Dominican Diaconate Ordination

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Homily Notes of
Most Rev. Diarmuid Martin
Archbishop of Dublin


Saint Saviour’s Church, Dominick Street, 29th October 2016

“One of significant fruits of the Second Vatican Council was the restoration of the permanent deaconate in the Latin Church. This decision was fostered by wide reflection and historical research into the place of the deacon in the Church, East and West, over the centuries. The study of the deacon in the history of the Church is however a complex one on which it is not easy to find unanimity on all points.

The Council restored the permanent deaconate. There is of course only one deaconate. Some are called to exercise the ministry of deacon in a permanent way; for others, like Philip this morning, it is exercised within the path towards priestly ordination. But there is however only one deaconate, and there are characteristics of the deaconate which prevail over the manner of its exercise. They are about how the deacon is called to witness to particular dimension of the life of the Church. The deaconate finds its fundamental origins in Jesus Christ himself. This is not to say that the deaconate, as we know it today, was instituted directly by Jesus. It is something which unfolded within the living and authentic tradition of the Church. It means rather that the ministry of the deacon – the ministry to which you Phillip are now called – is a call to witness to specific dimensions of the ministry Jesus himself.

Many would attribute the institution of deacons to Chapter 6 of the Acts of the Apostles, when the Apostles chose seven men of good reputation, filled with the Holy Spirit and wisdom, “to serve at tables”, in other words to assist them in their ministry. As occurs very often in the New Testament, however, what appears to be the description of an historical fact is more complex. The story of the calling of the seven is to a great extent not so much telling us about what happened but about “what should be”. The story is not so much an historical account of the institution of the deaconate, but a lesson about ministry in the Church.

An interesting thing which emerges if we look more closely at Chapter 6 of Acts is that it begins by telling us about a dispute within the Church community, as it began to spread into different cultural situations and conditions. Already at the time of the writing of the Acts of the Apostles, the Church was far from being mono-cultural. It welcomed men and women of different cultures and languages. As the Church community began to be composed of people from different cultural backgrounds it was inevitable that different ways of living out Church life would appear. The apostles see the need to adapt the form of their ministry.

That adaptation is not, however, driven in the first place by the new cultures themselves. The guiding principle is that of ensuring that the expression of ministry be more authentic. Ministry is a constant in the Church, but ministry must be structured in such a way, not just that it responds to new needs and new cultural interactions, but that it does so in a way in which the authenticity and the newness of the message of Jesus becomes ever more evident.

The ministry of Deacons in the Church is a ministry of service: service to the word of God, service at the altar, service in the community. The deacon in the Church is in a particular way a sign and a witness to Christ who came “not to be served but to serve”. Every fibre of the deacon’s life must therefore be marked by service.
The witness of someone called to ordained ministry today will very often be counter-cultural, a witness which is the very opposite of our consumer society, where the craving for wealth, pleasure and power so often dominates. In a world marked by indifference to God, the minister must witness to the difference of the Gospel. In a world proud of its progress, the ordained minister must be sensitive to what Pope Benedict calls the “ambiguity of progress” and indeed must address those who are distracted by progress, deceived by what is called progress, or even hurt by progress.

The Christian message is not a message which seeks power or political influence, but which one preaches and practices goodness and love, mercy and compassion. Your life must witness to a love that is gratuitous, to a love that cares for each one individually, especially those who are sick, or weak, or vulnerable, that reaches out to the sinner, to those who are drifting in their lives, to those who cannot find their way, to those who seek truth.

Phillip, as a Deacon you are called to build up the ecclesial community through your own witness to the radical newness and the radical generosity demanded by the Gospel. You must learn to disentangle your life from everything which hinders that radical newness from breaking through into the realities of our time. Only if you disentangle yourself in this way will you allow Jesus to appear through you and then to touch the life of the people you encounter.

This brings us then to the Gospel reading that we have heard at our Mass. Jesus criticizes the Lawyers and the Pharisees for their tendency to seek the places of honour, to put themselves in the first place. What Jesus is teaching might seem not much more than maxim of good behaviour, yet we are told that Jesus is teaching a parable: that there is somehow a deeper message hidden in what he says. “Do not sit in the places of honour” would have been a principle of good etiquette well known in Jesus’ time when people sat anyway according to hierarchy. What is new and striking is the reason which Jesus gives for not doing so It is not simple humility – but so that everyone can see the respect within which you are held. The arrogant, despite what they think, are not respected; the humble witness in their lives to true nobility.

The final phrase that whoever humbles himself will be exalted is a phrase which goes beyond table etiquette. This is the parable: it is about the great reversal of values which is a feature of the kingdom of God.

Renewal in the Church is not just about using different methods in our pastoral work. Renewal requires that you Phillip and I and all of us who exercise ministry in any way – become challenged to understand that great reversal of values which is a feature of the kingdom of God. The deacon as one who is called to serve must be a living icon of that reversal of values.

A little later in this ceremony of ordination, when I consign the book of the Gospels to you, the liturgical text stresses how you must interiorise the Gospel, in these words: “Believe what you read, teach what you believe and practice what you teach”. Practice what you teach is not about rules and norms and externals, but about witnessing in a world which for many can be harsh, as an icon of the gentle care and the loving mercy of Jesus, who comes to save. May the Lord bring to completion in you the seeds of service he has implanted in you.