The Synod on the Family: Curtain Up on Act II

Beatification Paul VIToday we experienced the ringing down of the curtain on Act I of the synodal process on the Family.  Pope Francis closed the Extraordinary Synod today with Mass in St. Peter’s Square and the beatification of Blessed Paul VI.

But the process has only just begun!  Perhaps the best road map to the future is found in the Pope’s speech on Francis at SynodSaturday closing the final work session of the Extraordinary Synod.  In fact, I believe that this beautiful speech deserves to be read in its entirety; you may find it in English translation here, and if you read Italian you can read it as the Pope delivered it, here.  It is spiritually rich, and it also gives us wonderful insights into the Holy Father’s dreams for the next steps in the process.

Act II, which has now begun, takes place over the next twelve months.  Act III will be Ordinary Synod on the Family to be held in October 2015.  Here’s how the Pope explained it in his speech:

Dear brothers and sisters, now we still have one year to mature, with true spiritual discernment, the proposed ideas and to find concrete solutions to so many difficulties and innumerable challenges that families must confront; to give answers to the many discouragements that surround and suffocate families.

One year to work on the “Synodal Relatio” which is the faithful and clear summary of everything that has been said and discussed in this hall and in the small groups. It is presented to the Episcopal Conferences as “lineamenta” [guidelines].

US BishopsUsing the Synod’s Relatio, the various bishops’ conferences around the world will be discussing its contents and mapping out their specific courses of action for their dioceses.  For example, here in the United States, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) will have it on their agenda next month at the Fall Meeting in Baltimore.  We can expect that individual diocesan bishops will then develop ways and means of encouraging further conversations within their own dioceses over the coming year.  Keep in mind, as the Pope says above, that the current Relatio is merely a starting point, a kind of rough draft, for the work that lies ahead.

Then, next October, Act III will begin as the Pope opens an Ordinary Synod (not an Extraordinary one such as just ended) on the Family.  At that time, more discussions will be held by the Synod Fathers, many of whom will be different bishops than the ones who attended this one, and a final document will be prepared for the Holy Father.  It can then be anticipated that the Pope will take all of these results and draft his own Apostolic Exhortation in which he charts the course ahead.

I think there are several important things to keep in mind.

1) To speak of the current Relatio as anything other than a working document is a mistake.  It does not constitute in any way “official teaching.”  Rather, it simply recounts, as the Pope says, the various elements which were discussed during this first stage of the process.  So, for people to be upset over what the document currently says, or doesn’t say, is very inappropriate and unnecessary.  The various topics for FUTURE work are all there; what final forms may come in the year remain to be seen.

2) This is why the Pope directed that even those three paragraphs which did not gain a 2/3 majority vote would still be printed in the text.  He also directed that the voting results be included so that everyone (and not just bishops!) could see how the voting went.

francis at synod 23) I would strongly recommend that people spend more time on the Pope’s speech at this point, because it gives the clearest indication of how HE is seeing things.  Consider just two tantalizing tidbits.

  • When the mid-point version of the Relatio was released last week, much attention was given to the language of “welcome” that used with regard to homosexuals, as well as the gifts that they bring to the Church.  In fact, some in the blogosphere complained about that translation of “welcome”.  The Italian verb used was “accogliere”.  According to Italians I’ve asked, the best English translation for that verb is “to welcome.”  Still, the English translation was later changed to “provide for” — clearly not an accurate translation.  Now look at the Pope’s speech from Saturday.  He’s not talking specifically about homosexual persons, but more generally, and he uses “accogliere” again.  He reminds the bishops that there first duty is to “feed your sheep, feed your sheep.”  He then tells them that they are to:

Seek to welcome [“accogliere”] – with fatherly care and mercy, and without false fears – the lost sheep. I made a mistake here. I said welcome [“accogliere”]: [rather] go out and find them! [“Ho sbagliato, qui. Ho detto accogliere: andare a trovarle.”]

I find it interesting that he takes the time here to use the very verb so many were fussing about earlier in the week: and then he plainly says that even as “welcoming” it doesn’t go far enough!  We’re not merely to welcome those who come to us who are lost: we are to go out and find them.

