Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Being Catholic: What Difference Does It Make, Really?

My friend and brother deacon, Greg Kandra, and others have been opining about Mike Hayes' recent blog post which asks whether we have become the Pharisees of our day.  Here's the original blog post over at Googling God, and here's Deacon Greg's post on the matter, along with considerable commentary. Not only do I think Mike's post is right on target, I think it has particular relevance for those of us who serve as the Church's deacons.  Let me offer two observations: one based on an historical look at the diaconate in the ancient and early medieval church, and another based on more recent history and theology related to the diaconate.

First we should look at the biblical and patristic roots of the Order of Deacons in the church.  Consider that whenever we read of deacons in scripture, they are always described in relationship to the bishop-overseer of the community, and the deacons are clearly responsible for much of the administration and outreach of the community.  The various patristic sources on the diaconate describe deacons as legates, ambassadors to other communities, catechists and religious educators.  Yes, of course, they have a liturgical role, and it's an important one!  However, their "day job" is all about helping people make connections: connecting their bishop with other communities when they served as his legates, connecting people with needs with the resources to meet those needs, and even helping their bishops in administering the goods and other "temporalities" of the church.  Deacons are, as I have said often, ministers of "connect-the-dots."

As the diaconate gradually became transitional to the presbyterate, some of this connective tissue was lost, and I don't believe it's coincidental that we see the emergence of a variety of religious orders (of both women and men) who take as their primary charism the service of others.  There is a direct, tangible connection between the decline of the diaconate as a permanent order of ministry and the rise of religious congregations devoted to the Church's diakonia.

Second, as I've written extensively here and elsewhere, the reasons for renewing a permanent diaconate in the 19th and 20th Centuries were also driven by a need to increase the outreach of the Christian family to those in need (charity) and also to work for institutional, structural, and systemic change so that the conditions which led to those needs could be eliminated (justice).  In short, the Church increasingly recovered her identity as a servant-Church.  This was the principle theme of Pope Paul VI as he closed the Second Vatican Council in 1965: he announced that the central theme of the entire Council had been to identify the Church as servant to the world.  The diaconate was restored, largely and most influentially, because of the horrors of the Dachau Concentration Camp and the experiences of the large numbers of German and Polish priests incarcerated there.  It would due to the efforts of several of those priest-survivors who would push for the renewal of a contemporary permanent diaconate precisely to help the Church recover her servant-identity, and this was what the world's bishops would also recover at the Council.  Pope Paul VI didn't end his reflection with that final speech, either.  In the years following the Council, as he took the necessary steps to renew the diaconate, he frequently observed that the very reason for the deacon's existence is to "sacramentalize the Church's own service."  He also reminded these new deacons that we are to be the "animators" of the Church's own service, by stirring up the conscience of the Christian community.

Here's where I think Mike's blog post really hits home.  He asks us to inquire of ourselves and our parishioners what they believe the Church's priorities are.  What has the bishop stated as his own pastoral priorities?  Here in the diocese in which I'm serving, for example, our bishop has made it clear that one of his chief pastoral priorities -- and something that he wants all of us to tackle in some way -- is that countering gang violence.  Bishops in the Midwest, where family farms are giving way to huge corporate conglomerates, often take on the plight of the family farmers and their families.  Unfortunately, Mike found that very often, many Catholics didn't even know who there bishop was, much less what his pastoral concerns were.

Many of us, myself included, find ourselves playing "insider baseball".  We often get so wrapped up in internal parochial matters (which are sometimes quite important, don't get me wrong!), that we forget that the very mission of the Church herself -- as Paul VI and John Paul II said so frequently -- is evangelization itself.  As Cardinal Mahoney once wrote, "It's not that the Church has mission, but that the mission has a Church" and that mission, is evangelization.

So, my friends, I think this is a good opportunity for us to reflect on all of this.  As a community of faith, what is your parish doing?  Get specific!  What are the top three priorities of your bishop?  Of your pastor?  Of your parish pastoral council?  Of your finance council?  Follow the money, follow the time, follow the energy expended.  What do you find?

Let me end with a true story.  I was serving on a diocesan staff in the Midwest.  The bishop asked me to come to a meeting with some parish leaders from a small rural parish who were concerned about their ability to survive as a parish.  They came to the bishop and enthusiastically told him that they had "found the solution to the priest shortage."  Their answer was to sponsor a priest from Nigeria to come to the diocese, attend a local University, and also serve in their parish, which was nearby.  And the good news, they said, was that they only needed Father to say a Mass on Sunday; the rest of the week, he would be available to do any other jobs the bishop had for him.  When the bishop asked who was going to handle the rest of the parish's functions, if they didn't see Father doing that, they said that there WERE no other parish responsibilities.  The parish existed for one reason: to have Sunday Mass.  Period.  Nothing else.  It was a stunningly depressing moment, to see these wonderful people who had no idea of what being a Catholic parish ought to mean within the larger human community.

