalice at the end of the Eucharistic Prayer, he purifies the chalice.

      The deacon ought to recall not only the blood of Christ poured out for us, but hte blood of all the martyrs from the days of the first martyr, the deacon Stephen, to the most recent martyrs in Latin America and the Mid-East.
       I have a strong devotion to the saints, especially the martyrs – whether or not recognized by the Church. I particularly cherish the memory of Lawrence, the most famous deacon of Rome. I was blessed to be able to attend the beatification of Monseñor Oscar Romero in El Salvador in 2015.
      For me, la litany of the saints was one of the most moving moments of my ordination. I felt enfolded in the cloud of witnesses, especially the martyrs. I added a few names to the litany, including Saint Clare and Saint Bonaventure, reflecting my Franciscan roots. I was very pleased that the young man being ordained a priest at the same Mass had added the name of Blessed Monseñor Oscar Romero. I suggested another blessed, Charles de Foucauld, inspiration of the Little Brothers and Little Sisters of Jesus, who was killed one hundred years ago in Tamanrasset, Algeria, on December 1, 1916.
      The martyrs remind me that I have to be ready to give my life for the people. I don’t want to die a martyr but I experience great inspiration from the martyrs.
      In the words of Archbishop Romero:
My disposition ought to be to give my life for God, whatever might be the end of my life. Unknown circumstances will be lived with the grace of God. El assisted the martyrs and, if it is necessary, I will feel him very near when I hand over to him my last breath. But more important than the moment of death is to hand over to him all my life and to live for him.[8]

This spirituality has sustained me for years – and I pray that it will continue to be evident in my life as a deacon.

To conclude I’d like to return to Padre German’s question: “How has your experience as a deacon been?”

What has changed?

• I sense that the sacrament had given me the strength, the grace to deepen my life with Christ the servant.

In the consecration prayer, the bishop prays;
Así, también, en los comienzos de la Iglesia, los apóstoles de tu Hijo, movidos por el Espíritu Santo, eligieron siete hombres de buena fama, como auxiliares suyos en el servicio cotidiano, mediante la oración e imposición de manos, los dedicaron al servicio de los pobres…
In the first days of the Church moved by the Holy Spirit, the apostles of your Son appointed seven men of good repute to assist them in the daily service… By prayer and the laying on of the hands the apostles dedicated them to the service of the poor.[9]
•I now sense myself more sensitive to the sick, the weak, the aged, those in need. I am visiting the poor a little more frequently and I will try to visit once a month the malnourished children under five in the Hogar San José in Santa Rosa, run by the Missionaries of Charity.

Going with Juan Ángel (RIP) to take communion to his ill parents the day after my ordination
In the examination of the person chosen for the diaconate, the bishops asks:
¿Quieres mantener y fomentar el espíritu de oración que corresponde a su manera de vida y, en este espíritu, según su estado, cumplir fielmente con la celebración de la liturgia de las horas, en nombre de la Iglesia, más aún, en nombre de toda la comunidad?
Are you willing to maintain and deepen a spirit of prayer appropriate to your way of life and, in this spirit, to celebrate faithfully the Liturgy of the Hours in the name of the Church and, even more, in the name of for the whole community?
• I feel myself in solidarity with the world when I pray the Liturgy of the Hours. The night of my ordination, praying the psalms of Vespers, I had the sense that I was praying with and in the name of the Church and the community.[10] Even when I didn’t personally fear the anxiety of the psalmist, I felt that I was praying in the name of those who were anxious and troubled in spirit.
• I also find myself praying even more the Jesus Prayer.

•I even feel myself aided and strengthened in the face of temptations.

• More than anything else, I feel a deepening of my baptismal call, a call to be conformed even more to Christ the Servant.

That is what being a deacon means to me.

[1] A call of their own: The role of deacons in the church, US Catholic, June 2014.
[2] τοῦτο φρονεῖτε ἐν ὑμῖν ὃ καὶ ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ,
   ὃς ἐν μορφῇ θεοῦ ὑπάρχων οὐχ ἁρπαγμὸν ἡγήσατο τὸ εἶναι ἴσα θεῷ,
   ἀλλὰ ἑαυτὸν ἐκένωσεν μορφὴν δούλου λαβών,
     ἐν ὁμοιώματι ἀνθρώπων γενόμενος…
[3] …inspirador del servicio, o sea, de la diaconía de la Iglesia ante las comunidades cristianas locales, signo o sacramento del mismo Jesucristo nuestro Señor, quien no vino a ser servido sino a servir.
El Papa Pablo VI, Carta Apostólica Ad Pascendum

[4] James Keating, “Themes for a Canonical Retreat: The Spiritual Apex of Diaconal Formation,” Forming Deacons: Ministers of Soul and leaven
[5]El diácono, colaborador del Obispo y del presbítero, recibe una gracia sacramental propia. El carisma del diácono, signo sacramental de «Cristo Siervo», tiene gran eficacia para la realización de una Iglesia servidora y pobre que ejerce su función misionera en orden a la liberación integral del hombre”.
[6] Papa Juan Pablo II, Audiencia General, Deacons Serve the Kingdom of God [Los diáconos sirven el Reino de Dios] (6 de octubre de 1993), núm. 6.
[7] Rev. Paul McPartlan, “The Deacon and Gaudium et Spes,The Deacon Reader (p. 67)

[8] Monseñor Romero, Cuaderno de Ejercicios Espirituales,  25 febrero 1980.
[9] The English reads: “In the first days of your Church under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the apostles of your Son appointed seven men of good repute to assist them in the daily ministry, so that they themselves might be more free for prayer and preaching. By prayer and the laying on of the hands the apostles entrusted to those chosen men the ministry of serving at tables.” Notice that the Spanish speaks of entrusting to them “the service of the poor”, where the English reads, “serving at tables.”
[10] The English version of the rite invites the deacon to pray the Liturgy of the Hours for the Church. The Spanish invites him to pray the Liturgy of the Hours in the name of the Church and the whole community. Quite a difference.

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