  • The Pope also reminds us that, as a Church, we are already to be open to all who seek.  In a particularly beautiful passage, he teaches:

And this is the Church, the vineyard of the Lord, the fertile Mother and the caring Teacher, who is not afraid to roll up her sleeves to pour oil and wine on people’s wound; who doesn’t see humanity as a house of glass to judge or categorize people. This is the Church, One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic and composed of sinners, needful of God’s mercy. This is the Church, the true bride of Christ, who seeks to be faithful to her spouse and to her doctrine. It is the Church that is not afraid to eat and drink with prostitutes and publicans. The Church that has the doors wide open to receive the needy, the penitent, and not only the just or those who believe they are perfect! The Church that is not ashamed of the fallen brother and pretends not to see him, but on the contrary feels involved and almost obliged to lift him up and to encourage him to take up the journey again and accompany him toward a definitive encounter with her Spouse, in the heavenly Jerusalem.

So, however Act II and Act III develop over the next year, the vision of our Holy Father Francis is quite clear: the Church as “field hospital” for all in need is open to receive patients; in fact, we’re supposed to be out in the streets and the fields and the back alleys finding those in need.  Brother deacons, this message is particularly apt for us!  If the whole Church is a field hospital, we deacons should be the EMTs.

Stay tuned.  This is going to be quite a year ahead!  And, as the Pope requested, pray for him.  He has set us on a challenging course, but one that will, with God’s grace, bear much fruit.

Moon Over St. Peter's

The Chiapas Decision: About More than Mayan Deacons

Chiapas DeaconsA few days ago, Deacon Greg Kandra posted an item on the restoration of diaconate ordinations in the Diocese of San Cristóbal de Las Casas in the State of Chiapas in Mexico. Read it here.  This is, of course, great news for the people of that diocese.  However, it is a decision which has far greater ramifications than the diaconate itself.  At issue is a renewed sense of ecclesial identity.  While some describe this as a “win” for a rehabilitated Liberation Theology, I believe it goes even farther than that.

Chiapas2First, we need to get our bearings.  Chiapas is the southernmost state in Mexico; it shares its eastern border with Guatemala. Chiapas is home, not simply to Mayan descendants, but twelve recognized ethnic populations.  Poverty is extreme, the terrain is rugged, and the people for centuries isolated from other parts of the region.  The history of the area is one of suppression of the indigenous peoples.

Second, we meet a young bishop named Samuel Ruiz Garcia.  Born in 1924, Samuel Ruiz was ordained a priest at 24 and was named bishop of Chiapas at age 35.  He went to seminary in Mexico and in Rome, completing a doctorate in Sacred Scripture after his ordination.  He was appointed bishop in November, 1959, and ordained and installed in January, 1960.  He remained bishop of that diocese for forty years, retiring as required at age 75, in 2000; he died in 2011.

Samuel Ruiz2Moving to Chiapas, and following a tour the diocese which was accomplished largely by mule in order to reach some of the remote areas of the diocese, the bishop was greatly affected by the way the indigenous peoples were being treated.  Not unlike Bishop Oscar Romero in El Salvador, he was moved to do all he could to secure their rights and freedom.  Within two years he was attending the Second Vatican Council with its own renewal of ecclesiology, especially its ideas of collegiality, subsidiarity, co-responsibility, and human dignity.  Following the Council he was one of the guiding lights behind the Medellin Conference (1968) with its own focus on regional social justice.  His efforts involved adopting and adapting principles of what became known as liberation theology, which drew the ire of Mexican political leaders as well as Church officials.  He expanded efforts of inculturation, small base communities, and new catechetical methods.  And, after Pope Paul VI renewed a permanent diaconate in 1967, he looked into the diaconate as a way of encouraging and providing for indigenous religious leadership throughout the diocese.

I am not competent to discuss the civil and political aspects of Bishop Ruiz’ tenure, but from an ecclesiological standpoint, his forty years as diocesan bishop became a model for what is rightly termed “autochthonous” leadership.  Autochthonous has been defined as “indigenous” or “native”: specifically, “indigenous rather than descended from migrants or colonists”.  Bishop Ruiz’ obituary in the New York Times observed:

During his 40 years of presiding over a Roman Catholic diocese in Chiapas State, Bishop Ruiz cast light on abuses suffered by the Indians and sought to bring them into the church as equals with other Mexicans, challenging the rigidly stratified social order. . . .

Bishop Ruiz attracted a fervent following among Indians in Chiapas, who called him “Tatic,” which means “father” in a Mayan language. On Tuesday, Indian parishioners filled the cathedral in San Cristóbal de las Casas, a colonial town in the Chiapas highlands, for a memorial Mass that also commemorated the 51st anniversary of Bishop Ruiz’s ordination there. . . .

