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Pio Cardinal Laghi

19 February 2000


Deacons, in this hall we will shortly be welcoming John Paul II, Successor of St Peter and Bishop of Rome, who will address his exhortation and impart his blessing to you: it is very significant and appropriate that before listening to the Holy Father, we are listening to what St Peter, Prince of the Apostles, tells us in the passage from his First Letter, proclaimed just now: "After you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, establish, and strengthen you. To him be the dominion for ever and ever. Amen".

These words, with which St Peter greets from Rome the faithful of certain Christian communities in Asia Minor, are addressed to those who have been called by God in Jesus Christ to share with him in the eternal glory: they are words addressed to all Christians. It is God who calls, it is always he who takes the initiative. We too are called by God, each one of us: called to life on this earth and then to eternal life; called to the faith on the day of our Baptism; called to be a witness to the faith, enriched by the gifts of the Holy Spirit, on the day on which the sacrament of Communion is conferred upon us. However, God has shown a special preference for us, calling us to his permanent service through the sacrament of Sacred Orders, that of the Diaconate, and conferring upon us special powers and special responsibilities.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes the nature of Orders and what constitutes diaconal service in the following terms: "Deacons share in Christ’s mission and grace in a special way. The sacrament of Holy Orders marks them with an imprint (‘character’) which cannot be removed and which configures them to Christ, who made himself the ‘deacon’ or servant of all. Among other tasks, it is the task of deacons to assist the Bishop and priests in the celebration of the divine mysteries, above all the Eucharist, in the distribution of Holy Communion, in assisting at and blessing marriages, in the proclamation of the Gospel and preaching, in presiding over funerals, and in dedicating themselves to the various ministries of charity".

Here I would like to pause, to highlight in particular the "services of charity" which Deacons are called to render. The Great Jubilee of the Year 2000 which we are celebrating must have – among the signs that distinguish it – that of the exercise of charity. In his Letter of Indiction of the Jubilee of the Year 2000 Incarnationis mysterium, the Holy Father expressly states that this "sign" must "open our eyes to the needs of those who are poor and excluded"; and he adds: "there should be no more postponement of the time when poor Lazarus can sit beside the rich man to share the same banquet and be forced no more to feed on the scraps that fall from the table" (n. 12).

The ministry of Deacons is precisely to devote themselves to works of charity and to the service of those in need of comfort and help. They are bound by "ordination" not only to carry out "Works of spiritual and temporal mercy"; but also to make themselves the voice – with the ministry of preaching – of those who have no voice in society, to assume the defence of the weak and the oppressed, and to promote the cause of social justice. "The Jubilee", the Pope continues, "is a reminder to all that they should give absolute importance neither to the goods of the earth, since these are not God, nor to man’s domination or claim to domination, since the earth belongs to God and to him alone".

To accomplish the service of charity in all its aspects, firmness, a spirit of sacrifice and a heroic degree of love are necessary: to obtain these virtues from God, we must have frequent recourse to prayer. The saints, and St Laurence in particular, offer us their example and intercession. In the prayer with which we will conclude this "Liturgical Hour of Terce", turning to God, let us recognize first of all that it was he who gave St Laurence the Deacon that ardent love which made him faithful in his service and glorious in his martyrdom. St Augustine, in the sermon of the Office of Readings for the Feast of the Holy Martyr comments: "Laurence carried out the office of deacon in the Church, as you know. In that office he administered Christ’s sacred blood to the faithful; and for Christ’s sake he shed his own blood". The ardour of his love impelled the holy martyr to be faithful to the point of mingling his own blood with the very Blood of Christ. It is precisely the ardour of love, drawn from the Body and Blood of Christ, which produces a radical change in the instrument of martyrdom, which is why the fire that consumed Laurence became a fire of heroic love that spurred him to make the supreme sacrifice of his life. Thus he could sing, while tortured by the burning coals, "my soul thirsts for you, my God, since my body was burned in the fire for you". Since you are Deacons, by virtue of your service so close to the altar where Christ’s sacrifice is consumed and where the bread is transformed into the Body of the Lord and the wine into his Blood, and since you are called to touch the Body and Blood of Christ with your hands and distribute them to the faithful, you have the unique opportunity to become like Christ, the "deacon" who made himself "everything for everyone", and to receive from him support, firmness and perfection.

During your pilgrimage to Rome, many of you – if not all – will go to the Basilica of St Laurence at Verano. Kneeling before the tomb of the Deacon and Martyr of Rome, you will read the inscription that Pope St Damasus had carved upon it: "The whips of his executioners, the flames, the tortures, the chains: only Laurence’s faith could overcome them". Faith alone! And you will ask God, through the Holy Martyr’s intercession, to make you love what he loved, and to put into practice what he taught.