Pontifical North American College
Ordination of Deacons
October 6, 2011
Homily of Cardinal William J. Levada
Dear members of the Diaconate ordination class of 2011;
The beautiful passage from the Gospel of Saint John which we heard proclaimed just a few moments ago is a profound reflection on the love of God for His people revealed in Jesus Christ. It is a love which brings joy and bridges the abyss between God and man caused by sin so that, in His love, we no longer know ourselves to be slaves, but indeed friends of God. In this same love we are “chosen” to “bear lasting fruit” because we are sent out into the world as disciples. As Christ revealed the Father’s love to us, so we are given the Gospel command to bring that same love to the world: “As the Father loves me, so I also love you…Love one another as I love you”.
This meditation on the revelation of love is a most fitting context for our celebration today. Ultimately, ordained ministry in the Church is an expression of this command to love. Indeed, it is the privileged way for the man who is conformed to Christ by the laying-on of hands and the invocation of the Holy Spirit to encounter the fire of divine love; to be transformed by it; and so impelled to share that same transforming love with the Church and the world: Caritas Christi urget nos! Only in the light of the mystery of the Incarnation and Cross, by which our Divine Friend laid down his life for us and for our salvation, can we understand discipleship, service, authority, mission—the aspects of the ministry into which our brothers will be consecrated today through the sacrament of Holy Orders.
Dear friends, today is a day of rejoicing for the whole Church! Today, 35 men from the North American College will be ordained to the diaconate. The word deacon itself means “one who serves”, and in the Church this diakonia will be expressed in the threefold ministry of the Sacred Liturgy, of the Word, and of charity.
Let us first consider the diakonia of the liturgy. By ordination to the diaconate, you will be made ministers of the altar. You will prepare the altar for the Eucharistic Sacrifice and you will give the Body and Blood of the Lord to His people. It is good for us to begin our reflections on the diakonia here, with the Eucharist, the “source and summit of the life and mission of the Church” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, #10). By serving the Church in this way—by exercising the ministry of deacon during Mass and giving the Body and Blood of Christ to His people—you will truly contribute to the building up of the Body of Christ which is the Church (cf. Eph. 4:12).
It is worth recalling here that in the Gospel according to St. Luke, it is precisely at the Last Supper, when Jesus instituted the sacraments of Eucharist and Holy Orders, that “a great dispute arose among the disciples about which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest.” But Jesus reminded them of his own example: authority is not given so that we can “lord it over people”; the greatest, the leader among you must become the “one who serves.” He reminded them “I am ho diakonon, the ‘deacon’ who is in your midst as ‘the one who serves’” (Lk. 22:24-27). And, as we know from John’s Gospel, on that occasion he humbled himself in service to them by washing their feet, telling them “I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you” (Jn. 13:15).
Secondly, your diakonia of the Word was highlighted in the Psalm response at today’s liturgy: “Go out to the world and teach all nations!” By your ordination, you are authorized to preach, to evangelize, to proclaim the Word, strengthening and confirming the people of God in their faith.
A true diakonia of the Word should take into account the doctrinal and catechetical purposes of liturgical preaching. This service is grounded in the realization that God speaks His Word to us today, as He has through the centuries of the Church’s history, to evoke our response of faith. We should not think of doctrines, so much a part of our study of theology, as disconnected from the liturgical proclamation of the Word and remote from people’s real concerns. These doctrines help us discern precisely what God is saying to us today in the Scriptures. To help God’s people know and live the riches of the faith of the Church, which is their faith, the homilist needs to think and preach “doctrinally,” for the doctrine of the faith is the response of faith that our Mother Church receives as a gift from the same divine Author who inspired the Scriptures. To be at the service of the Word, then, is to be at the service of the Church’s faith, proposing anew its breadth and beauty for the nourishment of the people of God.