Bishop Ruiz was influenced by the Second Vatican Council, which in the 1960s called for bringing the Catholic faith to people in a way that reflected their own cultures. . . .

Starting in 1970, Bishop Ruiz ordered translations of the Bible and other religious texts in the indigenous languages of Chiapas. He trained Indian catechists, or instructors, to organize village assemblies throughout the mountains and jungles of the diocese. By the end of his tenure, there were more than 20,000 Indian catechists in Chiapas, said Pablo Romo, a former Dominican priest who worked with the bishop.

“He made the word of God accessible to the people,” Mr. Romo said.

chiapas-samuel-ruiz-funeral-3In addition to those 20,000 catechists, Bishop Ruiz ordained hundreds of deacons: by the time of his retirement in 2000, there were 341 deacons in his diocese, out of a total in all of Mexico of only 800!  Several news sources have reported that this number is the largest number of deacons in any Catholic diocese in the world, this is not accurate; several dioceses in the United States exceeded that number, even in 2000.  Regardless, it is a significant indication of Bishop Ruiz’ commitment to indigenous religious leadership.  It also got him into difficulties with the Holy See.

There were only 60 priests in the diocese, and Rome became concerned that there were so many deacons in relationship to the priests.  There were rumors, later found to be completely false, that Bishop Ruiz was ordaining women as deacons, as well as encouraging his deacons to join with rebel factions against the government. However, the Holy See’s interest was not only with Bishop Ruiz: In a pattern to be repeated elsewhere in Latin America, it is reported that St. John Paul II replaced as many as 86 of 100 Mexican bishops in two years alone, between 1997-1998. In 1997, two seminaries were closed.  The fear that Marxist applications of liberation theology were overshadowing its positive aspects, created great concern, and liberation theology as a whole came under considerable negative scrutiny.  John Paul II and Benedict XVI were both critical in their negative assessment of liberation theology, with Benedict XVI at one point apparently referring to it as “deceitful.”  (I’m still looking for the precise quote, however.)  Although Bishop Ruiz had been asked by the Holy See to suspend ordinations of any more permanent deacons, he continued.  Finally, his successor reluctantly agreed to a suspension, which the Holy See made permanent in 2001.

Felipe Arizmendi of ChiapasBishop Felipe Arizmendi, who has continued Bishop Ruiz’ pastoral plan for autochthony, has been in constant dialogue with the Holy See for the last fourteen years, attempting to explain his position, including his need to ordain as many as 200 new permanent deacons.  Until now, that has seemed an impossible task.  Many people confuse “autochthonous” with “autonomous” and they are two very different things.  No one wishing to maintain communion with the See of Peter would propose an “autonomous” church, and Bishop Arizmedi makes that position quite clear: that is NOT what they are doing.  An “autochthonous” structure, however, focuses on indigenous leadership, strongly enculturated by the people themselves.  It is this that Bishop Ruiz, and now Bishop Arizmendi, has sought.

But things seem to be changing.  Last year, Pope Francis welcomed Fr. Gustavo Gutierrez to the Vatican and honored a “founding father” of liberation theology.  In isolation, that may have been little more than a long-overdue sign of respect for Fr. Gutierrez and his ministry over many decades.  However, with this lifting of the ban on ordaining deacons in the diocese, perhaps more is at work here.

As I have long maintained in my own research and writing on the diaconate, we can never consider the diaconate out of the context of the entire Church.  Bishop Ruiz, and now Bishop Arizmendi, did not simply ordain deacons to have deacons.  They see the diaconate as it should be seen: as a sign of the servant-Church itself.  These deacons are serving as part of the larger pastoral plan to have an autochthonous church structure, much like those still in place in our Eastern Catholic churches, and which were the common polity of the ancient Church.  To read more about that, the wonderful work of another bishop, John R. Quinn, archbishop-emeritus of San Francisco, is most informative and helpful.  Find his books here.

Could this be part of a gradual movement in this direction, under the leadership of our first Latin American Pope?

In a June 12 letter following announcement of his intention to ordain 100 new deacons, Bishop Arizmendi lamented that 50 years after Vatican II revived the permanent diaconate, “in many parts its importance is still not understood.” I echo that sentiment, and pray for those about to be ordained to the service of the Chiapas vineyard of the Lord!

