In this past weekend’s second reading at Mass, we read from Paul’s letter to the Romans. At verses 9-10, we heard:
The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; you shall not kill; you shall not steal; you shall not covet,” and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this saying, namely, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no evil to the neighbor; hence, love is the fulfillment of the law.
Echoing Christ’s own summation of the Law, Paul is cutting to the chase. Christ incarnates God-With-Us; God enters into our “real lives”. God is Love, and that Love is incarnate. If we claim to love God, Christ says, we must incarnate Love to “the neighbor”. How do we do that? How do we make concrete that incarnate Love?
Recently there was some interesting coverage of an initiative by some Franciscan friars in Rome; read more about it here. Essentially they set up a presence right in the heart of Rome’s summer festival along the banks of the Tiber. They reported how positive the experience was in responding to Pope Francis’ call to serve at the peripheries. Franciscan Father Paolo Fiasconaro said, “I had no idea it would be like this. . . . I believe being on the banks of the Tiber is putting into practice precisely what Pope Francis means by mission.”
What struck me about this story is that this is nothing new, but rather a resurgence of some of the most ancient practices of the Church, right there along the very same banks of the Tiber.
There are churches in Rome and elsewhere that are referred to as “diaconiae”. When I first heard of this term some years ago, I thought initially that these might be referring to the churches traditionally assigned to the “Cardinal Deacons” of Rome. However, their history is far more intriguing than that. While scholars debate their precise origins, these churches began at the initiative of several Bishops of Rome who sent their deacons out to establish centers for relief, food and sustenance, especially in the market areas around the Tiber River, where poverty was greatest. One of the earliest (5th or 6th Century?), for example, seems to have been the famous “Santa Maria in Cosmedin”, but by 800 AD, there were more than twenty-two “diaconiae” in Rome, Naples and elsewhere.
Santa Maria in Cosmedin is an interesting example. Perhaps most famous for the “Bocca della Verita” (The Mouth of Truth) which is on the “porch” of the Church (made even more popular in this scene with Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck in “Roman Holiday), the more intriguing evidence is inside. Archeologists and architects have determined that the church was built in three major stages. The nave was the original structure, a broad covered area where the deacons provided goods and services to the people: think of a kind of warehouse or market structure. Then, after a little time, the deacons decided to add an area where they could assemble in prayer: they added choir stalls at one side of the nave, and included an ambo and next to the ambo, the Paschal Candle (note the traditional association of the Deacon with the Paschal Candle, even at this ancient stage). Finally, the third section was added to the structure: the sanctuary for celebrating the Eucharist. When you enter from outside, you first encounter the nave, then the diaconal section, then the sanctuary.
To me, this represents a profound reality, and it underscores the “real life” impact of living out the commandment of Incarnate Love. The role of the deacons was to meet people where they were most in need, and to provide for their very real, concrete everyday needs. Think of the naves of our churches today: Do we provide real world care and service there any more? Is it the local “distribution center” for charity? Then consider how, in the model of the “diaconiae”, prayer, worship, sacrifice and communion flow FROM that Incarnate Love. Do we first love our neighbor and then bring our gifts to the altar? Think how revolutionary this would be, if we tried to recover the insight of those early Christians!
The Franciscans are really on to something here. Listen to Father Paolo again:
It makes me sad to realize there are some pastors who think only about the 10 percent who go to church, those who spend all day everyday with the little old ladies in the church, while 90 percent of the people — who make up the periphery — are never touched by the church’s pastoral work. It’s absurd, but the periphery is 90 percent of the people within a typical parish’s boundaries.
A friend and co-worker today remarked that every single person who comes to church on Sunday comes with a story, with needs, with struggles that very often we know nothing about. That’s very true; we don’t know the depth of every person’s struggle. But now consider as well: every person who has come into our churches knows at least twenty other people who don’t come to church at all! Why not? Very often it’s because they don’t seen the church as being a place that knows or even cares about their own struggles, so they don’t even bother coming.
Look. It’s very simple. How well do we, perhaps especially those of us who are deacons of the church, connect the dots? How well do we meet people where they are “in real life” — and not just where we would like them to be! — and then connect that encounter to the Great Lover, Christ?
Very thought provoking Bill and something to really reflect on. Thanks!
Thank you for this very thoughtful and moving post on incarnational living in Christ. Beautiful.