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What is the ministry of a deacon?

May 25, 2014

A slightly longer homily than usual – but I delivered different parts of it to three different masses over the weekend. This is the re-combined version…….

6th Sunday of Easter 2014

Acts 8: 5-8, 14-17     1 Peter 3: 15-18           John 14: 15-21

This year marks 25 years since the first permanent Deacons were ordained in the Archdiocese [of Birmingham here in England], so today I have a few words about the ministry of the deacon. In two weeks time, on Saturday 7th June, the Archbishop will be celebrating a special mass at St Chad’s Cathedral to mark the anniversary, and Archbishop Bernard has asked all his deacons put this message out to their parishes – you are all invited to come and take part.

Bishop William recently reminded us deacons of the meaning of ordained ministry. He said that we need to understand that sacramental vocation within the Church is about someone being willing to publicly commit their lives to be a witness to a particular lifestyle.

As Catholics we are all called to be witnesses of our Faith through the way we lead our lives. So, just because some people are ordained does NOT mean that they are somehow better Christians. Bishop William said that he was absolutely sure that there were, without doubt, married and single people who were much better than him at following the requirements imposed on those like him who belong to religious orders. But, he said, that is not the point. The point is that being a religious, or being a bishop, a priest or a deacon, is about public witness: standing up and taking vows of religion and saying ‘These are worth living for’. It’s a public witness.

So, it may be that I, as a deacon might not be very good at it. I might commit all sorts of mistakes, not to say sins, against the vows I took. That doesn’t take away from the fact that I have made a public commitment to keep those vows. In the same way, as Christians, many of us publicly make vows in public when we get married as a sign of a lifelong commitment, a sign to the world of the love between two people reflecting the love God shows to the world, the love between Jesus Christ and his Church. That is a very precious, special sacramental vocation.

The Second Vatican Council made it clear that a deacon is ordained “not unto the priesthood, but unto ministry”[1] – this is a distinctive role in The Church, not second best to the priesthood, not a reaction to having fewer priests. No, we ordained deacons are a very important sign in the world in our own right, giving a public witness to charity or to service. No other role in the Church publicly embraces that ministry of serving others. This does not mean there are not many, many Christians who quietly serve others selflessly, often far better than the deacons like me. I’m full of admiration for so many I know in this Parish who do so much more than me. But it’s me, the deacon, who is a sign, in public, of the Church’s commitment to serving others. Of course it is part of what all Christians should do. It’s part of what a bishop and a priest does, of course, but charitable service in the wider world is not always as obvious in their ordained ministries than as it should be with deacons.

Sometimes people think that deacons work entirely within parishes. But actually much of the deacons’ ministry is not visible and lies beyond parish activities. Most deacons earn their living like everyone else, going off to ordinary everyday jobs. It’s how a deacon lives, how he does what he does that is the witness that other people notice. In my case, outside the parish I’m involved in charity work with asylum seekers and refugees across this City; I’m also committed to Catholic higher education through working to develop Newman University; and the Diocese draws on my previous experience as a manager to help with some organisational things that have to be done. I’m happy to serve, but as Bishop William says, it doesn’t mean I’m the only one doing such work – many others are better at it than me. I’m just there, to serve when I can. And then, and then, the Church gives me a teaching role, a pastoral role, and the privileged role of assisting in the Sacred Liturgy.

There are about 5,00 bishops in the world. On average, across the world, every bishop has a flock of about 340,000 people. And on average each bishop has about 80 priests and 8 deacons to help him lead his flock.

We see from the first lesson today that part of the deacon’s role is to encourage, support and build on the work of evangelisation done by all Christians in the Church. No surprise, then, that 97% of deacons in the world are in Europe and North America. The Holy Spirit has found deacons to minister in what today counts as ‘missionary territory’.

Look at the story of Deacon Philip told in the Acts of the Apostles. Because of persecution against the church in Jerusalem, Deacon Philip went to a Samaritan town to preach the good news. In Lent we heard the story of Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at the well, in the Samaritan town of Sychar.[2] We were told that many of the people in that town came to believe in Jesus through what that woman told them. Here’s a thought: Maybe Deacon Philip found fertile ground in the ‘city of Samaria’ (perhaps it was Sychar?) because of the faith of the people who had met Jesus through that encounter with a woman at the well?

The Acts tells us that when the apostles in Jerusalem heard from Deacon Philip that Samaria had accepted the word of God, St Peter and St John went there “and they laid their hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit.”[3] Exactly as Jesus promised in the gospel today when He said, (The Father) “will give you another Advocate to be with you always, the Spirit of truth…”

In other words, what happened? Despite being hostile territory, the word of God was heard and welcomed in an unexpected place; people talked about it and told other people the good news. That’s what we heard St Peter say today in his letter to the Christians in Rome: “Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope”. Only then did the deacon come to baptise the converts and prepare them for confirmation. Then the bishops, Peter and John, came and confirmed those who had been baptised.

Absolutely no different to the way it should be today. When you hear the words ‘The Church’, remember it means all the baptised. Each and every Christian has a role in bringing people to God, not just the ordained clergy. So don’t be shy of telling people about your faith. Deacons are there to follow up what you have started when people become interested in learning about the faith. It’s a team effort.

In fact, in the Second Eucharistic Prayer at mass we always hear the words that pray for the teamwork to continue:

“Remember, Lord, your Church, spread throughout the world, and bring her to the fullness of charity, together with Francis our Pope and Bernard our Bishop and all the clergy.

The role of the faithful, supported by deacons, is just important today as it was 2,000 years ago. It’s a team effort. So I’ll close with a reminder. Two weeks time. Saturday 7th June. 11.30am. St Chad’s. Please try and get to the celebration of the restored diaconate in this Diocese. Come to be with all the deacons from across the Diocese. Apart from being a good day out, the Archbishop wants the Cathedral to be full, to be a very public and visible sign to the world of your support for the ordained ministry of charity in The Church.

[1] Lumen Gentium 29

[2] John 4:40-41

[3]Act 8:14

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