Friday, March 24, 2023

Deacons and collars - not again

Returning Thursday from our diocesan clergy retreat, I spent some time going through e-mail and Facebook. On a Facebook page for permanent deacons, I came across a short article on deacons wearing clerical collars by Deacon Dominic Cerrato. I found the article a little shallow, but what troubles me more were many of the comments.

Almost five years ago I wrote on this topic (here and here) and was roundly castigated, even accused of not having a good diaconal formation. (I plead partly guilty to having a very different formation process. I can explain that later.)

So it is with some trepidation, that I return to the subject. I want to open a serious discussion with a few key questions and a few of my initial reflections. There are some initial questions that the collar controversy raises for me.
1 - What is the role, the ministry of the permanent deacon in the church? In particular, what does it mean to be a cleric?

I think this question is basic and is essentially a question of ecclesiology. I don’t deny that deacons are clergy – both those who will later be ordained priests and those who serve in the diaconate as a permanent state. But this does not make us above the other members of the church. 

Most of us don’t hold such an opinion. though Archbishop Crepaldi seems to advocate such, if this note is true. 
A few weeks ago, a friend sent me this translated note from the Facebook page of Salvo Coco. I cannot attest to the translation but the note does indicate a rather separatist notion of the clergy and the deacon: 
A typical example of clerical doctrine can be found in these words of Giampaolo Crepaldi dated September 17, 2022. The deacon's ministry is intended as a sacred role that "separates" and constitutes an exclusion from the common, daily, existential dimension of the community. No trace of Jesus' secularism. The identity of the clergy suppresses the common baptismal dignity because it “separates” (or sacralizes) the so-called ordained ministries. In this perspective the deaconate and even more the presbyterate and the bishop are placed on an ontologically different and hierarchically superior level than the faithful. In this doctrine lies the doctrinal-clerical core that hinders any serious and profound church reform.
I much prefer the discussion of the Scott Detish in Being Claimed by the Eucharist We Celebrate, who writes of the ontological claim, rather ontological difference or change as being a more appropriate way of speaking of this phenomenon. Detisch also notes how this is not exclusive for sacred orders.
…being baptized and confirmed must also be recognized as involving an ontological change, yet church tradition rarely spoke of this and almost exclusively reserved the phrase for ordination. (p. 36)
Another way of looking at this is to note how the deacon is ordained to the ordering of the community and to be a driving force for the diakonia of the whole church. according to both Pope Saint Paul VI and Pope Saint John Paul II.

In the early 1960s, Yves Congar, OP, wrote Power and Poverty in the Church. At several points I see him putting the sacrament of orders in a larger ecclesial perspective:
“St. Paul expressly says that ordained ministers organize the ministry of the saints, that is, of Christians, (Eph 4:23). They organize it, but they also invigorate and animate it and drive it forward. The are the drivers and governors of the Body in the condition of responsibility and universal service that is the Christian condition itself.” (p. 45)
With this understanding, one is ordained for the ordering of the People of God in its evangelization, its charity, and its prayer in common (the liturgy, the work [ergon] of the people [laos]). Thus, the sacrament of orders is for ordering the community and assuring that the Church reflects who it is. It is not insignificant that the diaconate is called to be the animator, the driving force for diakonia, and, as Pope Francis puts it, the custodian of the diakonia of the People of God.

But I think a very serious issue in this discussion is a question that is not addressed directly: what do we mean by "clergy"? 

In his article, Deacon Cerrato states “The absence of clerical attire by deacons sends the unspoken message that deacons aren’t clergy, diminishing not only the diaconate in the broader Catholic imagination but also an ecclesial presence.”

I think that symbols are extremely important, even though they may distort the meaning of reality. Clericals do not make the clergy, even though they may indicate that one is clergy. I wonder if at time they might distort the message. Is there something more fundamental than clericals that should enable people to identify clergy? In addition, the wearing of clericals, even though mandated for priests in canon law and often permitted for seminarians and transitional deacons is a custom that can be changed.
2 - Where is the deacon to be found? With whom does he identify? 

Pope Francis has been insistent that the place of the deacon is with those on the margins. the margins of society.

I would suggest that the deacon should be in direct contact with the physically poor. This does not only mean that people come to him but that he is a driving force for the church going out and immersing itself in the poor. 

I am writing this post on the feast of St. Oscar Romero. I believe his ministry can give us a hint of what might be important for us deacons.