SanChristobal Cathedral

 

 

Happy 47th Anniversary to All Deacons!

At Salvatorian Seminary, 196618 June 1967.  I had just graduated from high school seminary at Salvatorian Seminary, St. Nazianz, Wisconsin.  I would soon be leaving to start college seminary.  So, I have to admit, I wasn’t paying much attention to what was coming out of the Holy See on 18 June, 1967.

paulvi-colourBut Pope Paul VI did something that day which was to change the lives of so many of us!  He issued, as the result of a decision reached three years earlier by the bishops assembled at the Second Vatican Council, Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem (“The Sacred Order of the Diaconate”): read it here.  He restored a diaconate which was to be permanently exercised to the Latin Church.

Consider it this way.  On that June day in 1967 there were no “permanent” deacons in the Latin Church: all Latin deacons were destined for eventual ordination as presbyters (priests).  Shortly after the Pope’s action, deacons would be ordained in Germany and Africa, with more men in formation in Europe and other parts of the world.  Today there are more than 40,000 deacons around the world, with thousands more candidates in formation.

The Council of Trent in the 16th Century had stated a desire to have a kind of “permanent” diaconate again, but no pope ever acted upon that desire.  Without Pope Paul VI, we wouldn’t be here today, so thank you, Your Holiness!

Happy anniversary to ALL deacons, East and West!  Ad multos annos!  May God grant us all many years in his service.

deacon logo

Deacons as Angels, Angels as Deacons

Following my reflection on the Annunciation, I received a large number of e-mails about my comments on Gabriel and the heraldic role of the Deacon.  I mentioned that I had been researching such themes for a while and given several presentations on the subject.  Given the apparent interest, I’ll offer a shortened form of that presentation here.  This all flows from the charge given specifically and uniquely to the deacon during the ordination: “Receive the Gospel of Christ, whose herald you now are: Believe what you read, teach what you believe, and practice what you teach.”

Greek angel 3Greek angel 2First, some background.  “Angels”, of course have a venerable history in the Judaeo-Christian tradition as most people know.  But what sometimes is forgotten is that the notion of “God’s messengers” transcends ancient culture.  For example, the great philosopher Plato, writing some 300 years before Christ, referred to Hermes and Iris as “the divine angeloi” of the gods.  (Hermes, by the way, gives his name to the term hermeneutics, the study of the interpretation of scripture; as we shall see, these messengers not only proclaim a message and fly away, they are also messengers who help to explain the message.)  The “wings” of the angel are clearly visible in artistic renderings of these messengers, to signify the speed with which they carry out the gods’ commands; wings will continue to be associated with divine messengers in the Jewish and Christian traditions as well.

Raphael 1 healing

Raphael Healing

In the Hebrew tradition, angels are mentioned frequently throughout scripture (usually referred to as malakhim), and they take on a variety of roles in addition to simply being a messenger.  In addition to conveying God’s messages, they are also described as shielding, rescuing, and caring for the people.  In the apocalyptic book of Daniel, for example, we encounter named angels, angels who might easily be seen as “guardian” angels, and even an early “rank structure” for various angels.  What’s interesting here is that not all Jews believed in angels.  As we read in Acts 23:8: “For the Sadducees say there is no resurrection, or angel, or spirit, but the Pharisees acknowledge them all.”  The Sadducees were focused principally on the Torah itself, and didn’t go along with later developments in Judaism: they much preferred the purity of Torah itself.  So, no angels for them!

In the Christian tradition, we have inherited the more Pharisaic position about angels, and in Christian scripture angels continue in the same vein: they deliver messages, they protect, they explain, they serve the will of God for the good of the people.

Michael as DeaconAnd here’s where the connection comes with the deacons of the Christian Church.  Although many people mistakenly characterize Christianity as a Western church, in our roots we are Eastern.  And the Eastern traditions of Christianity have, almost from the beginning, associated deacons with the role of the angel in the community.  In particular, deacons are often associated with the angels who would later be described as archangels: Michael, the great defender of the people (Dan 12:1-13; Dan 10:31,21; Jude 9; Rev 12:7); Gabriel, who announces and explains great messages (Daniel 8:16-26; 9:21-27;Lk 1:28); Raphael, who is a healer who guides and protects his charges (Tobit 5; 6:6-11; 8:1-3; 12:15).

