This morning a spirit of joy, excitement and enthusiasm pervades this cherished house of God, more precisely, a Holy Spirit whose special solemnity of Pentecost we celebrated last Sunday. I extend heartiest greetings to all, especially our candidates for the diaconate, wives, children, other family members and friends, as well as all clergy, religious and lay faithful. Particular acknowledgment is made to Father (Jamin) David, Diaconate Formation Office Director, Deacon (John) Veron, Diaconate Ministry and Life Office Director, Dr. (Tina) Holland, Our Lady of the Lake College president and those who promote recruitment, selection and formation of candidates; to Father (Tom) Ranzino, Worship Office Director, liturgical ministers for this celebration, Father (Paul) Counce, St. Joseph Cathedral pastor, Mr. (Steve) Lee, Catholic Life Television director and Mr. (Richard) Meek, Catholic Commentator editor.

 

 

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The early church as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles was very idyllic. In chapter 2, St. Luke wrote: “They (the disciples) devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers. Awe came upon everyone and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles. All who believed were together and held everything in common. They would sell their property and possessions and divide them among all according to each one’s need … And every day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved” (42-45, 47).

Four chapters later, a conflict in the community arose. Among the Jewish disciples of Jesus, there were the Greek-speaking Hellenists and the Aramaic-speaking Hebrews. The Hellenists complained their widows were being neglected by the Hebrews in the distribution of food and clothing for the needy. The apostles directed the Hellenists themselves to choose seven men (what a special number) “filled with the Spirit and wisdom” to fulfill this role, thus becoming freed to concentrate their ministry on prayer and the Word. Though the term “deacons” is not used for these men, “through prayer and the laying on of hands” they were ordained to “serve at table.” Two of the seven (St. Stephen and St. Philip) did preaching and healing. Through experience the early church recognized the value of deacons’ ministry beyond attending to the poor. St. Ignatius of Antioch (martyred circa 107 A.D.) provided the earliest explicit listing of the orders of bishop, priest and deacon, perhaps based on the Old Testament hierarchy of high priest, priests and Levites. In his letter to the Philippians, St. Ignatius greets church members “especially if they are one with the bishop and the presbyters and deacons who are with him” (Ignatius of Antioch, To the Philippians, poem and 4, The Apostolic Fathers, Grand Rapids, Baker Academic, 1999).

All deacons are marked with an irremovable imprint (character), configuring them to Christ, the servant (diaconos). I use the simple word “deacons” to call you, since the designation “permanent,” as you know, strikes me to be an imprecise differentiation from those deacons in continued seminary formation whom I now personally designate “pre-priesthood” deacons.

Some scholars have proposed a connection between Jesus speaking of himself as diakonos: “I am here among you as one who serves” (Lk 22:27) and that which he exemplifies in the foot washing of the apostles (Jn 13). What St. John 13:3-16 presented in symbolic narrative and content, St. Luke stated in a simple abstract contrast: Jesus has not come to be served by the disciples (as the one reclining at table by a waiter) but rather as one who serves and ministers to others (Joseph A Fitzmeyer, “The Gospel according to Luke,” Doubleday, 1985). This underscored the aspect of a humble servant, relying on the common definition of diakonos. The original meaning of diakoneim was to wait on, to serve at table, in contrast to all other Greek words denoting service. It emphasizes the personal nature of the service performed, and the character of the service rendered as one of love.

Today, once again, I wear a pectoral cross depicting Jesus washing the feet of an apostle. To me this provides one graphic image of Jesus (the Good Shepherd is another) to help all ordained ministers better visualize who they are called to be and emulate, and what they are called to do.

In the Gospel, Jesus uses the imagery of a seed (grain of wheat) which must first surrender its existence to bear fruit. The transformation from death to life in nature depicts the spiritual process of our death to self into fulfillment of new life. This symbolism foreshadows the impending death of Jesus leading to his resurrection.

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In the last 70 years the church has seen significant developments in this diaconate. In 1947 Pope Pius XII by declaring the laying on of hands and prayer of consecration constituted the matter and form for the ordination of deacons, priests and bishops (Apostolic Constitution, Sacramentum Ordinis) thus affirmed the sacramentality of the ordination of deacons. In 1956 Dutch Bishop Wilhelm van Bekkum, serving in Indonesia, speaking for many colleagues, became the first bishop who suggested the restoration of the original diaconate for mission countries (The Liturgical Revival in the Service of the Missions, Assisi Papers, 1957). In 1957 Pope Pius indicated: “The idea (for this), at least today, is not yet ripe” (Pius XII, “Quelques aspects fondamentaux de l’apostolat des laics: Hierarchie et Apostolate,” AAS 49, 1957, 925). This papal pronouncement itself created significant publicity, curiosity, interest in and consideration for such a proposal.

In 1959 Father Johannes Hofinger SJ (whom years later I had the privilege to know and collaborate with in New Orleans) quoted Bishop Bekkum and actively promoted the case for this renewed diaconate. This ministry would include bringing Communion and viaticum to the sick, conduct worship services, perform baptisms and funerals, officiate at weddings, and include the deacon’s role in administration. (Hofinger, “The Case for Permanent Deacons,” Catholic Mind, 1959). At Vatican Council II Belgian Cardinal Suenens became a strong advocate for this concept, strategically and wisely proposing its application limited to those areas where local church authority determined it beneficial. In 1963, it received a majority of favorable votes. In 1964 its final version was ratified and placed in Lumen Gentium. How providential.

From 1976 through 2013 the Diocese of Baton Rouge ordained or incardinated 83 such deacons, of whom 17 have been called to eternal life. (May they rest in peace.) Factoring others who have formally retired (12) or otherwise no longer actively serving in the diocese (7), with today’s ordination, not counting our “pre-priesthood” deacon, we now will have 60 such deacons in pastoral assignment. Can we not perceive the Holy Spirit’s continued dynamic action in the church?

On a personal note this past Wednesday marked the golden anniversary of my ordination to the diaconate. Over those years I have more and more appreciated and been awed by this foundational sacred order and its fundamental call to selflessness, humility, obedience, prayer, service of the Word, Eucharist and charity. You, our deacons, and the diaconal community, who exercise your ministry with diligent commitment, are the source of much admiration and inspiration. We also appreciate the indispensable sacrifice, support, companionship and partnership of your special allies – your loving wives.

“Blessing and glory, wisdom and thanksgiving, honor, power and might be to our God forever and ever. Amen” (Rv 7:12).