As we gather today for the advancement to the Order of Deacons of our brother John, I am especially pleased to welcome to the Church of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, the family and friends of John, my brother bishop, Bishop Francis Malooly, the bishop emeritus of our diocese, my brother diocesan priests and priests from religious communities and other dioceses. In a special way I welcome Father Philip Brown, the Rector of St. Mary’s Seminary and University where John 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 Brothers.
In a special way, I also welcome all of those, but especially John’s beloved family who, while geographically far away, are able to join us through our live stream and are very near to us in our thoughts and prayers. To everyone, and especially John’s family, I thank you for the ways in which you have helped John hear God’s call of service to the church, for your support and guidance.
To John’s immediate family, please know that as the domestic church, John’s first formation in our faith took place in you, his family. Thank you for the foundation upon which his faith has grown and matured.
In selecting the readings that have just been proclaimed, you very correctly, John, identified various facets of the diaconal ministry to which you are being advanced. Allow me to share with you the reasons John told me that he had chosen these readings. In the Book of Numbers, we listened to how, at the time of Moses, men were chosen from the tribe of Levi to assist Aaron and his sons as they went about their priestly tasks. And so you, in choosing this reading, know that as a deacon you will be serving the needs of people and assisting priests and bishops in their ordained ministry at the altar and in their various responsibilities. We heard in our second reading, St. Peter’s discourse to Cornelius and his household on the life, death and resurrection of Christ and the commission given by Christ to “preach and testify that he is the one appointed by God as judge of the living and the dead.”
And so you, in choosing this reading have been reminded that you, like those first disciples of Christ, have encountered Christ and are now, like St. Peter and the first disciples, being called to proclaim the Gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ.
And lastly, today’s Gospel is part of what is referred to as Jesus’ “high priestly prayer.” It is the prayer Jesus offered to the Father at the end of the Last Supper and before his arrest in the garden. We hear Jesus praying for his disciples and their mission in this world. Jesus prays that his disciples be consecrated, set apart and dedicated to the truth. As the Way, the Truth and the Life, it is to Jesus himself that he is consecrating his disciples. And has the one who has come to serve and not be served, it is to a life of service that the disciples are being consecrated. And so you, John, in choosing this reading, have been reminded that you are being set apart not to lord over people, but to serve the needs of people entrusted to you.
As a candidate for the office of Deacon, you will soon be ordained for service to the word, service to the altar and service to the poor. As you undertake and fulfill this office, look to Jesus who taught us that the greatest amongst us is the one who serves the needs of others. Know that your commitment to living a life of celibate chastity is both a sign of and an incentive to pastoral charity, as well as a source of spiritual fruitfulness in the world.
Pope Benedict XVI, in a 2006 address to the Roman Curia, spoke, John, of how celibacy does not mean simply that one has more time for pastoral endeavors or that it is the absence of a conjugal relationship, but rather that you are allowing yourself 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.” In a short while you will lie prostrate on the floor of this church and, in the Litany of the Saints, we will ask God the Father to pour out the grace of his blessing upon you. May you open yourself in prayer this day and every day of your life to the power and love of God and in the words of Pope Benedict, “be consumed by passion for God” and a life of service for others.
Unlike those who serve the church as permanent deacons, you also look forward, God willing, to be ordained to the priesthood. In these coming months, you will be exercising your diaconal ministry in a summer assignment in a parish within the Diocese of Wilmington and during the academic year, you will be serving on weekends in a parish closer to St. Mary’s Seminary. You will lead people in prayer, instruct people in the faith, administer baptism, assist at and bless marriages, bring Viaticum to the dying and conduct funeral rites. You will live out your call to follow Christ who came to serve and not be served. Be generous with giving of yourself. Make every effort to prepare for the tasks upon which you will be called to perform, but also be open to how God will use you in ways that are unexpected. Look for guidance from those who have wisdom born from experience. In his Apostolic Exhortation, Pope Francis tells us that “Jesus washed the feet of his disciples. The Lord gets involved and he involves his own, as he kneels to wash their feet. He tells his disciples: “You will be blessed if you do this” (Jn 13:17).” Your ordination, your call to diakonia is a sacrament which will enable those whom you serve and who witness your ministry to be led and strengthened in the call given to each of us to follow Jesus as one who came to serve and not be served.
I end with a story I heard a number of years ago which illustrates the power of a sacrament of service. It is the story of a retired priest who belonged to a diocese out west. Having served for over 50 years, he had retired and was no longer assigned to a particular parish. For much of his priesthood, however, had been assigned to inner city parishes where the material needs of people were very apparent. And so, in his retirement, he had gotten into the routine of making sandwiches three nights a week, bringing them to a part of the city where homeless people lived and giving them to people who were in need. Some of his brother priests heard what he was doing and, touched by his example, they sent him notes of encouragement along with a check to help defray some of the costs for the sandwiches. While grateful for the notes, he would invariably send the checks back to the priests with a five-word message written on them. It simply said: “Make your own darn sandwiches.”
While undoubtedly that retired priest had and was continuing to exercise his priestly ministry in untold ways, his concern for and care of those in need is good indicator of how he also never lost his diaconal call to serve the needs of others. Regardless whether or not your diaconal ministry, John, will entail making sandwiches, it too will be a ministry of service. You will, in your ministry, make an impact upon those whom you will serve. For this we are very grateful. Know also, however, that as the outward sign of the Christ who came to serve and not be served, you will also, like that retired priest in the aforementioned story, inspire and challenge others to hear Jesus’ call to all disciples to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned, give drink to the thirsty and comfort the sorrowful. May you never underestimate how God will use you as an instrument of grace. May the good work that is begun in you today, John, be carried to completion.