All of this is found explicitly throughout the Eastern liturgical traditions of Catholicism and Orthodoxy.  Father Simon Smyth has written:

The deacon as an icon of an angel finds repeated expression throughout the Liturgy. As the angels both worship God in heaven and come down to earth as messengers and helpers, ascending and descending, so the deacon comes out from the sanctuary (the symbol of  heaven) and from standing before the altar (the throne of God) to the people to teach, to proclaim the Gospel, to lead them in prayer – angelic ministries all.

Throughout the Commemoration of the Living and of the Departed, the deacon leads the singing of the people and offers up “the smoke of the incense, which came with the prayers of the saints, ascended up before God out of the angel’s hand.”

Deacon using the liturgical fan

Deacon using the liturgical fan

The use of the liturgical fan at the Second Epiclesis emphasizes the deacon as an angel – the fanning (being reminiscent of the sound of wings) indicating the presence of angels around the throne of God, surrounding the altar.

The association of the deacon with this angelic symbol, the liturgical fan, is a powerful one. . . . It is a sign of his office, a sign of what he is. When there are sufficient deacons, liturgical fans are carried in the Great Entrance, which again links visually deacons and angels.

As the deacons surround the priest and the altar so angels surround the whole sanctuary and the space around the altar are filled with the heavenly powers to honor Him Who is present on the altar. By means of the deacons. . . we can follow in our understanding the invisible powers in their service of officiating at this ineffable liturgy.

deacon door

deacon angel dome

Look at the similarity with this image from the dome of a church

As I mentioned in my earlier posting, the so-called “deacon doors” or “angel doors” in the Eastern iconostasis have images of deacon saints or angels on them.  The saintly deacons (such as Stephen, for example) will be depicted in deacon vesture but also with the wings of the angel; angels will be vested as deacons as well.  I would also stress something else.  In almost all of the images I have found from the Eastern tradition, you will notice that the deacon stole is being worn as the deacon wears it for the distribution of communion; in the Eastern tradition the deacon rearranges his stole across his chest before communion, and restores it to its original configuration afterward.  There is a strong Eucharistic symbolism involved in the depiction of the angelic role of the deacon.

 

Bishop GonzalesThe angelic ministry of the deacon is no stranger in the Latin tradition either.  As I mentioned in my earlier posting, Western medieval art often depicted angels wearing the dalmatic of the deacon, even when the Latin Church had largely lost sight of the deacon in regular ministry.  Bishop Roberto Octavio Gonzales Nieves, OFM of San Juan has written:

“The Diaconate is re-instituted at this time in history. . . to act today as a herald: the angel of Evangelismos. . . . In ancient times deacons were sent by bishops with important communications to other churches; also in Eastern liturgies, the stole is seen as the deacon’s angelic wings, and in Western art many angels appear wearing dalmatics.

“Today we can see the deacon as “the new Gabriel who proclaims” – for us – the good news of salvation. Today the restored diaconate says, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you’ [Lk 1:35].”

There is so much more we could share here.  My point in doing this research, however, was this.  We deacons often look for good models in our diaconal ministry.  We turn to Stephen, Lawrence, and Francis of Assisi as our deacon “heroes” and models.  I’m suggesting that we should add to our pantheon the angels who have served throughout our Tradition: angels such as Raphael, who heals, guides and protects; Michael, who defends and advocates for the people; Gabriel, who proclaims, teaches, and guards.

We are called to be “angelic ministers”:

  • To go anywhere and to do anything God demands
  • Swiftly
  • Not only to proclaim the Word of God as God’s Herald, but to act in God’s name as well.

 

“Deacons are the angels standing at the throne of God: serving, pleading, cajoling, correcting, feeding, preaching, teaching by word and example. Deacons are the very diakonia and kenosis of the church.” (Fr. Paul Henry)

angel as deacon

The Annunciation and Ordination: Becoming Gabriel

AnnunciationToday we celebrate the great feast of the Annunciation, when the angel Gabriel appeared to the young woman Miryam to discuss God’s plan that she become the mother of the Christ of God.  The focus of many great homilies, such as my buddy Deacon Greg Kandra’s wonderful homily “How Can This Be”? , is justifiably on that young Jewish woman Miryam, Mary.  We watch as Mary, full of fear, courageously gives her “yes” to God, taking on whatever God has in store for her and her family in the future.