What's going on where you live?

Time for a little levity: Priests and Deacons working together

There are so many important things going on in the world today, and we usually treat them with deadly seriousness.  World hunger, global warming, illness and disease, human trafficking, gut-wrenching poverty, new translations of Latin Mass texts. . . . all of them deadly serious, to be sure.  Sometimes, though, we just need to see the humor in things.  So, thanks to one of my former students, now a very effective diocesan youth minister, we have this great story.  Chelsea, thanks for this!

"Father, you want me to do what?"

Some cautions before I share it with you:

1) Please don't get distracted and hung up about what SHOULD or should NOT have been done in this case.  As a deacon for nearly 22 years, and a very active and committed lay person for at least as many years before that, I can attest to seeing even crazier things happen, some which would put this little tale to shame!  I'm sure many of you can do the same.   But for now, just enjoy it!

2) What I particularly enjoy is how the priest and the deacon work together on this one!  Would that we always had this kind of good collaboration!

Now -- enjoy!  Here's the story. . . .

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

22 November: A Personal Reflection

Today, 22 November 2011, we commemorate the 48th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas.  I leave it to political pundits and scholars to hypothesize about the impact of JFK's loss on our nation.  For now, though, I simply offer one man's personal reflection.

On 22 November 1963, I was a freshman in high school seminary: St. Henry Preparatory Seminary in Belleville, Illinois.  I was studying to become a priest in the Oblates of Mary Immaculate (OMI), hoping to become a missionary priest.  Three years before, while still in grade school at St. Patrick's Parish in Peoria, Illinois, my class had staged our own version of the Nixon-Kennedy presidential debates, as we learned that, for the first time ever, the United States might actually elect a Catholic to be president!  Not everyone was a Kennedy supporter: even at home, my Dad was firmly behind Richard Nixon.  After the election, Kennedy had won and then came that marvelous inaugural address!  "Ask not what your country can do for you. . . ."  What an exciting time!

As JFK was preparing to run for president, of course, things were changing in the Church, too -- the other great influence on those of us in Catholic grade school.  In 1958, the long-serving Pope Pius XII died, and Cardinal Angelo Roncalli was elected pope, taking the name of John XXIII.  There was such excitement about the new pope, especially when, in January 1959, he announced that he was convening a general Council of the Church: Vatican II.  To me, as a young Catholic boy who had already decided that he wanted to go to the seminary, it seemed like everything and anything was going to be possible in the church and the world.

1962: the year of the opening of the Council and the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and as a 12-year old, I watched with my Mom and Dad as President Kennedy showed those frightening photos of the missile launchers in Cuba and announced the naval blockade.  If I could have enlisted in the Navy that night, I would have.  The world was rapidly changing, and we wanted to be part of it.

In 1963, suddenly, things began to change in a negative direction, including the death of "good Pope John" and then the assassination of President Kennedy.  Even though I was only 13, I made two scrapbooks that year, and I still have them: one on the President and one on the Pope.  Suddenly, our generation had to start to grow up and face unpleasant realities.  A new word, "Vietnam" replaced "French Indochina" in our news, and tensions increased in both our government and in our church.  This would seem to build until the awful year of 1968: the year of the Tet Offensive, and the year of the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.  While those events would really steer our generation in many ways, the process really began with that shocking day, 48 years ago, in Dallas.

Ultimately, it's not helpful to wonder "what if" JFK hadn't been cut down.  At the same time, it does seem opportune to see if we can recover some of the optimism and enthusiasm we all had for the Church and Country back then!  Wouldn't it be wonderful too see and encourage the possibilities of the future, and not all of the things that keep us angry and divided?

RIP, President Kennedy.  We're still here, still trying to live up to the potential of your inaugural challenge!

Monday, November 14, 2011

Coming soon to the Archdiocese of Vancouver: Deacons!

Archbishop J. Michael Miller, CSB, the Archbishop of Vancouver announced earlier this year that, following the recommendations of a recent Archdiocesan Synod and other consultative processes, he was restoring the diaconate as a permanent ministry within the Archdiocese.  You can read more about his announcement, as well as a link to his pastoral letter on the diaconate, here

This is always an exciting time for an diocesan church, and yet it is also a time of some confusion and uncertainty.  Ultimately, it is a time of extraordinary faith and hope: the willingness to set out into waters that are as yet uncharted in that diocese, the recognition that a new group of ordained ministers who are not priests will be entering the official service of the People of God, and the courage to face whatever challenges develop as they happen with the conviction of the ongoing presence and action of the Holy Spirit to guide them through it.

As I type these words, I'm sitting at an airport gate in California awaiting my flights to Vancouver.  I've been invited by Archbishop Miller to come to Vancouver and spend two days with the priests of the Archdiocese talking about the diaconate.  I'll also be spending some time with the brand new group of aspirants to the diaconate, as they meet with the priests on Tuesday evening.  I'm honored to be a part of the "launching" of this new adventure in the life of their local Church.

