“Do As I Have Done”: The Eucharist Has Consequences

A Holy Thursday Homily During a Time of Pandemic

Last Sunday, Palm Sunday, Pope Francis said, “God saved us by serving us.” He recounted all the times in the liturgies of Holy Week that we hear of the Christ who serves: for example, Christ “emptied himself, taking the form of a servant”(Phil 2:7); the servant who washes the feet of his disciples; the suffering and victorious servant on Good Friday, and Psalm 42:1, where God says, “Behold my servant, whom I uphold.” God saved us by serving us. The Pope continued that while “we often think that we are the ones who serve God” it is God who freely chose to serve us, for he loved us first. Pope Francis said, “It is difficult to love and not be loved in return. And it is even more difficult to serve if we do not let ourselves be served by God — the lesson that Jesus taught Peter in the Gospel proclaimed tonight.

God serves us by giving his life for us. In the first reading tonight, we read of the first Passover, when God first saves his people and eventually leads them out of slavery into a new life. In the second reading, we have St. Paul’s account of the institution of the Eucharist, in which Jesus tells his followers that the bread they are eating is his body which is being given up for them, and that the wine is his blood establishing a new Covenant with God. And in the Gospel Jesus washes the feet of disciples, a task so menial and filthy that even a slave could not be ordered to do it. Jesus goes even further, and reminds them that this act of service is more than what it seems; that it is a sign of his own pouring out of his life for them — and for us. Jesus tells them that they must do the same: “as I have done for you, you should also do.”

Simply put: The Eucharist has consequences. The Body and Blood of Christ is not given to us simply to adore, as important as that is. Rather, the Eucharist signifies a whole new relationship with God, a relationship to be lived out in service to others. God saves us by serving us; like Peter’s mother-in-law, once we are saved, we must save others by serving them, in imitation of Christ. “As I have done for you, you should also do”: The Eucharist has consequences.

Tonight we are celebrating this Mass of the Lord’s Supper under circumstances none of us could have imagined a few months ago. Yes, we are celebrating Mass and we are doing what Jesus commanded us to do in the second reading: we are doing this in remembrance of Him. But something is missing tonight: YOU! Without you here, we are unable to do what we customarily do at our parish: wash each other’s feet, as Christ commanded. This day is sometimes called “Maundy Thursday”. The word “Maundy” comes from the Latin word “mandatum”, which means a “mandate” or a “command.” Jesus commands his disciples to do as he had done: to wash feet, to pour out healing, comfort and care in service of others. In this time of “social isolation”, of “stay at home,” of being kept apart from one another, how can we follow Christ’s example in pouring out his life in such a concrete way as washing other people’s feet?

The Pope reminds us that during this time of pandemic we must be our most creative. In what concrete ways can we, in our “sheltering in place”, touch others in service? Some have suggested that maybe we could read this Gospel at home and then wash the feet of our family members. If you don’t want to wash feet, then perhaps wash each other’s hands instead. But maybe there are other ways, too, that fit your situation even better. Perhaps “wash feet” by reaching out to “clean up” or to “wash clean” a broken relationship, to “pour ourselves out” to a person who is isolated, or ill, or alone through a phone call or even something as simple as a text or e-mail. For example, speaking as a Grandfather myself, perhaps all grandchildren could check in with their poor old grandparents with a phone call, Skype, or even a text! Remember, the best way to overcome our own isolation is to reach out and serve someone else.

The Eucharist has consequences. THIS Eucharist has consequences. Tonight, those of you joining us through YouTube or Facebook will partake in the Eucharist through the proclamation of God’s Word and through Spiritual Communion. For all of us, this Eucharist here tonight has consequences no matter how we are celebrating it. No matter where you are, no matter how many of you are sheltered in the same space, no matter how confused, cranky, frustrated, or ill you might be, now is the time for us to imitate Christ and follow his command to reach out and serve someone else, in any concrete ways we can.

Go, wash some feet!

Palm Sunday 2020: Servants in a Servant Church for a Suffering World

Today we celebrate Palm Sunday in ways no one could have ever imagined, although there have been times in the life of the church when our ancestors had similar experiences. Pope Francis has given a wonderful Palm Sunday homily [here] to a world weary of illness, isolation and violence. His words remind us all of some very important truths, and for those of us who serve in the particular order of deacons: our service can only truly be understood against the more fundamental reality that the church herself is a servant. Indeed, peeling the layers back even more, we remember this Holy Week that we are a servant church precisely because our God — who is love — is Servant. As Pope France put it succinctly, “God saved us by serving us.”

