Given at the Jubilee of Deacons Mass for the Year of Mercy at Westminster Cathedral on the feast of Our Lady of Walsingham, 24 September 2016.
Today we gather for this celebration of Mass for deacons in the great Jubilee Year of Mercy.
Let us listen again to the words of Pope Francis as he invited the Church is observe this year:
'How much I desire that this year will be steeped in mercy, so that we can go out to every man and woman bringing the goodness and tenderness of God. May the balm of God's mercy reach everyone' (Misericordiae Vultus 5).
It is not too late for us to renew our efforts to live to the full this Year of Mercy. In doing so, the perspective of the diaconate can help us, for the diaconate is a focal point, an embodiment, of the quality of service which pervades every aspect of the life of the Church. The diaconate, and therefore the deacon, is the living icon, and reminder, of this truth. This entire quality of service in the Church flows from mercy: the mercy of God received by us in our need, which then shapes and inspires us to show that same mercy to others.
Here in the Cathedral we have established a way of mercy, which I invite you to follow after our Mass is ended. It begins with the door of mercy. As we enter we see an image of the Trinity, for Divine Mercy is the source of all mercy and, as Pope Francis put it graphically, mercy is the name of God.
The image we see is taken from 14th century English iconography. It depicts the Father holding in his outstretched arms the crucified Son, with the Holy Spirit hovering between them. It is known as the Seat of Mercy. Sometimes a gathering of tiny figures can be seen held, in a cloth nest, to the heart of the Father. They represent the Spirit-filled members of the Church, the Body of Christ. Here we can see that mercy ebbs and flows within the life of God, between Father, Son and Holy Spirit, for mercy is the very life of God, love, reaching out to us in our weaknesses. Pondering this image today we can sense how the ministry of the deacon is that of serving this ebb and flow of mercy, encouraging, supporting the work of service in the Church. Caritas is the service of mercy.
The second step on this way of mercy is the image of the Baptism of Jesus, reminding us that our participation in the life of the Blessed Trinity comes from our baptism. From there that gift of the Holy Spirit develops and diversifies into every unfolding of our vocation. Within the Church the light of the one baptism refracts, like light in a chandelier, into the glory of every particular Christian way of life: in marriage, in dedicated single living, in religious life, in priesthood and, of course, in the diaconate. Each shines with the light of God's grace; together they make up its full spectrum.
The third step brings us to a chapel which celebrates the Father of Mercies. Here the image is that of the prodigal son, or rather that of the forgiving father. As we well know, one of the most revealing things in this parable is that the Father is always ready to take the initiative in bringing about reconciliation.
Speaking of the role of the deacon, Pope Francis said this:
'The deacon is to be an apostle in his family, in his employment, in his community and on the new frontiers of mission today. He is to be an apostle of service, proclamation and charity, working with his fellow deacons, in close unity with the priests and in faithful communion with his bishop.'
Now an apostle is 'one who is sent'. Certainly it is true that the deacon is sent by the Church. Certainly through his ordination he shares in the sending of Christ by the Father, in that initiative of the Father to go out and reach every prodigal son and daughter. But I think we may also say that the deacon is most profoundly sent by the Father to be the companion of his Son in this work. Every vocation has its root in the will of the Father. It is he who sends us to his Son, giving us, out of love, to be his Son's faithful companions.
The fourth step in this way of mercy shows Jesus as Mercy Incarnate. Here the icon is that of his descent into hell and his reaching out to grasp the hand of Adam to draw him out of the realms of hell into the region of his redemptive light. Here we see Christ's victory over both death and sin.
This too figures in the ministry of the deacon who often has the task of accompanying those who are living through moments of desolation and loss at the death of a loved one. Often the deacon also leads the funeral service, proclaiming the mercy of God who, in his love, gives us a share in this victory over death itself. The deacon also can find himself in the position of speaking with those who are caught in the living death of sin and its consequences. Tending to all the wounds to be found in the body of humanity, the Body of Christ, is an important manifestation of the work of God's mercy. Indeed, one of the favourite themes of Pope Francis, whenever he speaks about pastoral ministry in the Church, is that of closeness: the closeness of the bishop to his priests; of the priest to his people; of the deacon to those to whom he is sent to minister. There can be no true pastoral ministry at a distance. Closeness is the quality we need.
The next step of this way brings us to reflect on the work of the Holy Spirit. Here the images are those of the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, for it is the Holy Spirit, dwelling within us, who makes our hearts beat to the rhythm of his impulses, in tempo with the life of God. The Holy Spirit aligns our efforts with the will of God for his people.
Here, then, we find such a true echo of the first reading of our Mass, taken from the Letter to the Galatians (Gal 4.4-7). We do well today to read this text with the eyes of a deacon. Yes, the Father sends the Son to enable us to be adopted as sons. The deacon too is sent by the Father to be the companion to the Son, to share in this redemptive task. And the Holy Spirit is sent into our hearts to seal this bond, so that, with the Son, we cry out 'Abba, Father!'
The Gospel today (John 19.25-27) helps us to complete our way of mercy, for both the Gospel and this way direct us to Mary, given from the cross to be our Mother and always our Mother of mercy. She constantly urges us into the arms of Jesus and to the tender embrace of mercy. As Pope Francis said at the very first of his appearances at the window of his study, only when we experience the tender caress of Jesus in his mercy will we become his disciples and messengers of that same mercy.
Let Mary lead us. She who fully welcomed the Word of God shows us how it is to be done, how to serve, how to be diaconia in the Church today.