At first, he was somewhat of a closed cleric who did respond to the poor and even, at one point, gave away new pants that some had gifted him. But he was noted for his close contacts with people in power.

Yet, when he became bishop of Santiago de María he began listen more closely to poor people who came to him.

While archbishop of San Salvador, he did not wait for people to come to him, but went out to meet them, even eating in their homes. Images of him walking along the railroad tracks amid the shacks surrounded by sisters and the poor. He went out to be among the marginalized.
So, where is the deacon to be found? Among the poor, the marginalized, those cast-aside by society.

Yes, he is with the suffering middle class, but I believe he must be among the poor, the victims of a society in which we, the middle class, profit.

I believe that if a deacon is not in direct contact with the physically poor, something might be missing in our ministry. As Thomas Halik writes in Touch the Wounds:
The painful wounds of our world are Christ’s wounds. If we ignore pain, poverty, and suffering in our world, if we turn a blind eye to them out of indifference or cowardice, if we are unwilling to acknowledge the injuries we inflict (including the injuries inflicted in our churches), and conceal them from others and ourselves with masks, cosmetics, or tranquilizing drugs, then we have no right to say to Christ, like Thomas the apostle when he touched Jesus’s wounds : “My Lord and my God.” (p 10)
And so I continually ask myself, “When was the last time I was in the home of a poor person?” It’s harder for me now, since I’m in treatment for cancer, but I feel it’s a crucial question for a deacon. 

3 – How to be among the marginalized? 

But how are we to be there? 

Not as one who comes from without, but as one to listen, to share, to be a brother to those who are poor, suffering, marginalized. 

For this we need a kenotic spirituality. We need to lower ourselves, become one with the poor and marginalized. We need to recognize that we don’t come as one with the answers, as the well or well-off person to rescue the poor. We come as brothers who share in the fragility of our human condition. 

Sheila Cassidy, a doctor who was tortured in Chile and who later became involved in care for the dying, writes in Sharing the Darkness: The Spirituality of Caring:
More than anything I have discovered that the world is not divided into the sick and those who care for them, but that we are all wounded and that we all contain within our hearts that love which is for the healing of the nations. What we lack is the courage to start giving it away. (p. 11)
We are all wounded - and God can use our wounds and the wounds of others to heal all of us.

Ann so we deacons need to offer a different spirituality, a different way of being and living. 

I would suggest that we need to move away from signs of power and privilege, to be servants of God and the poor. ;

In an essay on the priesthood, “The Man with pierced heart,” Karl Rahner notes that, “Tomorrow's priests will not be those who derive their power from a socially powerful Church, but who have the courage to let the Church make them powerless.” 

This is also a challenge for us permanent deacons. 

4 – What is the right question? Who is the deacon to be? 

I think we are asking the wrong question.

Maybe we should not be spending so much time and energy asking if deacons can and should wear collars.

Maybe we should be asking what is there in our life, our style of living, our ministry that brings us in contact with the marginalized and opens among us a place for grace

I think that when we do this, the question of collars and clericals will become superfluous – or will be easily discerned in individual pastoral circumstances. For the questions will be: 
  • How do we stand at the threshold of church and world? 
  • How do we live so that the grace of the altar of the liturgy where we serve penetrates the lives of the poor?
  • How do we open the doors of the church, enabling the joys and griefs of the marginalized (Gaudium et spes 1) to penetrate the walls of the church gathered in prayer? 
 The central question for me is this:
How do I become an icon of Christ Jesus the Servant, who came not to be served bur to serve and to give his life for the ransom of many? And how can I be this amidst the wretched of the earth?


I have no one

“Do you want to be well?” The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; while I am on my way, someone else gets down there before me.” Jesus said to him, “Rise, take up your mat, and walk.”
Monday, I went to the oncologist in San Pedro Sula. My defenses are good, though my platelets are a bit low. We scheduled the third chemotherapy for next Wednesday. 

I returned to Copán and joined the diocesan clergy retreat that had started that afternoon. Tuesday morning at Mass, tears welled up within me as I read the Gospel of the paralytic at the pool of Bethesda. (The ruins of this pool are near the church of Saint Anne in Jerusalem.) 

Photo of the pool of Bethesda (November 2004)

The people believed that an angel would stir up the waters of this pool and those who arrived first would be healed, but this man was all alone, with no one to help him. So, he was waiting. He had been ill for thirty-eight years. 

Jesus approaches him. The paralytic looks to Jesus to move him into the water, but he is in for a surprise. Jesus does not carry him to the waters, but the Living Water, Jesus, comes to him, to hear his plea and to heal him. 

