Wednesday, August 08, 2018

A congress of deacons

In July, I spent a week in New Orleans for the 2018 US National Deacons Congress. I’m glad I went and had the chance to see a good friend again, meet some deacons, and hear some good presentations.

The venue was the Marriott and Sheraton hotels – rather pricey for me. So I stayed at a hotel at almost half the price and walked to and from the congress, about thirty minutes each way.

The last time I was in New Orleans I was with a group from Ames, Iowa, helping in some house repair after Hurricane Katrina. The first visit played an important part in my decision to come to Honduras. I wrote a short reflection when I first got there. 

New Orleans is a totally different place today and I probably wouldn’t visit again. Too expensive and too much of the culture of pleasure and wealth. I’m spoiled by living in Honduras.

There were about 2700 people at the Congress, mostly deacons and their wives from the US. I was a real anomaly – a celibate deacon, ordained outside the US, working in a poor country.

Yes, there are deacons who serve the poor and the sick, some of them doing marvelous work. But I felt somewhat out of it, witnessed by what I wrote in an earlier post.

Several of the speakers were very good.

Several themes emerged over the course of the congress.

In one of the first presentations, the archbishop of New Orleans, Gregory Aymand, spoke of the deacon as “the conscience of the church to find those in need. If we neglect them, we call you to be our conscience.” As Deacon Greg Kandra noted we are called to “think first of those whom others think of last” or, in the words of Deacon Bill Ditewig to “make [us] aware of needs not being met,” of the persons who are “invisible.”

In the early church, the deacon was called to be the eyes and ears of the bishop, mostly especially the poor and the sick.

This is central to my diaconate, accompanying the poor. Even this blog is a way to make known the needs of the poor and the poor church.

Deacon Bill Ditewig referred to the role of the priests imprisoned in Dachau during the Second World War in the revival of the diaconate. This was very important for me, as I have written in another post

Several priests in Dachau saw the need for men involved in the “world” to bring this to the church so that the church would be able to respond more clearly to evils like the Nazi regime.

As Deacon Bill Ditewig said, “What we do at the altar finds its expression in the street and we bring the street back to the altar.” Thus, “the liturgy must have concrete consequences in the world.” The deacon may be able to mediate this and become a driving force for the diakonia of the whole church.

There were other insights that I gleaned from the meeting and I met a number of committed couples. This helped me understand more that ministry of married deacons.

So, I understand better why does the church need married deacons, continuing to work in their “secular” professions.

They are needed to show that holiness is deeply tied to the altar but it is also lived out in the world and to sanctify and strengthen the holiness of everyday life which becomes, in the married working deacon, a sacramental sign, a sign of Christ the servant in the world and in the church.

For this reason, I believe that the recent Apostolic Exhortation of Pope Francis, Gaudete et Exsultate, is a very diaconal message – not merely urging the church to service but calling all to live holiness in the details of everyday life. As Pope Francis wrote (¶14):

To be holy does not require being a bishop, a priest or a religious. We are frequently tempted to think that holiness is only for those who can withdraw from ordinary affairs to spend much time in prayer. That is not the case. We are all called to be holy by living our lives with love and by bearing witness in everything we do, wherever we find ourselves. Are you called to the consecrated life? Be holy by living out your commitment with joy. Are you married? Be holy by loving and caring for your husband or wife, as Christ does for the Church. Do you work for a living? Be holy by laboring with integrity and skill in the service of your brothers and sisters. Are you a parent or grandparent? Be holy by patiently teaching the little ones how to follow Jesus. Are you in a position of authority? Be holy by working for the common good and renouncing personal gain.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

A glaring omission at the US deacons congress

This past week I attended the US National Diaconate Congress in New Orleans, celebrating fifty years of the permanent diaconate – or, perhaps better, the diaconate as a permanent state of life – in the United States.

There were several very good main speakers that have given me much to chew on and to help me understand better my vocation and the vocation of the deacon. I will reflect on this later.

This was a time to make contacts but I also had a chance to meet an old friend whom I’ve known since summer camp in the 1950s! Msgr. Tim Shugrue worked with the permanent diaconate in his archdiocese and in the US for a number of years.

