Welcome and Thank you
As we gather today for the advancement to the Order of Deacons of our brother James Gebhart, I, along with Father Charles Dillingham, the Pastor of the Church of St. Mary of the Assumption, especially welcome my brother diocesan priests and priests from religious communities and other dioceses. I welcome Msgr. Fredrik Hansen, who represents St. Mary’s Seminary and University where James has and will be continuing his formation for the Priesthood. I welcome the deacons who are here today and I am so thankful for the presence today of our esteemed Religious Sisters and Priests and Brothers. I welcome James’ friends and parishioners from the various parishes where he has served. And finally, in a very special way, I welcome James’ beloved family. While so many of you who have touched James’ life have helped him hear God’s call, it is his family, the domestic Church, where our first formation in the faith takes place. And so, to James’ family, and especially his parents, Mary and Stephen and his brother, Andrew, I along with Bishop Malooly and indeed all the faithful members of the Church of Wilmington, express deepest gratitude and thanks. James’ first formation in our faith took place through you and continues to be a source of strength. As we join joyfully together today, our hearts exult in what our voices acclaimed in today’s responsorial psalm: Blessed are we as we dwell in your house, O Lord.
The Old Testament Tent and the Church of Christ
As you enter, James, into the Order of Deacons, I invite you to reflect upon today’s readings and the call of Diakonia—the call to the life of service. In today’s first reading from the Book of Numbers, we hear the Lord commanding Moses to appoint members of the tribe of Levi to the task of serving at the meeting tent — the place where God dwells. The Synod’s recent Working Document for the Continental Stage reflected upon the Meeting tent that is spoken of in the Old Testament. The document says the following: “[We are invited] to imagine the Church similarly as a tent, indeed as the tent of meeting, which accompanied the people on their journey through the desert: called to stretch out, therefore, but also to move. At its centre, stands the tabernacle, that is, the presence of the Lord” (27). When you first made application to the seminary, James, you reflected upon how you and your peers, once you were able to drive, would go on various trips, some of which included hiking and camping. I would daresay, therefore, that some these trips perhaps included pitching and taking proper care of a tent. Your tent was a place of shelter and rest, comfort and rejuvenation. You know from experience that it takes effort and skill to properly set up a tent. You know from experience that ensuring that things are taken care of benefits everyone. As we take up the Synod’s invitation to imagine the Church as a tent, we are especially conscious of your call to the Diaconate as a call to charity and selfless service. It is a call to make the Church a place that gives respite to the weary, water to the thirsty, direction to the lost and forsaken. It is a call to service and charity. Your call to diaconal service is the call to help make the Church a place of welcome. A place where people can find refuge. A place where the material and physical needs of the body of Christ are attended to. A place where people are led by your outreach and example. A place where ultimately you are serving the One who dwells there.
Called to serve at the Table
In our second reading from the Acts of the Apostles, we hear of the complaint that certain widows in the early Church were being neglected in the daily distribution of food. To assist the Twelve in caring for these needs, seven men who could serve at table were chosen. These men were prayed over and hands laid on them. Among these seven original deacons was Stephen, the first martyr of the Church. As one who follows in the footsteps of those original seven deacons, you, James, also are being chosen to serve at a table. There may be times when this table is made up of widows and widowers and it is a social gathering that brings people together. Most often, however, you are being called to serve at the Table of the Word and the Table of Sacrifice and at other related religious gatherings. You will do this as you preach the Word of God and preside over public prayer. You will do this as you administer Baptism and assist at and bless Marriages. You will do this as you bring Viaticum to the dying and conduct funeral rites. You are not, of course, just performing a function. In the words of St. Ignatius of Antioch (Ad Trallianos II, 3), “you are not servants of food and drink, but ministers of the Church of God.” It is, in other words, not merely what you do, but how and through whom you are doing it. It is for this reason, that your diaconal call is also a call to remain close to our Lord in prayer. Apart from the public prayer in which you will be engaged you are called, James, to meditate on the Scriptures, to pray the psalms, to open yourself up to the promptings of the Spirit. In his Treatise on the Love of God, St. Francis de Sales, the Patron of our diocese, writes the following: “No matter how abundant the source of the water is, the water does not enter the garden in proportion to the source but in proportion to the canal that carries it. In the same way, the Holy Spirit, as a source of living water, surrounds our heart on all sides to scatter His grace according to his pleasure, but He does not want to enter the heart without the free consent of our will or without our cooperation.” And so, for this reason, James, as one called to a life of fidelity to Christ lived with moral integrity, go forth today and continue through prayer to open wide the canals which allow the Holy Spirit to enter and so enrich your diaconal ministry.
Called to lower oneself in Service
And finally, we turn to the Gospel which comes from Jesus’ Last Supper Discourse. As Jesus told his disciples that he had chosen them, you, James, have also been chosen, and you are being appointed in a special way today to go and bear fruit that will remain. There is no greater love, Jesus tells us, than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. It is this love that Jesus lived as he gave his life on the Cross. It is a love that never fails, a love that is the alpha and the omega, a love that scatters the darkness of hatred, a love that sets us free. In just a few moments, James, you will literally lie down on the floor of this church. The rest of us will stand and surround you as we invoke the Saints to intercede for you and God’s grace to come down upon you. This ancient gesture of supplication and humility, will be lived out as you lay down your own personal desires in order to meet the needs of others. It will be lived out as you embrace a life of celibacy whose purpose Pope Benedict XVI, in a 2006 address to the Roman Curia, reminded us, is not simply that one has more time for pastoral endeavors or that it is the absence of a conjugal relationship, but rather that one is allowing himself to be “consumed by passion for God and subsequently, thanks to a more intimate way of being with him, to serve men and women, too.” It is lived out when, as Pope Francis reminded deacons and their families in 2021 that they are called to live as they follow Christ and the “logic” of lowering oneself in order to be a servant of all. It is the Master’s example that becomes the standard for greatness. For, in the words of Pope Francis, “If there is one great person in the Church, it is the one who made himself … the smallest, and servant of all.” This ancient gesture of supplication and humility will be lived out as you go forth as a Deacon of the Church to serve and not be served. For while, with the completion of the Litany of the Saints, you will rise physically from the floor, your diaconal ministry will shine ever more brightly as you lower yourself in a life of humility and service.
The Joy of your Lord
May God Bless you James and use you. May God’s abundant graces come down upon you and send you forth. May you be a pure offering accepted by God. And when you go out to meet the Lord on the last day, may you hear him say: “Well done, good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of your Lord.”