It is interesting how our life experiences often shed a new light on the scriptural text. What struck me that morning at Mass is how I feel surrounded by so many people, who are – in their way – carrying me to the water.

Yes, it’s lonely, sitting for hours in chemotherapy. But Padre German, our pastor, has come twice to be with me for a few hours. Sure, it’s so uncertain, but people ask about my health. How many people are ill, without someone to aid them, to accompany them! 

In his message for the World Day of the Sick this year, Pope Francis wrote pointedly,
Illness is part of our human condition. Yet, if illness is experienced in isolation and abandonment, unaccompanied by care and compassion, it can become inhumane. When we go on a journey with others, it is not unusual for someone to feel sick, to have to stop because of fatigue or of some mishap along the way. It is precisely in such moments that we see how we are walking together: whether we are truly companions on the journey, or merely individuals on the same path, looking after our own interests and leaving others to “make do”.
How true and how sad! One of the most challenging but fulfilling parts of my diaconal ministry has been visiting the sick. At times I don’t have much to say and will use the ritual prayers as a starting point. At times, I find myself inspired and we talk for a while. When the person is disposed, I will share the Eucharist. It is always a joy when those who accompany me offer a hymn after the ill person has received. I don’t know how much I can do this now. At least, I try to share this with the communion ministers (whose main ministry is to visit the sick.) And I can help others become more aware of the central need of the sick for that human touch, that touch of the hand of God, through our hands. I recently finished a book that helps me reflect on my situation: Father Tomas Halik's Touch the Wounds: On Suffering, Trust, and Transformation.

Here are a few quotes that sustain me:
Jesus is everywhere that there are the needy — and for us they are everywhere (and he in them) as an “opportunity,” as an open gate to the Father. (p. 43) 
The first step to healing the world’s wounds is our conversion, repentance, humility — or in everyday language: the courage to be truthful about ourselves. (p. 146) 
...when Christ comes and shows us his wounds it can rouse our “courage for the truth,” our courage to take off the “armor, masks, and makeup” that we use to conceal our wounds from others, and often from ourselves. (p.147)

Sunday, March 12, 2023


So far, I’ve had two chemotherapy sessions to treat my prostate cancer. 

Both sessions have been long, almost eleven hours each. My oncologist explained that this is to diminish possible negative reactions.

I’ve had few reactions, none really serious.

The most difficult has been insomnia the night after the chemo. Both times I could not get to sleep. I don’t know if it was psychological, physiological (a reaction to the steroids), somatic (having slept a bit during the sessions), or a combination of these and other factors. But it only lasted one night. I could sleep on the drive back to Dulce Nombre.

But the most disconcerting has been the persistence of an awful taste in my mouth. 

At times, it’s metallic.

After the first session I had some sores in my mouth, but now the problem is with my taste buds. 

Eating has lost its attraction – though I am making sure I eat. In fact, yesterday, I made a really good lentil soup (which should last for several days). It smelled heavenly, though the taste was a bit off. 

Yet, every once in a while, the awful taste goes away. Yesterday, I had a few moments when my coffee was delectable.

I guess I need to savor such moments and remember them – in hope.

But, considering what others have experienced in chemo, I would say that I’ve been fortunate.

Monday, February 27, 2023

Christian Initiation of Adults in the Dulce Nombre parish

Yesterday we celebrated the Rito of Election of the process Chrsitian Initiation of Adults, I decided it might be helpful to give an idea of what we do.
2023 - election of catechumens

When I was at St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Ames, I got to learn a lot about the journey, observing the parish's practice. 

But our parish is so different.

The parish of Dulce Nombre de María includes about 45 widely scattered places of worship, in five municipalities. Four of these are the municipal seats – Dulce Nombre is the largest of these and has three churches. Some of the aldeas, villages, are fairly large with more than 1000 people, including El Zapote Santa Rosa, Candelaria Concepción, Plan Grande Concepción. There are a few places that are more like hamlets, caserios, with a few families or even just one extended family. 

Religious formation takes place in the cities, villages, and hamlets. Sometimes there is only one catechist. Many of the catechists have limited formal education. This past year there have been several young people who are in formation to be catechists in their communities. In one, more than five are in formation; most of them were confirmed last year. 

The bishops’ conference and the diocese are promoting religious formation by levels. This is difficult for us because of the number of catechists we have. We were about to do pilot projects in three places when the pandemic changed our plans.

