Words on the Word
Ordination to the Diaconate
You can find a Polish version of this homily here.
Acts 3:1-10: What I do have I give you.
Galatians 1:11-20: God was pleased to reveal his Son to me.
John 21:15-19: Do you love me?
Dear Brothers, the readings given us by the Church imbue your ordination Mass with a Petrine atmosphere. It is right and just. We trace the sacrament of orders back to the Apostles. What symbolic power there is in the laying-on of hands! These past two thousand years have seen the rise and fall of empires; man has rejoiced in triumphs of the spirit and groaned under civilisational collapse. A backward glance displays, cruelly sometimes, the transience of human endeavour.
Yet within this flow of Heraclitian impermanence, eyes of faith discern a counter-current. It is the current of sacramental grace, quiet but constant, uncontainable by worldly constraints. Whether conferred in a basilica or in a prison cell, it is ever the same, a participation in the very life of our Lord. Before being lifted up from the earth, he loved his own who were in the world to the end. In an unforgettable gesture, he showed what his mission was and what he intended it, through the Church, to remain: not to be served but to serve. He said: ‘I have given an example, follow it.’ Today this commission is addressed personally to you.
What the commission entails in existential terms is evident from the life of Peter. The scene put before us in our Gospel represents, I’d say, that life’s turning point. This may seem contrived. Is not the watershed-moment Peter’s encounter with the Lord, his response to Christ’s call? Certainly, this first Yes was important. However, as we monks know, it is one thing to make a good beginning; it is another to see a purpose through to fulfilment. Peter is, through the years of Christ’s public ministry, enamoured of the Lord. We cannot doubt his sincerity. He is clear-sighted, courageous, generous. He is also, like many gifted people, prone to deep-seated self-reliance. He readily assumes the role of host (as in Capernaum); he takes it for granted that he knows best (as at Caesarea Philippi); he is driven to energetic, if pointless enterprise (as on Tabor). He is the sort of person on whom others can count.
On the terrible night in the high priest’s court, however, when the light that had shone so brightly in his heart seemed eclipsed, as if there were no clarity beyond the shadows cast in the hazy sheen of a charcoal fire, an ironic taunt was all it took to reduce Peter’s moral strength to naught. ‘I know him not.’ In the circumstances, one can hardly think of a more terrible counter-confession.
The Lord’s threefold question, ‘Do you love me?’, shows how his mercy works. Mercy does not dissimulate infidelity. No, mercy turns like a knife in misery’s wound, not to humiliate, but to heal. Peter’s fall becomes the occasion for his rising. He finally sees that the love of Christ, to which nothing is to be preferred, is the sole foundation of existence, the prerequisite for charity to others. It is moving to see Peter go through the Beautiful Gate of the Temple and declare to the crippled beggar: ‘I have no capital!’ He has learnt to recognise himself as poor; therefore he is rich. He is a bearer of Christ’s gift. He commands the man who has never before stood straight: ‘Stand up and walk!’ The cripple leapt up, Luke says. Such is the force of a healing word spoken in Jesus’s name.
Some voices argue, now, against the tradition which posits that objective change occurs through ordination. Deacons and priests, they argue, are men like everyone else, no better. They wish to forestall the ‘clericalism’ seen to be a source of ill in the Church. Their point of view is at once insightful and confused. Of himself, an ordained man is no better than anyone else — of course not! He should, though, by the vows he makes, let God’s power make him better. He is called to holiness through kenosis. What ordination effectively confers is not preeminence but dispossession.
The ordinand may need time to give conscious assent to what the sacrament makes him: a clay jar containing an ineffable treasure, a minister of God’s transforming mercy. However, the call is crystal clear. There is no way round it. The Church confers ordination in order to empty a man so fully of self that nothing of his own will impede Christ’s power acting through him. This day, dear brothers, you are changed. By sacramental grace you are no longer your own. You belong now, not only to the Lord, but to his people. Find your freedom henceforth in this oblation. Let Christ work freely in you and through you. The best remedy against clericalism (a tendency to which all of us, ordained and unordained, are prone) is surely the witness of deacons who are truly deacons, priests who are truly priests.
In the Latin rite, the diaconate is chiefly construed in terms of charitable work. Our principal reference is to the book of Acts, in which deacons are ordained to serve at table. This dimension is basic, and don’t forget: even if you go on to become priests, bishops, cardinals, or, or for that matter, popes, you will never cease to be deacons. Service is at the root of all offices in the Church. The Eastern liturgy sensitises us to another aspect of the deacon’s call. There, the deacon is likened to an angel, instituted to mediate between heaven and earth, equally at home in both spheres. You will serve your brethren as you ought only if your lives are defined by a vertical axis, directing your lives, work, and longing towards God.
To abide where the vertical and horizontal axes meet is to carry in the flesh the sign of the cross, by which joy entered the world. Abide there faithfully, brothers, as in a place of predilection. Thereby your lives will bear fruit for others; and you will know a happiness and a peace which this world cannot give. Amen.