Throwback Thursday: Servants of All

The Archdiocese of Washington will be blessed this coming Saturday morning with a new class of transitional deacons, to be followed on June 16 by the addition of newly-ordained priests to our spiritual family. With each of these ordinations, we learn something of what it means for these men to give their lives in service to the Church.

The terms “deacon” and “diaconate” are derived from the Greek word diakonia, which means “service.” A deacon is one who serves Christ and his Church in a special way. A “transitional” deacon, as distinguished from a “permanent” deacon, is one who, God willing, will subsequently proceed to ordination to the priesthood. Furthermore, as explained in the Catechism, the deacon enters into this ordained ministry of service not by simple designation or appointment, but by receipt of the sacrament of Holy Orders (CCC 1536-89).

The idea of dedicated service is not new. It finds its inspiration in the Old Testament. In the Book of Numbers, for example, we learn that in the old covenant, God chose a whole tribe of men and set them apart for ministerial service (3:5-10).

Service takes on a new form in the New Testament – in Jesus Christ and the Church. First, he who is the Lord of all made himself the servant of all, noted Pope Francis in a special Mass celebrated in May 2016 in honor of a Jubilee for Deacons, which was part of the wider Jubilee Year of Mercy. Also, in the Acts of the Apostles, in the very beginning of the life of the Church we find the meaning of the call to the diaconate and to serve as Jesus served.

It was the decision of the Apostles to call certain men, including Saint Stephen, the first martyr, to carry out specific works of charity so that the Apostles would not need to be called away from their appointed work of proclaiming the Gospel (Acts 6:1-7). The establishment of the diaconate was a sacred response to the need of the infant Church to expand her ministry.

The pages of the book of Acts do not give a detailed description of the attitude or disposition of Stephen and the others. But it is fair to conclude from everything else we read that they possessed a generosity of heart and a love of Christ and his Church. These traits made it possible for each to work gladly and willingly with the Apostles.

Even as the men who will be ordained as priests the following Saturday move from the transitional diaconate to the priesthood, they will never cease to be deacons. In fact, in an ancient tradition, the bishop for an ordination wears the vestments of the dalmatic of the deacon, the chasuble of the priest, and the mitre and cross of the bishop to make visible the enduring quality each of the three degrees of Holy Orders. It is service which binds each of these degrees of deacon, priest and bishop together.

Pope Francis said in his 2016 homily for the Jubilee of Deacons that this life of service needs to arise from imitation of Christ in meekness, generosity of time and effort, and from a healthy heart in constant dialogue with Jesus. Configured to Christ now as servant of all, as he prepares for the priesthood and assists the bishop and priests in the celebration of the divine mysteries, the transitional deacon should be a servant who helps to nurture, heal and restore. He should be the servant who feeds the hungry, gives drink to the thirsty, clothes the naked, visits the sick and imprisoned, the servant who continues today what Christ initiated as the one sent to make all things new.

Service is also at the heart of the participation of our deacons in the New Evangelization. This is not always an easy ministry in a culture that draws its inspiration from sources not totally compatible with the Gospel, but that is why this service is so especially needed. Our age profoundly needs to encounter the Risen Lord and embrace and be embraced by his love. In taking up this challenge, however, these men are not alone in their efforts. By their ordination, they receive a real and transforming outpouring of the Holy Spirit reflective of that first Pentecost and every ordination in each generation since.

Please join me in praying for God’s blessing upon these men who are to be ordained as deacons. May the Spirit who consecrates all the baptized deepen their life of faith as servants of God’s mercy, enrich their liturgical ministry, and nurture them in rich lives of service to build up the whole body of Christ.