May 18-24, 2006
By Most Rev. James M. Moynihan
SUN photo(s) Paul Finch
New Deacons have a Special and Important Place within the Church
Editor’s note: The following is the text of Bishop James Moynihan’s homily on the occasion of the ordination of six men to the permanent diaconate May 5.
Few could imagine the impact which the restored diaconate would have on the Catholic Church, especially in the United States. From just a handful of men in 1968, the diaconate has grown dramatically so that today there are over 24,000 deacons worldwide, with more than half of them serving in this country, and the others in 120 countries around the world.
In plain language, a deacon is a man who is called to a ministry of service. Like priests and bishops, he receives the Sacrament of Holy Orders. Unlike them, he is one who lives in the lifestyle of the laity. A deacon’s ministry is threefold: A ministry of the Word, a ministry of the Altar, and a ministry of practical charity. Aspects of that ministry are referred to in our Scripture readings for this Mass. One of the deacon’s tasks is that of preaching the Word of God, and Hebrew prophets, from Isaiah to Malachy, should be patterns for the deacon’s own prophetic speech. In our first reading today, what is said of Isaiah could also be said of yourselves. “You are being sent to bring glad tidings to the lowly, to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to captives, and to comfort all who mourn.” Indeed, you are being sent to announce the Good News of Jesus Christ to all who cross your path. You will do it in the classroom, in the catechetical program, in the adult education classes, and above all, in your homilies at holy Mass. The people of God want you to inform them and inspire them.
You will heal the brokenhearted in our hospitals and in our nursing homes, in our funeral parlors and in our people’s homes — wherever someone is hurting and in need of Christ’s loving presence. Your words of comfort and advice will be key moments of guidance and even of spiritual awakening in the lives of our people. The Spirit of God will indeed be upon you. As prophets of our own day, your words will be charged with divine power.
Not only will you be a minister of God’s Word, but you will also be a minister at God’s altar. A deacon is the privileged bearer of the Mysteries of God. Therefore, he must be in habitual contact with Mystery itself. Our second reading reminds us that the first deacons were seven men chosen because they were “acknowledged to be deeply spiritual and prudent,” which means that they not only listened to God’s voice, they also felt God’s heart. They were men who agonized over sinfulness, their own as well as that of others. Sometimes they were able to give answers, but always they were able to speak about their conversations with God. To be a worthy minister at God’s altar, the deacon must not only know about God, the deacon must know God. The deacon must be a man of prayer.
The first office bearers to be appointed in the early church were not men whose primary duty was to talk. Their primary task was the service of practical charity. It is this third and final ministry which defines the deacon’s life. There are two things that are closely intertwined in the incident described for us in today’s Gospel. First of all, there is the compassion of Jesus. Over and over again in the Scriptures we see Jesus moved with compassion for the people. Perhaps the most amazing thing about our Blessed Lord was His sheer thoughtfulness. It’s a virtue that never forgets the details of life. In this case, He surveyed the crowd: they had been with Him for three days, and He remembered that they would have a long walk home. Which brings us to the second point of this story: when Jesus had pity on the crowd and when He wished to give them something to eat, the disciples immediately pointed out the practical difficulty of doing that. They were in a desert place, there was nowhere within miles where any food could be gotten, and yet Jesus flashed the question back at them: “What have you got that might be of help?” His compassion had become a challenge. In effect, Jesus was saying, “Don’t try to push the responsibility for helping onto somebody else. Don’t say that you would help if you only had something to give. Don’t say that in these circumstances, help is impossible.” Jesus was saying, “Take what you have and give it and see what happens.”
The scene that we have been speaking about is one of the most vivid stories in the Gospels and its lesson is crystal clear. What Jesus asks us to do is to help in simple things. Helping out in a soup kitchen, spending time with someone needing a visit in a hospital or in a nursing home, being a friend to someone who feels that they don’t have a friend in the world — these are things which anyone can do, but they are things which a deacon has been commissioned to do. It’s not a question of giving away thousands of dollars or writing our names in history books; it’s a case of giving simple human help to the people you meet every day.
In that wonderful little book, Tuesdays With Morrie, the dying man, Morrie, speaks to his former student, Mitch, about getting satisfaction in life. Morrie says to Mitch, “Do you want to know what really gives you satisfaction?”
“What,” asks Mitch.
“Offering others what you have to give.”
“You sound like a boy scout,” says Mitch.
Morrie says, “I don’t mean money, Mitch. I mean your time, your concern, your story telling, it’s not so hard.”
My dear brothers about to be ordained deacons in our church, may that satisfaction and that joy be yours in abundance.