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THE BISHOP'S CROZIER: Word, Altar and Charity

THE BISHOP'S CROZIER: Word, Altar and Charity

By Bishop James R. Golka

"B​​​​​​rothers, select from among you seven reputable men, filled with the Spirit and wisdom, whom we shall appoint to this task . . .” (Acts 6:3)

On May 25, our diocese will be blessed by the ordination of 12 men to the permanent diaconate. These men will join 100 brother deacons serving in our diocese, all of whom are configured in the form of Christ the Servant.  In fact, the word “deacon” comes from a Greek word, “diakonos,” which means “servant.” The Church asks deacons to exercise their ministry of service primarily in three parts:  word, altar and charity.

Although deacons are found in the earliest accounts of the Church in Scripture, the diaconate eventually morphed primarily into a transitional state for those on the path to the priesthood. The permanent diaconate was restored at the Second Vatican Council, specifically in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, “Lumen Gentium.” In paragraph 29, the Council says this about the permanent diaconate:  “For strengthened by sacramental grace, in communion with the bishop and his group of priests they serve in the diaconate of the liturgy, of the word, and of charity to the people of God.”

Lumen Gentium also points to many additional diaconal duties; however, the three concepts of “Word”, “Altar,” and “Charity,” bear deeper examination.

Word.  The Church entrusts to the deacon the duty and privilege of proclaiming the Gospel and occasionally providing the homily. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM), number 94, specifies this great honor:  “At Mass the deacon has his own part in proclaiming the Gospel, from time to time preaching God’s word . . . .” 

Altar.  GIRM 94 goes on to say that the duties of a deacon are found “in ministering to the priest, in preparing the altar and in serving the celebration of the Sacrifice, in distributing the Eucharist to the faithful . . . .”  The role of ministering to the priest is easy to overlook but has special importance. During my time as a priest, I’ve had deacons ask me, “How can I help you pray the Mass better?” The question embodies the spirit of service, reverence and humility involved in the vocation of permanent deacon. I once heard a deacon say, “If I do my job right, no one will notice.”

Charity. Charity arguably represents the largest element of diaconal service but it is often missed by parishioners who only see deacons at Mass. There are many charitable tasks deacons joyfully perform away from the church sanctuary. In service to charity, the deacon answers that call first mentioned 2,000 years ago in the Acts of the Apostles, when deacons were  “appointed to this task” of serving the neglected widows in the community.

There are also wonderful examples of saints who were deacons. Perhaps the most famous is that great saint of humility and peace, St. Francis of Assisi. However, it is worth noting the other deacon saints and what their commitment to the Church ultimately cost them.

St. Stephen was one of the original seven deacons listed in Acts of the Apostles (Acts 6:3-6).  He is also the Church’s first martyr, or “protomartyr,” whose bold proclamation of the Gospel led him to be stoned to death. Saul of Tarsus, who later became St. Paul, was present at and may have participated in Stephen’s martyrdom. Perhaps his presence is a subtle nod to the deacon’s ministry of charity, for in his encounters with others, the deacon knows that no one is irredeemable.

The patron saint of deacons is St. Lawrence, who oversaw the material goods of the Church at a time when it was dangerous to be a follower of Jesus Christ. When the Emperor Valerian ordered the execution of Pope Sixtus II in 258 A.D., he also ordered Lawrence to turn over the wealth of the Church. Lawrence quickly gave away everything the Church had of material value. He then gathered up all the poor and suffering and presented them to the emperor as the true wealth of the Church. For this act of courage, he was literally grilled alive. Legend has it that as he was being killed he exclaimed, “I’m done on this side, turn me over.”  For this, the Church made him the patron saint of cooks and comedians. Yes, at times, deacons also need a sense of humor as well as fortitude to answer their diaconal call!

As we look forward with joyful anticipation to the ordination of 12 men, let us pray for the holiness of all our deacon servants.  Let us implore them to adhere to the words of St. Polycarp who, 19 centuries ago, exhorted deacons to “Be merciful, diligent, walking according to the truth of the Lord, who became the servant of all.”

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