Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Point to Ponder #7: In the (peripatetic) footsteps of St. Paul

St. Paul often refers to himself a "deacon of the Gospel" (diakonos evangelion).  While he was certainly not referring to himself as a "deacon" in our modern sense of that word, it does remind us of our own basic responsibility of service to to the Gospel.  It also gives us, in St. Paul, an interesting and inspiring model of diakonia.  So, in this point of reflection, we will follow St. Paul's example.

St. Paul was a well-educated Jewish citizen of Rome.  We all know the broad outlines of his biography: Saul was a tent-maker by trade from the metropolitan trade center of Tarsus.  He initially opposed Christianity, often pictured as holding the cloaks of the men who were in the act of stoning St. Stephen, the protomartyr of the New Testament.  Then, following his dramatic encounter with Christ and his conversion, Saul changes his name to Paul ("paulus" = "the little one") and returns to Tarsus as the newest disciple of Christ.  Some scholars maintain that he continued on in this disipleship mode for as long as ten years before assuming his apostolic role as missionary to the Gentiles.  Following numerous mission trips, unbelievable hardships and trials, he wound up in Rome where he was martyred.  I can't think of anyone else in the New Testament who is as peripatetic as Paul of Tarsus.

And what did he do on all of these trips?  He would go into an area, preach the Good News, help the local community elect their own leadership, and then Paul was back on the road, heading into a new area to repeat the process all over again.  His letters were part of his "follow through", giving encouragement to those fledgling Christian communities.

And if Paul the deacon of the Gospel was constantly on the move, we should be, too!

I'm not necessarily suggesting that we all run out and book passage on the next ship to Cyprus (although it's a lovely place and I'd love to go back!), or that we should host tour groups "in the footsteps of St. Paul."  What I am suggesting is that deacons consider ourselves "mobile ministers" who take care of things in a certain area, train other people to take those responsibilities over, and then we let go and move to another area of unmet need.  For example, let's say a deacon takes responsibility for visiting prisoners in the local jail on a regular basis.  He runs bible study classes, takes communion to prisoners, and spends time talking with them during his visits.  He does this for many years, and then retires.  Who's going to continue that work?

But try this approach: the same deacon, doing all of those wonderful things, encourages others from his parish and the surrounding area to join him in this ministry.  He coordinates their training and accompanies them as they get used to the ministry.  Eventually he turns the ministry over to the group he's worked with, and then he moves on to some other area.  Perhaps he dedicates the bulk of his efforts working for prison reform.  Or, perhaps he moves into working at a local hospice.  After a while, he encourages others to join with him, and, eventually, he turns the leadership of that ministry over.  And off he goes to some other area of need.

What's driving the deacon is not simply the "doing" of a particular ministry "of his own", but rather the focus is on finding and meeting the needs of others.  This approach also serves to do what the church says repeatedly about the diaconate: that deacons are to be the "animators of the Church's own diakonia".  In short, the deacon's efforts are not complete simply by visiting the inmates at the jail and he can go home and say, "job well done."  That's not necessarily going to animate anyone else to service.

The challenge of this point to ponder, then, is: How "mobile" am I willing to be?  Can I go, preach the Good News, empower other leadership, let go (part of kenosis) and move on to the next area of need?


  1. Another solid piece of advice! The deacon has a unique opportunity to build up the Church as a community in service to others, but only if he sees himself in that role. When I asked the men in my just-concluded formation class how they might put Catholic social teachings to work in their home parishes, most came up with great ideas for themselves personally, but not many talked about nurturing interest and expertise among others. Americans--including Catholic Americans--are raised to see themselves as rugged individualists, and it's hard to break out of that box.