I was blessed to be ordained a deacon on the Feast of the Annunciation twenty-four years ago today, and over the years, I’ve come to appreciate the fact that we need to spend time with BOTH Mary and Gabriel.  Gabriel is so much more than God’s mouthpiece, a divine voice mail announcing a fait accompli to Mary!  Let me sort this out, a reflection on diaconal ordination in light of the Annunciation.

Deacon and Book of GospelsDuring the ordination of a deacon, the bishop places the Book of the Gospels into the new deacons hands: it’s the first task of the new deacon, and the first charge given to the deacon by his bishop: “Receive the Gospel of Christ, whose herald you now are: Believe what you read, teach what you believe, and practice what you teach!”  I heard those words directed to me on 25 March 1990 by my archbishop, Cardinal James Hickey of the Archdiocese of Washington, DC.  We had heard the Gospel of the Annunciation just moments before, and now the Cardinal was telling me that I was supposed to be a Herald of Christ!  Immediately, I sensed a kind of kinship with the herald in the Gospel: Gabriel.

archangel-gabriel-struck-zechariah-mute-1824Consider Gabriel’s role.  In the Hebrew scriptures, for example, he interprets the dreams of Daniel.  He is the messenger who goes to Zecharias, the father of John the Baptist.  Again, he not only “announces” things; he explains them and acts on them as well.  And then we have the appearance of Gabriel to Mary.  Once more, he does not simply announce God’s plan and fly away; he helps Mary, who is justifiably uncertain and questioning: “How can this be?”  And he explains to her.  The heralds of God are not merely proclaimers of the Word only; they are supposed to be ministers of the Word, helping others to understand and respond in faith.

For those of us who serve as Deacons, that’s the foundation of the charge we’re given at ordination: not simply to proclaim the Word and leave, but to proclaim the Word, believing completely the message of God, and then teaching and practicing that Word in our own lives of service.  Mary’s fiat came from her own graced relationship with God, but it was also aided through the ministry of the herald, from who she received not only the Word, but encouragement and support, an angelic model of the very relationship she was being called to herself.  To make Christ present in the world demands more than mere words; it demands real world faith, courage, and commitment.  Mary’s fiat and Gabriel’s fiat go together.

angel as deaconPerhaps this is why there is such a longstanding tradition, especially in the Eastern traditions of the Church, to associate the ministry of the Deacon with the ministry of angels: saintly angelic heroes like Gabriel are frequently depicted as angels, and angels — those heralds of God — are frequently depicted in the vestments of the deacon.

So, as we reflect on the fiat of Mary, may we also ponder the role of Gabriel, the Herald.

 

“Believe what you read, teach what you believe, and practice what you teach.”

 

 

 

More From Deacon — I mean, Pope — Francis which will upset people

francesco blessingIt’s hard to believe, but Lent is just around the corner.  Every year, popes write messages to the world offering a vision for ongoing conversion and how we might better follow Christ as his disciples.  This year, Pope Francis once again demonstrates his profound diaconal vision for the Church.  His 2014 Lenten Message focuses our attention on the nature of poverty itself and our response to it

In the year that has passed since the pope’s election, I have been struck by the profound sense of diaconate which radiates from the Holy Father, especially, during Lent and Holy Week.  Let me start by something which some might think only an arcane bit of trivia, but for me, it is something quite profound.  Some of the first images we had of the new pope came from his days as Archbishop of Buenos Aires as we washed the feet of people — all kinds of people —  on Holy Thursday.  Invariably the images showed the Cardinal Archbishop wearing his stole as a deacon does while washing feet.  This was clearly a deliberate choice he made: to remove his priest’s chasuble and to rearrange his stole diagonally as a deacon wears it.  For people who might not be very familiar with the way these things normally work, this may not seem like such a big deal, so let me explain.  Normally, during the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday, in the Latin Church,  the priest (or bishop) presiding, the deacons assisting at that Mass, and any concelebrants, will remove their outer vestments: the chasuble for the bishops/presbyters, the dalmatic for the deacons. Francis washing feet In many cases, these same clerics might also take off their stoles as well, although some will keep the stoles on.  Priests and bishops wear their stoles over their shoulder with the ends of the stole hanging straight down in front of them.  Deacons wear the stole over the left shoulder, and secured at the right hip, so that the stole appears diagonally across the deacon’s chest.  So, imagine a priest celebrating this rite: he removes his chasuble and the stole — worn in the priestly manner — is visible.  If he leaves the stole on during the washing of the feet, then that’s what people will see.  If the deacon removes his dalmatic, people will see the stole worn diagonally.  What Pope Francis does is something I don’t think any of us has ever seen before: he removes his chasuble, and then takes his priest’s stole and rearranges it, intentionally, into the diagonal stole of the deacon.  And only then does he begin to wash feet.

