Homily of Archbishop Dermot Farrell for the Diaconate Ordination of Joseph Keegan
Church of the Immaculate Conception, Clondalkin
Feast of St Thomas, the Apostle, Saturday, 3rd July 2021
Good afternoon everyone. I welcome you on this Feast of St Thomas, the Apostle–-the family and friends of Joe who is to be ordained deacon, a very special welcome to you. Thank you, Andrew and Alice for your generous gift to the Church in giving us Joe. Welcome to my brother priests. My dear friends in Christ, welcome to all.
Joe, I would suspect that this has been a long time coming for you. Many hours prayer, study and preparation have taken place for this moment; it is very important for you to remember that it is the Lord who has called you. Through your careful discernment and prayer, you have discovered that God has called you to this vocation, and now you are responding with your whole heart.
Today is the Feast of Saint Thomas, ‘Doubting Thomas,’ as he is often called. However, this does not do Thomas justice. In fact, Thomas embodies an honest and authentic response to the reality of the resurrection: ‘Unless I see the holes that the nails made in his hands and can put my finger into the holes they made, and unless I can put my hand into his side, I refuse to believe.’’ Jesus meets Thomas where he is, and Thomas is overwhelmed by Jesus’ response to his demand. “Look here are my hands,” says Jesus, “Put your finger here… and Thomas exclaims, “my Lord and my God.” Thomas is overwhelmed by the reality of the Risen Lord. What has happening in him, what he was experiencing, enabled Thomas to make that declaration of faith. This was not some long process of logic. That is not to say that it was not born of Thomas’s long journey with Jesus: Thomas had been called by Jesus and had followed him a long time. As St John Henry Newman put it in the mouth of the priest in his novel Loss and Gain: “You must make a venture; faith is a venture before a man is a Catholic; it is a grace after it” (p. 343). Joe, while you have been discerning your vocation for a long time and preparing for this day, there is in the end a transition, a discontinuity—if you will—between the discernment and the decision to seek ordination to the diaconate and priesthood. The final decision is never ultimately determined by cold logic. It is the same when a person commits themselves to another in marriage. The unique assent you have given is the “venture.” The ordination is the “grace.”
God is doing all sorts of things that we cannot see, measure, control or fully understand. But it is an informed faith that allows you to fall in love with such a God. Thomas is the one who offers the rest of us hope. We hear Thomas’ story and realise that it is possible to question one minute and the next declare without hesitation, “My Lord and my God.” Both are honest, and for many both are necessary.
It is not just a series of rational steps that leads to ordination, but ultimately a leap of trust, a leap faith. Nobody knows what is going to unfold in one’s life. In today’s Gospel account, St John brings us to a very privileged place: he permits us to glimpse the moment of grace. St John’s is a portrait of faith and its mystery. Not so much a before and after, even if it’s told that way, but a “here and here”: two places in Thomas, two layers of heart, two dimensions of his response to Jesus. Thomas is a witness to coming to faith in Jesus, as is the case with many people who throw themselves at the feet of Jesus, and say, “My Lord and My God.”
Joe you know that this is not just a transitional ministry on the way to priesthood. The bishop and the priest retain the diaconal office while they minister to God’s people, empowering them to fulfil their baptismal role as a priestly people. A telling reminder of that truth is given by Pope Francis when he washes feet at the Mass of Chrism and takes off his vestments to reveal the deacon’s stole.
In sharing in the Sacrament of Orders, the deacon is authorised and empowered to order, direct, focus the attention of the people on their dignity as baptised members of the Body of Christ. The deacon is called to help the people, and himself, to “judge wisely the things of earth and hold firm to the things of heaven” (Concluding Prayer, Second Sunday of Advent). You are continuing in your life, and the lives of others, what you recognise you have experienced of Christ. The diaconal ministry is not so much a copying of the life of Jesus, as a continuation of it. Joe will do that not just through his preaching and teaching, but in the conduct of his life. The promise of celibacy which you make today is an expression of the total gift of self which you make to God and to his people. In the end, celibacy is not a matter of reason but of love, a form of life adopted by a man in love with God.
Another sign is the promise of obedience which you make to the bishop in the name of the Church. We give our lives to preach the gospel. It is not the freedom of the consumer, with multiple choice, but an unqualified gift of our lives to the ministry, and a search for consensus based on discussion and mutual attentiveness and respect. If the promise of obedience is experienced as submission to the will of the bishop, without the search for a common mind, then the promise of obedience becomes alienating and inhuman.
When Joe places his hands in my hands, it is a eucharistic gesture of total freedom. This is my life and I give it to you. In this way we give ourselves to the mission of the Church. That, surely, is the meaning of the questions put to Joe during his ordination: “Are you resolved to hold the mystery of faith with a clear conscience? Are you resolved to maintain and deepen a spirit of prayer? Are you resolved to shape your way of life according to the example of Christ?” “I am; I am; I am, with the help of God.”
And then to remind yourself that you hold this treasure in an earthenware vessel, you prostrate yourself before the altar while we pray “Bless this chosen man.” You will no doubt think: “Lord, I am not worthy” (Matt 8:8). Or perhaps: “Here I am, Lord, I come to do your will” (1 Sam 3:4). That prostration is a gesture of self-emptying and humility. It is a gesture of abandonment and trust. It is a sign of your willingness to be filled with the power and the love of “God who has begun the good work in you and will bring it to fulfilment.” The laying on of hands links you to the teaching and ministry of the apostles. It is accompanied by the words of the Prayer of Consecration: “May he remain strong and steadfast in Christ, giving to the world the witness of a true conscience.”
The conclusion of the ordination of a deacon, is when the Book of the Gospels is handed to you with the words “Receive the Gospel of Christ whose herald you now are.” The Sacred Scriptures help us to understand the person and the mission of Christ. They challenge us to live lives worthy of our calling as followers of Jesus. You will open them up for people in the homily. Indeed, you will already have had a glimpse of the power of preaching the Gospel. But as a deacon you will have privileged access into the lives of the people you serve. In the words of Isaiah we are challenged to ensure that the Word of God does not return empty from us, but accomplishes God’s purpose (cf. Is 55:11). You will learn that the best sermon you preach will not just be with words, or from the ambo, but the sermon which is your life.
When our hearts and minds are open to the presence of Christ in the Scriptures, we will also find Him in our neighbour in need. “If you close your eyes to the wounds of the world, you have no right to say “my Lord and my God” (Tomáš Halík).
“There, I am putting my words into your mouth” (Jer.1:9). The bishop is instructed to say to you at this moment: “Believe what you read, teach what you believe, and practice what you teach.”