I knew that I would be an anomaly – being the only permanent deacon in the diocese of Santa Rosa de Copán and only the third permanent deacon ordained in Honduras. I am also one of the few celibate deacons, for all that’s worth.

Though many presentations made reference to the church teaching on the restoration of the diaconate as a permanent order, there was a glaring omission.

Not one of the speakers I heard in the major sessions or the workshops mentioned a critical passage in the Second Vatican Council’s “Decree on the Church’s Missionary Activity,” Ad Gentes, paragraph 16:

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. 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 am biased because this is a passage that was critical in my discernment in response to the bishop’s invitation to consider the diaconate. I had been working with catechists and visiting remote villages for Celebrations of the Word with Communion and practicing the works of mercy and justice.

When I read this, I nearly fell over backwards and saw that “the sacramental grace of the diaconate” might be a way that God would “strengthen” me in my feeble efforts.

As I continued my discernment process I came across several articles by the Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner on the diaconate. In “On the diaconate,” written before the Second Vatican Council, he noted:

…the diaconate already exists de facto in an anonymous form in the Church of today. In these circumstances, it is right that those who are already vested with this anonymous diaconate should also have the sacramental commission conferred upon them, because in principle it is possible for there to be a sacramental diaconate in the Church, and such a sacramental commission is reasonable and productive of grace.

I believe that this passage challenges the church to understand the diaconate more as the ordination of the diakonia that a person is already practicing, orienting this diakonia to the service of the church, animating the diakonia of the entire People of God,  and serving as making visible the connection between the altar and the daily life of the faithful.

The words of Father Paul Mc Partlan ring true for me:

“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.”

I have modified his insight in this way, reflecting on the way I perceive my diaconal vocation:

The deacon stands at the altar and prepares the table of the Lord with clean hands, because he has gotten his hands dirty, serving at the table of the poor.

In this way, the diaconal ministry is not a privileged position in the church but, in part, a way of sacramentalizing what diaconal persons are already doing and who they already are. It is, however, not a reward for service, but a calling to deepen our identity as servants, in the image of Christ the Servant.

I believe that further reflection on this passage from Vatican II’s Decree on the Church’s Missionary Activity might help the diaconate in the US and in the world better serve God’s and God’s people – at the table of the Lord, at the table of the poor, and at the table of daily life in one’s work and one’s family.

Monday, July 23, 2018

New Orleans made me a missionary deacon

Think of your own history when you pray, and there you will find much mercy. This will also increase your awareness that the Lord is ever mindful of you; he never forgets you. So it makes sense to ask him to shed light on the smallest details of your life, for he sees them all.
Pope Francis, Apostolic Exhortation Gaudete et Exsultate, 153

I am in New Orleans, Louisiana, this week for the US National Diaconate Congress.

The last time I was here was in March 2007, just months before moving to Honduras as a lay missionary with the diocese of Santa Rosa de Copán.

I had come to New Orleans for the first time in March 2006 with a group from St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Ames, where I served as a lay campus minister. We were part of thousands who had come to respond to Hurricane Katrina.

That first visit changed my life and opened up my move to Honduras in June 2017 and my ordination as a permanent deacon in July 2016.

A passionate university student, Nathan Stein, had urged me to organize a group to New Orleans and helped me carry this out. While there we gutted three houses.

The second house belonged to an African-American woman, Sharon, who had raised her children and grandchildren in that house. She joined us that day and prayed with us before we began.

She stayed as we carried out the ruins of her house. But what moved me was her serenity. She moved my soul.

That night we reflected on the day and some students wondered how they would feel if all their possessions were ruined and were carried out of the house to the dump. I began to think about all I had accumulated and wondered what would people have to do with them after my death.

I soon began to think that maybe I was called to do something different, to even move on from my ministry at St. Thomas. Was I being called to something MORE?

Those reflections, stirred by a woman named Sharon, led me to Honduras. Years later, Bishop Darwin Andino asked me to consider the permanent diaconate, confirming my call to serve, with the grace of the sacrament of orders.

And so I am here today in New Orleans for a convention of deacons, grateful to God, who called me to move on – in the encounter with an African-American woman in hurricane devastated New Orleans.

Grace is everywhere, if we have the heart to recognize God’s presence in the smallest details of our lives.