The Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy focused over the last few days on the ministry of deacons. Today the Holy Father celebrated Mass in Saint Peter’s Square and thousands of the world’s deacons were there. The Holy Father’s homily is a short but powerful lesson in diakonia.
In one sense, Pope Francis picks up where St. John Paul II left off sixteen years ago at the 2000 Jubilee. In his address to deacons during this audience with us, Pope John Paul challenged deacons to be “active apostles of the New Evangelization.” Today Pope Francis began his homily by quoting St. Paul:
“A servant of Jesus Christ” (Gal 1:10). We have listened to these words that the Apostle Paul, writing to the Galatians, uses to describe himself. At the beginning of his Letter, he had presented himself as “an apostle” by the will of the Lord Jesus (cf. Gal1:1). These two terms – apostle and servant – go together. They can never be separated. They are like the two sides of a medal. Those who proclaim Jesus are called to serve, and those who serve proclaim Jesus.
Active apostles, active servants: no better challenge for deacons! Not surprisingly Pope Francis reflects what Pope-emeritus Benedict once referred to as “the great et. . .et” (both-and) as contrasted to “aut. . . aut” (either-or). Pope Benedict was responding to a question from an older priest who had recalled that his seminary spiritual director had once criticized him for preferring playing football over studying, and Pope Benedict rather humorously reassured the priest:
Catholicism. . . has always been considered the religion of the great “et. . . et” [“both-and”]: not of great forms of exclusivism but of synthesis. The exact meaning of “Catholic” is “synthesis”. I would therefore be against having to choose between either playing football or studying Sacred Scripture or Canon Law.
Today, Pope Francis says the same thing about apostles and servants. We are called to be both, not one or the other. His simple simile captures it perfectly: apostle and servant “are like the two sides of a medal.” “A disciple of Jesus cannot take a road other than that of the Master. If he wants to proclaim him, he must imitate him. Like Paul, he must strive to become a servant. In other words, if evangelizing is the mission entrusted at baptism to each Christian, serving is the way that mission is carried out.”
Pope Francis offers three ways deacons can live this great “et. . . et” in our lives:
- Be Available. Most deacons I’ve known over the years readily joke that there’s no such thing as a deacon’s “day off”! Between responsibilities for our families, our various jobs and professions, as well as ministries, most deacons wouldn’t know what a real “day off” feels like, any more than we can take a “sabbatical” from any of those responsibilities. I’m sure that Pope Francis’ words touched many a deacon and his family when he observed:
A servant daily learns detachment from doing everything his own way and living his life as he would. . . . [He] has to give up the idea of being the master of his day. He knows that his time is not his own, but a gift from God which is then offered back to him. Only in this way will it bear fruit. One who serves is not a slave to his own agenda, but ever ready to deal with the unexpected, ever available to his brothers and sisters and ever open to God’s constant surprises.
The pope had some words about trying to keep to a “timetable” for service, too:
One who serves is not worried about the timetable. It deeply troubles me when I see a timetable in a parish: “From such a time to such a time”. And then? There is no open door, no priest, no deacon, no layperson to receive people… This is not good. Don’t worry about the timetable: have the courage to look past the timetable. In this way, dear deacons, if you show that you are available to others, your ministry will not be self-serving, but evangelically fruitful.
2. Be Meek. Using the example of the centurion who pleads with Jesus to save his servant, the pope stresses that even though the centurion was a man in authority, he was also a man under authority. The centurion could have thrown his weight around to get help for his servant, but he did not: he approached the Lord meekly and in acknowledgment of Christ’s authority, power, and mercy. “Meekness,” says Francis, “is one of the virtues of deacons.”
When a deacon is meek, then he is one who serves, who is not trying to “mimic” priests; no, he is meek. . . . For God, who is love, out of love is ever ready to serve us. He is patient, kind and always there for us; he suffers for our mistakes and seeks the way to help us improve. These are the characteristics of Christian service; meek and humble, it imitates God by serving others: by welcoming them with patient love and unflagging sympathy, by making them feel welcome and at home in the ecclesial community, where the greatest are not those who command but those who serve (cf. Lk 22:26). And never shout, never. This, dear deacons, is how your vocation as ministers of charity will mature: in meekness.
3. Be Healed. Finally, Pope Francis turns to the example of the servant whom Christ heals.
The Gospel tells us that he was dear to his master and was sick, without naming his grave illness (v. 2). In a certain sense, we can see ourselves in that servant. Each of us is very dear to God, who loves us, chooses us and calls us to serve. Yet each of us needs first to be healed inwardly. To be ready to serve, we need a healthy heart: a heart healed by God. . . . .
Dear deacons, this is a grace you can implore daily in prayer. You can offer the Lord your work, your little inconveniences, your weariness and your hopes in an authentic prayer that brings your life to the Lord and the Lord to your life. When you serve at the table of the Eucharist, there you will find the presence of Jesus, who gives himself to you so that you can give yourselves to others. . . , to encounter and caress the flesh of the Lord in the poor of our time.
Those final words echo the promise we make at ordination. The bishop asks, “Are you resolved to shape your way of life always according to the example of Christ, whose body and blood you will give to the people?” We respond:”I am, with the help of God.” This Jubilee — this holy season of Mercy — gives us a chance to re-affirm that promise:
“I am, with the help of God!”