Most of our formation is preparation for the sacraments. 

There are three different formal processes for the sacrament of baptism. 

For children under seven, the formation is for parents and godparents: six sessions and a retreat. Each year there are one or two celebrations of baptism of children in most communities.
A baptism in 2016 in Plan Grande

There is a separate process for children between seven and thirteen. This is almost a year long and begins whenever the catechists on a village are ready to do the catechesis and have enough candidates. 

The third process is for those fourteen and older, the catechumenate. 

For a number of reasons, a fair number of young people are not baptized as babies and so there are a good number of children between 7 and 13 baptized in their communities. And there are also young people who wait until they are 14 or older.

There is not a tradition of baptism soon after birth. I have baptized few babies less than a year old. I am not sure if there are cultural reasons or if this is merely a holdover from the time when the parents had to be married in the church and in a base community in order to have their children baptized. (Thanks be to God this ended in our parish in 2013 with the new pastor, Padre German.) 

There are usually a good number of children between 7 and 13 who are baptized each year. (There were more in the past when the regulations about married parents were in effect.) 

This year we have about 37 catechumens who will, God willing, be baptized at the Easter Village. More than 12 of them are over 18, though the majority are between 14 and 18.

We are probably one of the few parishes in the diocese who have a program for Christian initiation of adults. Due to the expanse of the parish, we don’t have a centralized catequesis. Most of the formation goes on in the local community, even if there is only one candidate. I have tried to encourage neighboring communities to join together and this has happened in a few places. 

The formation normally begins 8 or 9 months before Easter. 

 We do celebrate the major rites in the main parish church in Dulce Nombre. 

We celebrate the rite of acceptance into the catechumenate on the first or second Sunday of Advent. This past December we celebrated the rite on December 4, since the first Sunday of December we had the visit of the image of Our Lady of Suyapa in our parish. There were 40 candidates. 
welcoming the catechumens at the church entrance, December 2020

 We use the rites from Mexico, although I have added the signing of the feet from the US Spanish version. I think it is such a significant part of the rite that we have adapted it for our parish. How important it is to see godparents, priests, and even a deacon on their knees, signing the feet of the candidate!

signing of the hands

signing of the eyes

signing of the feet

Signing the feet, San Agustín 2017

This past Sunday we celebrated the Rite of Election in the church with 36. A few dropped out. One has Sunday morning classes and couldn’t get permission for the rite. Another didn’t get to the church on time – a longer story. The pastor or I will arrange for the rite in their communities. 

Since we don't have a book of the elect and because some of the catechumens can't write their names, we give each  a card and have someone write their name. They sign or put their thumbprint on the card. In the rite we have them come forward, put the card in a bowl and say their name aloud. 

I had enough energy to be able to help arrange the rite at a special Mass at 10 am in the parish. I even preached – very much inspired by the presence of so many catechumens. I reminded them that they were elected (elegidos) – not like the politicians, but “chosen” (elegidos) by the Church, the People of God.

The diocesan radio station, Radio María, broadcasts Masses every Sunday and usually broadcasts a Mass from Dulce Nombre once a month. Yesterday’s Mass and Rite of Election were broadcast. I talked to the staff of the Radio who were unfamiliar with the Rites of the Christian Initiation process. 

In Lent, there are a number of rites and activities for the “elect.”

There are three scrutinies which involve prayer and “exorcisms” as well as the handing on (entrega) of the Creed and of the Our Father. We have designed our formation so that the Creed and the Our Father are handed to the elect during their weekly sessions. 

But I was concerned about the scrutinies. It would be a major burden (of time and money) to have them come to one of the Sunday Masses, if they lived far from the Mass sites. Where there is a Mass nearby or where I could get to a Sunday morning celebration, we would use the scrutinies in the rite. 

The pastor usually celebrates Mass in five different sites – Saturday evening in Dolores, Sunday morning in Concepción and in the Saint Anthony Church in Dulce Nombre, Sunday evening in the main church in Dulce Nombre. He also usually has one or two Masses in other places in the afternoon – every other week in San Agustín. 

Scrutiny in San Agustín, 2018

I have tried to get to a village with “elect” for the rites on several Sunday mornings. It has been a real blessing, especially when a community has several “elect”. 

I spoke with Padre German about this yesterday and gave him the list of communities where there are “elect” as well as the scrutiny rites. He visits communities for Mass every day. His suggestion is that he could preside at the scrutinies at the Mass in the community during the week. For me, that seems great.