Jesus — Second Person of the Trinity — “who came to serve, not to be served.”

All of us who are baptized disciples of Christ, are immersed into the life of God and are called to “the imitation of Christ,” who came to serve and not to be served. The Holy Father recounts how often, especially during the liturgical celebrations of Holy Week, Christ — the Second Person of the Trinity — is referred to as a Servant. Created in the image and likeness of God, we are to live as Christ did: pouring out his life for the health and salvation of others. In a moving passage, Pope Francis reminds us:

Dear brothers and sisters, what can we do in comparison with God, who served us even to the point of being betrayed and abandoned? We can refuse to betray him for whom we were created, and not abandon what really matters in our lives. We were put in this world to love him and our neighbors. Everything else passes away, only this remains. The tragedy we are experiencing at this time summons us to take seriously the things that are serious, and not to be caught up in those that matter less; to rediscover that life is of no use if not used to serve others. For life is measured by love. So, in these holy days, in our homes, let us stand before the Crucified One – look upon the Crucified One! – the fullest measure of God’s love for us, and before the God who serves us to the point of giving his life, and, – fixing our gaze on the Crucified One – let us ask for the grace to live in order to serve. May we reach out to those who are suffering and those most in need. May we not be concerned about what we lack, but what good we can do for others.

All of this applies to each and every one of us. What, then, can it mean to those of us who are deacons? It is a potent reminder to us that we are ordained, not simply to do what all of us are supposed to do as a result of our sacramental initiation (discipleship), but as a result of our ordination at the hands our bishop, to renew our commitment to be true leaders in service (apostleship). We are not ordained to serve so that others do not have to! We serve first as a result of new life in Baptism; we serve further as animators (to use St. Paul VI’s word) of that service by others. We share in the bishop’s own diakonia, a diakonia first lived through Paschal Mystery of Christ which we celebrate this week.

I encourage everyone, but especially deacons, to pray over Pope Francis’ wonderful homily today. May this Holy Week during a time of global pandemic be for all a time of renewal, of overcoming death, of new life in the Christ.

Deacons at Mass During the Time of COVID-19

Over the last several weeks, deacons and others have been wrestling with the notion of deacons assisting at the various live-streamed Masses going on around the country. Two major questions have emerged:

  1. Should deacons be assisting at all at these Masses?
  2. If deacons are present at Mass, should they abstain from receiving Holy Communion?

First, should deacons (or, really, ANY other ministers besides the priest) be assisting at a live-streamed Mass?

I would begin with a caveat. It depends! There may be logistical or other factors which would make the assistance by a deacon problematic. For example, if a sanctuary is so small (such as a private chapel in the rectory) that the deacon cannot remain some feet away from the priest, then perhaps he should forego assisting.

However, in general, it seems to me that whenever possible, the deacon should be present and assist at Mass. The liturgical witness of the deacon’s ministry at the Eucharist is important and a vital sign of the diaconal identity of the Church. As one of the bishops said at the Second Vatican Council, “The Church has a right to all of the graces given to her by God, and the diaconate is one of those graces.”

On a practical level, of course, the priest and deacon should be sure to discuss in advance the specifics of their liturgical “choreography.” As most of us realize, our normal positions vis-a-vis the presider can easily be adapted keeping “social distancing” in mind. Sure, we will temporarily be a bit closer when we hand the gifts to Father, but we can immediately return to a safer distance. On a personal level, I assisted and preached at last Sunday’s live streamed Mass from our parish, and Father and I were able to maintain a safe distance from each other while still carrying out our respective ministries. Given the layout of our sanctuary, it took very little adaptation to make it work.

Second, if deacons are present, what about Holy Communion? Should deacons abstain from receiving Holy Communion; in fact, CAN the deacon abstain?

Looking at these questions from a technical perspective, it is possible for the deacon to abstain from receiving Holy Communion. The only minister who MUST receive Communion is the priest-presider, since it is he who is offering the sacrifice in persona Christi — and the sacrifice must be consumed. This, however, is a minimalist approach to the Eucharist. For many years, many people did not receive Communion at every Mass for a variety of reasons. It was Pope Pius X who encouraged a greater reception of Communion by the people; this effort continued and was emphasized at the Second Vatican Council, so that now nearly everyone receives Communion at every Mass they attend.