The message, therefore,  is crystal clear and sacramentally significant: In this act of washing feet, we are imitating Christ the Servant, Christ the Deacon, who was pouring out his life for others just as he was pouring out the water over the feet of his disciples.  It’s all about diakonia.

Want more?  Guess when Pope Francis actually signed his Lenten Message?  Oh, it was only released over the last couple of days, but if you look at the end of the document, you will find that he actually signed it on 26 December, the Feast of St. Stephen, Deacon and First Martyr.

With this as background, let’s look at some of the things the Holy Father has to say.  The pope cites St. Paul: “He became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich”(2 Cor 8-9), and asks, “What do these words of Saint Paul mean for us Christians today?  What does this invitation to poverty, a life of evangelical poverty, mean for us today?”  He immediately responds that first this “shows us how God works.”  He speaks of how God chose to reveal himself in poverty out of a desire to be close to us, “a love which does not hesitate to offer itself in sacrifice for the beloved.”  I was reminded of the words of St. John Paul II, who wrote in his great encyclical Fides et Ratio, when he referred to kenosis as “a grand and mysterious truth for the human mind, which finds it inconceivable that suffering and death can express a love which gives itself and seeks nothing in return” (#93).

Pope Francis reminds us that this was a “logic of love,” and that God did not desire salvation to “drop down from heaven”; rather, Christ was among us “to comfort us, to save us, to free us.”  He continues, “In imitation of our Master, we Christians are called to confront the poverty of our brothers and sisters, to touch it, to make it our own and to take practical steps to alleviate it.  Destitution is not the same as poverty: destitution is poverty without faith, without support, without hope.”  The pope lists three types of destitution: material, moral and spiritual; as we go through them, how can each of us — especially those of us who are clergy of the Church — address each of these?

destitutionMaterial destitution refers to those living without the essentials of human dignity, “those living without who lack basic rights and needs such as food, water, hygiene, work and the opportunity to develop and grow culturally.”  The pope observes that “the Church offers her help, her diakonia, in meeting these needs and binding these wounds. . . .”  He powerfully reminds us that in the poor and the outcast “we see Christ’s face; by loving and helping the poor, we love and serve Christ.”  He goes even further, striking a now familiar theme: “When power, luxury and money become idols, they take priority over the need for a fair distribution of wealth.  Our consciences thus need to be converted to justice, equality, simplicity and sharing.”

Moral destitution is “slavery to vice and sin.”  The pope speaks of those who have lost all hope of finding meaning in life, suffer from addictions of all types (he cites alcohol, drugs, gambling and pornography), or suffer from lack of “equal access to education and health care.”  Moral destitution is all about a loss of hope and meaning, often due to unjust social conditions, by unemployment and a loss of dignity.

Spiritual destitution is experienced when people turn away from God and reject his love. “If we think we don’t need God who reaches out to us through CHrist, because we believe we can make do on our own, we are headed for a fall.”  The pope reminds us that it is the Gospel which is the “real antidote to spiritual destitution:

Wherever we go, we are called as Christians to proclaim the liberating news that forgiveness for sins committed is possible, that God is greater than our sinfulness, that he freely loves us at all times and that we were made for communion and eternal life.  The Lord asks us to be joyous heralds of this message of mercy and hope!

We many not yet be thinking about Lent, but the Pope is.  And would it really hurt any of us to start our spiritual preparations now?  He prays that all of us be “ready to bear witness to all those who live in material, moral and spiritual destitution the Gospel message. . . .  Lent is a fitting time for self-denial; we would do well to ask ourselves what we can give up in order to help and enrich others by our own poverty.  Let us not forget that real poverty hurts: no self-denial is real without this dimension of penance.  I distrust a charity that costs nothing and does not hurt.”

So, my friends, are we living and serving in the image of Christ?  Are we are truly imitating Christ, “who became poor and enriched us by his poverty”?  Have we emptied ourselves so that others may live?

St. Stephen, Deacon and First Martyr, Pray for Us!

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