Please keep all of them (and your humble blogger!) in your prayers.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Renewed Diaconate at Vatican II: Gift of the Holy Spirit

It is fairly well known that it was the decision of the 2600 bishops assembled as the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) that it would be possible again to permit the exercise of the diaconate as a permanent order of ministry.  They expressed this decision in paragraph #29 of the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (known by its Latin incipit, Lumen gentium).  Pope Paul VI would then implement this decision after the Council ended; he promulgated Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem  ("The Holy Order of the Diaconate") in 1967, changing existing law to permit bishops to ordain men as deacons without the intention of later ordaining them to the priesthood, as well as changing the law in order to permit married candidates to be ordained.

However, what is often not discussed are the actual conversations, speeches and writings related to the question that took place before and during the Council itself.  I thought it might be interesting to review some of that background.  It gives us a valuable insight as to why the bishops felt this was such an important decision to make. 

I will present three Cardinals to you.  At the time of the debate on the diaconate, Cardinal Leo-Josef Suenens of Belgium was 59, and a highly-respected leader during and following the Council.  He was a close friend to both Pope John XXIII and Pope Paul VI, and his intellectual brilliance and pastoral heart were deeply felt on a wide variety of issues at the Council: the renewal of religious life, the diaconate, the processes involved in the governance of dioceses, and even his support of the charismatic renewal movement. Cardinal Juan Landazuri Ricketts, only 50 years of age at the time of the debate, was a Franciscan friar serving as Archbishop of Peru,  Cardinal Julius Doepfner of Munich-Freising was another young (50 at the time of the debate), well-respected and pastorally-experienced leader at the Council.  These three young cardinals articulated extremely valuable points which apparently echoed the desires of the vast majority of the Council fathers with regard to the diaconate.

The principal conciliar debate on the subject of renewing the diaconate as a "proper and permanent" order in the Latin Church occurred during the 41st to the 49th general assemblies (4 - 16 October 1963).  In reviewing the interventions, the climax of the debate occurred on 8 October, with the intervention of Cardinal Suenens. 

Cardinal Doepfner
The first speaker in favor of renewal was Cardinal Doepfner.  He strongly urged acceptance of the draft, and ad­dressed some of the concerns already raised.  He supported the inclusion of the diaconate in a dogmatic document because the issue of the orders of the hierarchy of the Church is a dogmatic issue, a part of the divine law and therefore an essential part of the nature of the Church.  He pointed out that the diaconate, ever since Trent, had been seen as part of the sacra­mental priesthood.  Looking to the present situation in many parts of the world, Doepfner pointed to the fact that there are many persons, many of them married, who are serving the Church in diaconal roles.  He asked, “Why should these people be denied the grace of the sacrament?”  The law of celibacy is sacred, he said, but it should not become an obstacle for the evolution of beneficial ways to serve which may be necessary in our times.
Cardinal Landazuri-Ricketts
Cardinal Landazuri Ricketts, speaking for himself and 95 other Latin American Fathers, spoke to the benefits of a renewed diaco­nate.  While many functions (which he does not articulate) of the diaconate were already done by laypersons, there were still others that the deacon would carry out as an ordained member of the hierarchy.  The restoration of the diacon­ate was not to lessen the role of the laity, but to increase it, and that the lay apostolate, while most important, is not an end in itself.  The Latin American Fathers he represented urged the adoption of the proposal.

Cardinal Suenens
It was at this point that Cardinal Suenens presented what is arguably the strongest and most coherent argument for the diaco­nate evident in the documents.  He began by outlining the theo­logical principles upon which the diaconate is based.  Citing the authority of scripture, the apostolic Fathers, constant tradi­tion, and the liturgical books of East and West, he spoke of the many charisms evident throughout the Church, distinct from the priest­hood, which were set up to provide direct assistance to the bishop in the care of the poor and the nurturing of the communi­ty.  To say that these tasks can be given to lay persons does not mean that the diaconate is not needed.  These tasks should only be given to persons (whether ordained or not) who have the neces­sary graces.  The Church has the right to the benefit of all the graces given to it by God, including the graces of the diaconate.

Suenens then turned to the situation in the contemporary world.  He urged the Fathers not to make a universal decision for or against the diaconate.  Rather, they should decide if there was any area or situation that might benefit from it, and then phrase its decision in such a way as to enable it to take effect in those regions in which the bishops decided it was appropriate.  In other words, the Council should not close off universally any means by which the grace of God may flow into the Church.  Therefore (quoting from the draft), “where episcopal conferences judge the restoration of a permanent diaconate opportune, they should be free to introduce it.”

Even in this brief snapshot, we can see how the Council worked: What tools were needed to assist people in the contemporary world.  Expressed more theologically, what gifts had been given by the Spirit to the Church to render such assistance?  The diaconate was presented as one of those many gifts of the Spirit.