Thirdly and finally, you are ordained to the service of charity, a diakonia in the name of the Church to the poor, the suffering, and the needy. In the New Testament, the words diakonos and diakonia have been given a rich new theological significance, rooted in the teaching and ministry of Jesus. These words are no longer limited to the context of waiting on tables; their meaning has been expanded to express “the ministry” and “loving service” in imitation of Christ and following his example. Today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles illustrates such a development. This text, to which the ritual prayer of ordination to the diaconate makes ample reference, shows how the diakonia of serving at table—feeding the poor widows—is placed side-by-side with the diakonia of the Word, to which the Apostles will dedicate themselves fully.
In his Encyclical Letter Deus caritas est (cf. n. 21), Pope Benedict comments on this text by reminding us that the seven men chosen for this task by the “laying on of hands” were not “to carry out a purely mechanical work of distribution: they were to be men ‘full of the Spirit and of Wisdom’ (Acts 6:3). In other words—the Pope goes on to say—the social service which they were meant to provide was absolutely concrete, yet at the same time it was also a spiritual service; theirs was a truly spiritual office which carried out an essential responsibility of the Church, namely a well-ordered love of neighbor. With the formation of this group of seven, diakonia—the ministry of charity exercised in a communitarian, orderly way—became part of the fundamental structure of the Church.”
In another part of the Encyclical, Pope Benedict refers again to this fundamental structure of the Church: “The Church’s deepest nature is expressed in her three-fold responsibility: of proclaiming the word of God (kerygma-martyria), celebrating the sacraments (leitourgia), and exercising the ministry of charity (diakonia). These duties presuppose each other and are inseparable. For the Church, charity is not a kind of welfare activity which could equally well be left to others, but is a part of her nature, an indispensable expression of her very being” (n. 25).
By analogy, one can see that this “fundamental structure” of the Church is also the fundamental structure of the sacrament of Holy Orders. In the diaconate the Church grounds all ordained ministry in the threefold structure of the ministry of the Word, of the liturgy, and of charity. These three ministries correspond to revelation and faith, by which the Word of God who is love is preached and handed on in the Church; to the great commandment of love of God above all things, whose apex is our loving worship and adoration in the Eucharist; and to the second great commandment of love of neighbor, in the individual and ecclesial service of charity. Those who will transition to the orders of priests and bishops, called to act in persona Christi, will bring with them this grounding in the three ministries that correspond to the nature of the Church herself. They will bring as well the indelible stamp of that diakonia that corresponds to Christ “in our midst as the One who serves.” Such reflections may also help us understand the theological reasons why no one is admitted to the higher degrees of Holy Orders without first being configured to Christ with the indelible character of the diaconate.
Dear brothers in Christ, as you respond to the call of Christ to dedicate your lives to his service in the Church through the laying on of hands, the sacramental sign of Holy Orders, you also commit yourselves to living a celibate life in imitation of the Divine Master himself. It is a response that speaks of your deep generosity to serve the People of God faithfully, and of your deep love for Jesus, who calls you his friends.
In his Encyclical Letter on priestly celibacy—an Encyclical that is as timely and cogent today as it was at its publication in 1967—Pope Paul VI reflected that the overarching motivation for the promise of celibacy is nothing less than the love of Christ Jesus revealed definitively on the Cross when He laid down His own life for His friends. For those who embrace the celibate life, says Pope Paul, it “is the mystery of the newness of Christ, of all that He is and stands for; it is the sum of the highest ideals of the Gospel and of the kingdom; it is a particular manifestation of grace, which springs from the Paschal mystery of the Savior. This is what makes the choice of celibacy desirable and worthwhile to those called by our Lord Jesus. Thus they intend not only to participate in His priestly office, but also to share with Him His very condition of living” (n.23).
Dear friends, let us pray for these men today, that God’s grace of Holy Orders may make them dedicated servants in ministry to the Church. May Mary, Mother of the Clergy, intercede for them, so that—as future priests—they too may show forth the face of Christ, the face of God’s own love, to a waiting world.