But what about the Deacon, especially in today’s situation? I think we would all agree that it is best if the assisting deacon were to receive Holy Communion. This is true on many levels, including the sign value of seeing the deacon receive. Now, how might that be done safely today? It seems to me that one legitimate option would be for both priest and deacon to receive by means of intinction, with the deacon then consuming the remaining Precious Blood and purifying the sacred vessels. I realize that other deacons and priests are using the more traditional (at least in the Latin Church) approach, but intinction seems to offer the safest method, in my opinion.

I used the expression “sign value” above, and I think that’s an important consideration. Our sacraments are public; they are, as the Baltimore Catechism used to have it: “outward signs instituted by Christ to give grace.” Part of the outward sign of the Eucharist is the ministry of the ordained, which should be exercised in as complete and fulsome way as possible.

So, if at all possible, “it is good for us to be here” at the side of our priest-brother for the Eucharist, even while we remember to stay at a safe distance. And, if we’re there, we should receive Holy Communion, using the safest means available.

Just one deacon’s opinion.

Service of a Different Kind: The “Code Girls” of World War II and After

While in self-imposed quarantine, I have been enjoying Liza Mundy’s wonderful book, Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Codebreakers of World War II. The book has particular relevance for me. From 1971-1993 I served as a US Navy cryptologist, and two of my tours were at the National Security Agency, where I had the privilege of meeting one of the ladies featured in the book: Ann Z. Caracristi.

World War II: The young woman on the right is Ann Caracristi

Ms. Caracristi had been an English and History major in college, and during World War II she joined the Army Intelligence Service (which would later become the Army Security Agency) and was a standout at breaking Japanese codes. After the war she remained “in the business” and when the National Security Agency was created she joined its ranks. By the end of the 1950s she was already a “supergrade” civilian official. I first met Ms. Caracristi in 1978 when I was taking US Navy cryptologic direct support teams to sea on combatants of the Atlantic Fleet. I was a young Lieutenant at the time and she was the Chief of what was known as “A Group”: the offices directly involved with the former Soviet Union. There were a couple of occasions, following particularly significant patrols, where my crew and I would be asked to brief Ms. Caracristi on the operation. It was always an honor and a bit intimidating to do this, given her staggering intelligence and experience. We were also always struck by her genuine concern for our own safety and welfare on patrol.

2012 Hall of Honor Inductee:
Ann Z. Caracristi

By the time of my second tour at NSA, this time as a Navy Commander, Ms. Caracristi had retired, having finished her career serving as the Deputy Director of the entire National Security Agency. Her name was still whispered with respect throughout the Agency.

So, if you’re looking for something out of the ordinary, I highly recommend Code Girls. Who knows? You may find someone you know in its pages!

“Victory Gardens”: Deacons and the Pandemic

“The Deacon” (the-deacon.com) is a national magazine focused on the ministry of the Deacon in the Catholic Church. Formerly known as “Deacon Digest”, the name was recently changed by its publisher (Our Sunday Visitor) to parallel its long-running partner, “The Priest.”

In light of the Coronavirus pandemic, “The Deacon” is offering a series of articles from a variety of authors with reflections and suggestions on dealing with the pandemic through the lens of the diaconate. I was asked to submit something to this effort.

It struck me that in dealing with our current crisis, we can find inspiration from some of the approaches our parents and grandparents took to meeting the crises of their times. One of these was the idea of the “Victory Garden” (sometimes called a “War Garden”) During this particular Lent, we too are looking forward to the Victory, both the victory over the Corona Virus, but ultimately the Victory of Christ over sin and death through His Resurrection.

You can read my entire piece here. Thanks to editor Deacon Dominic Cerrato for this wonderful series.

Thirty Years a Deacon: “How Can This Be?”

Fr. Tom Henseler, Deacon Harry Clyde, Fr. Jack Smith, myself, Cardinal Hickey

A couple of days ago, on 25 March, I celebrated 30 years as a Deacon of the Catholic Church, ordained on 25 March 1990 by the late Cardinal James Hickey, the Archbishop of Washington, DC. It was the Fourth Sunday of Lent as well as the traditional date for the Annunciation. Mary’s words, “How can this be?” resonate for anyone called to ordained ministry: each of us knows only to well our weaknesses, our sinfulness, our unworthiness.

