A response of tenderness
‘To the pandemic of the virus we want to respond with the universality of prayer, of compassion, of tenderness’, said Pope Francis, just before Holy Week and Easter, as the virus ripped through almost every country in the world. This pandemic transcends, indeed ignores, all national boundaries but so too could that trinity of prayer, compassion and tenderness that the Holy Father proposed. This echoes Pope Francis’s frequent previous pleas for what he termed a ‘globalisation of compassion’, the service of others, to which we could commit ourselves, in the power of the risen Christ.
The service of deacons
In his prayer intention for the month of May, with its reference to service of others, Pope Francis invites us to pray with him, ‘that deacons, faithful in their service to the Word and to the poor, may be an invigorating symbol for the entire Church’. This gives us an opportunity to see, as the Pope’s choice of words indicates, how such service ‘invigorates’ the whole people of God. When we witness someone giving of themselves, as we have seen at every moment during this pandemic, we are enlivened. The example of service brings us to life because it touches that generous part of our souls that a culture of selfishness tries to obscure and deaden.
Service means sacrificing yourself
The opposite holds true. When we see selfish behaviour, such as the behaviour of those who ignore social distancing or the advice to stay at home, our souls feel deadened. So too does our sense of belonging to each other, motivated by the common good more than by just our own needs. Service of other people leads to a true and authentic living of one’s life. The follower of Christ recalls, so soon after an Easter like no other Easter we’ve ever celebrated, that the true meaning of life lies in giving oneself away, which is not what much of the wisdom of our world would say. There have been signs, in the midst of this catastrophe, that service and solidarity are beginning to matter once again, to more and more of us. As St Oscar Romero starkly preached, on Low Sunday in 1978, ‘service means sacrificing yourself’.
Deacons in the tradition
The service of deacons has been integral to Christian living since the earliest times. ‘Diakonia’, or a ministry of service, was clearly a big part of the new Easter movement. Diaconal service appears as early as the sixth chapter of Acts of the Apostles, the second part of St Luke’s Gospel. Some seven members of the new young church were selected from among the community of believers. Their ‘daily diakonia’ appears to have been one of material care for the poorer members of the community, specifically widows. There had been concern that this service was being overlooked, as the essential ministry of preaching and catechising grew at speed.
Later, in 1 Timothy 3:8-13, St Paul would further explain the description of a deacon, as a person of integrity, married, respectable and committed to their faith in Christ. Women deacons, too, were clearly part of the developing tradition. A deacon’s ministry, still basically pastoral and practical, duly acquired the element of preaching, a ministy of the Word, an important aspect of a deacon’s service to this day, for which he is ordained. The office of deacon came, in time, to be understood as a sacred vocation, intimately linked to the vocation and minsitry of the priest and the bishop.
In our time, there are two types of deacon: the ‘transitional’ diaconate, to which a man is ordained on the way to priestly or ‘presbyteral’ ordination, and the ‘permanent’ diaconate, a vocation for which a suitable man is trained, then ordained. Permanent deacons often maintain full-time jobs, while some have jobs in a parish or diocese. Working with the priests and bishops, they may carry out liturgical functions such as preaching, but also solemnising marriages, conducting funerals and baptising. All exemplify the ideal of ministry and service which their first-century forebears began. The Pope asks us to pray this month to make a conscious option for that universal, prayerful tenderness and compassionate, humble service. We pray to be inspired and our faith invigorated by the service of our deacons in our Church.
Praying each day of the pandemic
We are indeed praying, many of us more intently than ever before, as the whole world cries out in pain. We are also witnessing and sharing compassion and tenderness in countless ways and in every walk of life, where people are engaging in generous service and mutual support, not least heroic healthcare professionals everywhere. Pope Francis, through his personal prayer network and our digital platform, Click-to-Pray (www.clicktopray.org), now offers us a daily prayer intention, alongside the regular monthly intention. This gives us an opportunity to take specific aspects of the emergency into our prayer.
We can also pray for each other. Our ‘Prayer Wall’, also part of Click-to-Pray, allows you to post an intention in one of several languages, anonymously or in person. Other Apostles of Prayer from around the world will see it and pray for you. Pope Francis has his own personal profile on that page, offering another way of praying with him.
One again we can follow the advice of St Ignatius of Loyola, by making a short daily retreat each day. Towards the end of every day, we try to find a moment and a place of quiet, of calm. Inviting the Spirit of God to show us the day just ending, as God sees it, we can become more aware of those moments of compassion and tenderness that we’ve seen in others during this day. We will realise that we have been tender and compassionate too, although we maybe didn’t realise it at the time. We might also notice moments that have been less tender, less compassionate and we ask forgiveness and healing for any such lapses. Above all, we ask for the grace of gratitude in our hearts, for a thankful soul will always be more close to the heart of Christ, from which flowed blood and water, the invigorating wellspring of life for the world.