My pastoral solution for the other communities was to do a minor re-write of the scrutinies so that they could be celebrated without a priest or deacon in the communities. The scrutinies of the “elect” would take place in a community Celebration of the Word, led by the local Delegate of the Word and Catechist

In the past, the final preparation for the Easter Vigil was a retreat in their communities. But this often meant that there were only one or two in the retreat. This year we will have a retreat for all the “elect” on the Tuesday of Holy Week. This shouldn’t be a major problem since Holy Week (Semana Santa) is a major holiday. 

In our parish most local communities pray the Stations of the Cross in the streets of their villages on the Fridays of Lent. In addition, we have a parish wide Stations of the Cross on the Friday before Holy Week, traditionally the feast of Our Mother of Sorrows. We encourage our elect to take part in these as part of their preparation.

The Easter Vigil is quite a celebration here. We begin in a field with the Easter Fire and then go in procession with the Paschal Candle to the Church. 



Last year we used the auditorium to accommodate all the people who came. 


I’ve sung (or tried) to sing the Exultet, though I may not try this year, due to my health. We also use all the readings and sing all the psalm and canticle response. 

Baptism is not a simple pouring of a little bit of water. The elect are baptized in a bath of water! 

In many parts of the world, the catechumens are fully initiated in the Church in the Easter Vigil receiving the three sacraments of initiation – Baptism, Eucharist, and Confirmation. 

I am not sure why, but in our diocese the catechumens have not been confirmed. I guess the bishops want to confirm them, probably to connect them with the universal church. I can see why those under eighteen might wait until they can be confirmed with other young people of their communities, forming a community in the preparation for confirmation. But those over eighteen? I am trying to get our bishop to permit our pastor to confirm those who are eighteen or older. 

With all the readings and baptisms, the Easter Vigil celebration can last from 5 to 6 hours. 

We are not very good with the mystagogia – the continuing formation after Easter, trying to incorporate the newly baptized into the community. 

This year I’ve asked the catechists to bring all the newly baptized to the Pentecost Vigil, which, for us, is an all-night vigil. I need to think of other ways to involve the newly baptized in the life of the church, especially those who are adults, eighteen or older. In the meantime, I look forward to the upcoming weeks, praying for strength.

This Sunday, I’ll go to Vertientes for the Rite of Election for the catechumen who got lost (and arrived at the end of the Mass.) Does this sound like the parable of the lost sheep? Not my plan.

If I have the strength, I’ll get to two or three villages for Sunday morning Celebration of the word with Scrutinies and Communion. The big challenge is the retreat in Holy Week. I hope I can work on this with some catechists. 

But the big night will be the Easter Vigil. I hope I have the strength and stamina (and the wisdom to involved lots of catechists in the process.) I will probably not take part in the procession and try to take rest during the readings.

But I want to be there for the baptisms and the First Communion of the elect. It’s a highlight – because I have seen the grace of God in the eyes and faces of so many. Here are a few pictures from previous years.




I would be remiss if I didn't mention that we also have baptized persons preparing for matrimony who are not yet baptized. Besides receiving the pre-marriage formation, they receive a mini-catechesis on baptism and Eucharist. Either Padre German or I have baptized persons, sometimes in the mornng of their matrimony. 

In 2020, I baptized three persons preparing for their matrimony - in the middle of the pandemic!

There's another sacramental story here - five couples from one distant community planned to get married before the pandemic struck. They continued and were married together on August 24, 2020, in a room in the classroom of their aldea, since the church was not finished. Here's a photo of one of hte couples.


Wednesday, February 22, 2023


What do you do on Ash Wednesday when you have more than 45 places where people gather for worship in a parish?

Padre German, our pastor, has five Masses in four different locations. But that leaves out more than forty communities.

I was going to go to a distant village, but I thought it best not to go at this time, since my body’s defenses are low, due to last Thursday’s chemotherapy.

So almost all the villages sent a Delegate of the Word or someone else to the 10 am Mass in the main parish church. Ashes were blessed and distributed to those attending.
After Mass, little plastic cups of ashes were given to those who would distribute them at a Celebration of the Word in their communities. In some communities, where there is an extraordinary communion minister, they would have a Celebration of the Word with Communion.

I attended the 10:00 am Mass in the parish and served as deacon, in a limited way. I did preach but I decided not to distribute the ashes, nor communion, nor purify the vessels.

It was a blessing to be with the delegates and some others who came for Mass.

After Mass, I went back into the church to pray – and was awed by the beauty around us.