Given at the Mass of Ordination to the diaconate of Alex Burke, Kingsley Izundu and Colin Macken at Westminster Cathedral on 23rd June 2018.
In this ceremony, these three men, Alex, Kingsley and Colin, your friends, colleagues, indeed husbands and fathers, will receive a gift of the Holy Spirit, making them sharers in the Sacrament of Holy Orders, Deacons of the Catholic Church. For all of us, this is a precious moment, the unfolding of a vocation, a call from God, which has been sensed by them and now fulfilled by the Church.
In the first reading (Acts 6.1-7), we heard of a moment like this in the very first years of the Church: the choosing of the seven men who were to assist the first Apostles of Jesus. We will come back to that text, and what we are to learn from it, in a few moments.
But first I would like to dip into the Acts of the Apostles a few chapters later. The scene has moved from Jerusalem to Antioch. The Church is spreading. There, in Chapter 13, we read these words: 'While they were offering worship, the Holy Spirit said: “I want Barnabas and Saul set apart for the work to which I have called them”.’ (Acts 13.2)
This is the language of the Church. Through ordination, men are 'set apart' for the work of God. That is what we do today: 'set apart' these three men for their work in the name of Jesus. But we must understand properly the meaning of that phrase. 'Set apart' does not mean 'set above', in some kind of higher state. Nor does it mean 'separated from' as if they will suddenly live in a separate world. These ways of misunderstanding the words 'set apart' is what leads to the superiority and aloofness that some call clericalism. We want no part in that.
Rather, the Gospel tells us what 'set apart' really means. It is like being 'salt' and 'light', distinctive things without which life is diminished, if not impossible. Without salt, food become tasteless. Without light, life becomes confusion. But salt is no use separated from the rest of food, and light is no use in a world of its own. No, today's ceremony 'sets apart' these three men so that they can indeed be salt, mixed into the fabric of life, and light, positioned so that they can cast light on many darkened situations.
Of course, these words of Jesus in the Gospel are not addressed only to those in Holy Orders. No, He is speaking to every one of us, all who have been 'set apart' by his first gift of baptism. It is baptism that first sets us apart and gives us the calling to be salt and light, in the name of Jesus, in every situation.
So, today no-one loses these three men who are 'set apart'. Rather we embrace them more closely, knowing their special calling and their new role in service of us all.
Now, more precisely, what is this 'special calling'?
The first reading tells the story of a row! In Jerusalem, there were Jewish Christians who had come to the city from different parts of the world. Devout Jews often wanted to spend their later years in that Holy City. So among these incomers (I could even say immigrants), there were many widows. In our reading, these are called the Hellenists. The other group, the Hebrews, were the local Jewish Christians, speaking not Greek but Aramaic. These were the home team. And there certainly was tension between them over the provision of assistance to the elderly.
So, seven men were chosen to assist the twelve Apostles, who were all from the home team, so that the Greek speakers were not neglected. Perhaps, then, it is not surprising that the chosen seven were all from the Hellenists, as we can tell from the list of their names.
Through this decision, the twelve were now assisted by the seven. This assistance included not only 'serving at tables' but also the proclamation of the Word. This we learn almost immediately, in Chapter 8, in the account of the conversion of the Ethiopian, by Philip, first in the list of the seven. The seven were going to reach places the twelve were not getting to.
This development in the early Church, this emerging partnership has a long history. To cut it short, it has developed into the particular roles of deacon, priest and bishop as we know them today. It goes like this:
The Sacrament of Holy Orders gives a character to the inner reality, the soul, of the man receiving it. In the deacon, that character is one of service; in the priest, it is the imprint of the work of sanctification, effected especially through the offering of the sacrifice of the Mass and through the forgiving of sin; in the bishop, it is the charism of the 'governing Spirit.' Please note, however, that the charism of service is at the basis of the entire sacrament. A priest always remains a deacon, a man of service. Today I wear a dalmatic, for the bishop does not cease to be a deacon. But this charism of service, this character, this imprint of service is to shine most clearly and brightly in the person of the deacon. In this way, the deacon makes present in the Church, in the profile of its Holy Order, a living and personal sign of Christ the true and total servant.
The deacon, then, is to foster the work of service in the Church, cultivating a spirituality of service, enabling that service to flow more freely through the entire body of the Church. And, as we all know, this service has a primary and deliberate focus on the poor among us. Such is the command of the Lord. That is the calling, the work, for which Alex, Kingsley and Colin are 'set apart' by this gift of the Holy Spirit today.
But, forgive me, I have one last point to make, and it is important.
The deacon is called not only to foster and develop service to every kind of poverty but also to service at the altar. Why is that? It is because our service of the poor, our service of one another, finds its source and shape precisely in the Eucharist, celebrated at the altar.
The Eucharist is the life-blood of the Church. We come to Mass with the burdens and joys of life. We make of them an offering to Jesus so that he can present them to our Heavenly Father, bringing in return God's grace and holiness to our needy world. The place to which we come and from which we are sent out, is the Cross of Christ, his sacrifice, made present again on our altar.
It is symbolically powerful that the gifts of bread and wine, which represent our lives, are placed on the altar by the deacon and prepared by him for the sacrifice of the Mass. The gifts we are given from the altar, the precious Body and Blood of the Lord, are the mandate we receive to serve, in the love of Christ, our brothers and sisters. The deacon assists in their distribution. In this way, the altar holds the key to a full understanding of the ministry of the deacon: the ministry of service, always rooted in Christ, always flowing from his all-powerful gifts, always reaching out to those most in need.
May God bless our actions this day. May God bless these deacons always. May their ministry, through his grace, be a cause of joy for us all. Amen.