The past 30 years have been filled with grace and blessing. In ways I never could have imagined thirty years ago, God has brought me into contact with God’s People in so many different places and situations. We have laughed and cried together (fortunately, I think the laughter has far outweighed the tears!), as together we try to walk the various paths we have been given, but paths that ultimately lead back to God.

With deep gratitude for these first thirty years, I thank God, my family, and the People of God, and I renew those promises made at ordination so many years ago, pledging to serve to the best of my abilities as long as God gives me strength to do so.

Holy Mary, Mother of Deacons, pray for us!

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Forty Days: Our Lenten Quarantine

Lent-BannerA friend wrote recently, “What a Lent this has been!”  The Coronavirus pandemic is affecting life — and death — worldwide, and in ways few could have imagined a few short months ago.  Those suffering from the virus are quarantined at home and in hospitals, with others “in an abundance of caution” are quarantining themselves at home.  As I write this, several cities have effectually shut down, with all of us being asked to remain at home except for essentials like food and medicine.  A new term, “social distancing” has found its way into our lexicon.

All of this has hit us Christians as we have entered into the holy season of Lent, the “forty days” of preparation and reflection leading to Easter.  With health officials advising us to avoid groups larger than ten, and with uncertainty about the various modes of transmission of the disease, bishops around the world have suspended the public celebration of the sacraments, including the Eucharist.  We clergy would normally be gearing up for Holy Week and the Sacred Triduum of Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday.  Now, even those celebrations cannot take place with an assembly, and many bishops have priest alonedeclared the sacraments of initiation which would normally be celebrated during the Easter Vigil will now be postponed until Pentecost.  For those of us in ministry, clergy and laity alike, all of this goes against every fiber of our being.  This is just not the way things are supposed to be!  And yet, here we are.  “What a Lent this has been!”

And then it hit me.  The word we’re using so frequently now, “quarantine”, can perhaps help us make some sense of this.  “Quarantine” derives from the Latin (and then Italian) word for “forty”.  By the mid-17th Century, it was associated both with the forty days of quarantine-post3Lent but also with something completely different.  Ships arriving from foreign ports to ports such as Venice would be forced to remain offshore for forty days to make sure they were not carriers of plague or other illnesses.  Only later did “quarantine” come to mean any period of enforced isolation.  It’s original meaning revolved around those forty days.

Jumping even further back in time, the number forty in Hebrew carried its own significance, a significance we find well documented in Hebrew scripture.  In Hebrew usage, forty represents any period of human testing and preparation for a future mission.  Consider a few examples: the forty years Moses and the Israelites wandered in the desert; the forty days and forty nights of the great Flood; or, in the New Testament, 40the forty days Jesus spent in the desert before beginning his public ministry.  In every case, the people involved were not merely times of penitence and testing.  There was more to it than that: there was always a significant new mission or relationship at the end of the forty days: the Israelites entered in the Promised Land; after the Flood, God enters into a new covenant with Noah and his descendants; and, after his temptations, Christ begins his public ministry.  Our forty days of Lent lead us to the new life given to us at Easter, a new life that is intended to be lived out in a new way in our relationships and caring for each other.

nurturing the churchIt is here that perhaps our current reality can piece all of this together.  Lent is, in truth, a quarantine.  It is a period of forty days in which we forsake our normal ways of doing things in order to prepare for the new life of Easter.  We endure isolation and discomfort during this quarantine, not simply for the good of our physical health but our spiritual as well.  This quarantine, we hope, gives us a chance to eliminate the disease of sin in our lives, and to help us grow stronger and ready to meet the demands of living as the “priests, prophets and kings” our baptisms have called us to be.  We have been immersed into the life of the Trinity, which means we too must live as the Trinity lives: by giving life to others and providing for them (God the Father), by pouring out our own lives for others (God the Son), and for advocating for and enflaming others with the love of God (God the Spirit).  That’s quite a task, and it demands that we be in good shape to carry it out!  That’s the purpose of Lent; that’s the purpose of our spiritual quarantine: to rid us of the disease of sin and grow in spiritual health.

During this time of quarantine, we pray for all who are suffering from the Coronavirus and their families.  During this time of quarantine, we pray for those who are suffering from its long-term effects, such as those who have lost their jobs or other fallout from this crisis. During this time of quarantine, may we seek healing on every level so that, once strengthened on every level we may enter into our new Easter life with joy and enthusiasm.praying hands