Deacons: Myths and Misperceptions

reeseHeadshotWebJesuit Father Thomas Reese has published an interesting piece over at NCRonline entitled “Women Deacons? Yes.  Deacons?  Maybe.”  I have a lot of respect for Fr. Tom, and I thank him for taking the time to highlight the diaconate at this most interesting time.  As the apostolic Commission prepares to assemble to discuss the question of the history of women in diaconal ministry, it is good for all to remember that none of this is happening in a vacuum.  IF women are eventually ordained as deacons in the contemporary Church, then they will be joining an Order of ministry that has developed much over the last fifty years.  Consider one simple fact: In January 1967 there were zero (0) “permanent” deacons in the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church (the last two lived and died in the 19th Century).  Today there are well over 40,000 deacons serving worldwide.  By any numerical measure, this has to be seen as one of the great success stories of the Second Vatican Council.  Over the last fifty years, then, the Church has learned much about the nature of this renewed order, its exercise, formation, assignment and utilization.  The current question, therefore, rests upon a foundation of considerable depth, while admitting that much more needs to be done.

However, Father Reese’s column rests on some commonly-held misperceptions and errors of fact regarding the renewal of the diaconate.  Since these errors are often repeated without challenge or correction, I think we need to make sure this foundation is solid lest we build a building that is doomed to fall down.  So, I will address some of these fault lines in the order presented:

  1.  The“Disappearance” of Male Deacons  

exsultet1Father states that “[Women deacons] disappeared in the West around the same time as male deacons.”  On the contrary, male deacons remained a distinct order of ministry (and one not automatically destined for the presbyterate) until at least the 9th Century in the West.  This is attested to by a variety of sources.  Certainly, throughout these centuries, many deacons — the prime assistants to bishops — were elected to succeed their bishops.  Later in this period, as the Roman cursus honorum took hold more definitively, deacons were often ordained to the presbyterate, leading to what is incorrectly referred to as the “transitional” diaconate.  However, both in a “permanent” sense and a “transitional” sense, male deacons never disappeared.

  1.  The Renewal of Diaconate as Third World Proposal

1115_p12b500Father Tom writes that his hesitancy concerning the diaconate itself “is not with women deacons, but with the whole idea of deacons as currently practiced in the United States.” (I would suggest that this narrow focus misses the richness of the diaconate worldwide.)  He then turns to the Council to provide a foundation for what follows.  He writes, “The renewal of the diaconate was proposed at the Second Vatican Council as a solution to the shortage of native priests in missionary territories. In fact, the bishops of Africa said, no thank you. They preferred to use lay catechists rather than deacons.”  This statement simply is not true and does not reflect the history leading up to the Council or the discussions that took place during the Council on the question of the diaconate.

LocalsRebuildDresdenAs I and others have written extensively, the origins of the contemporary diaconate lie in the early 19th Century, especially in Germany and France.  In fact there is considerable linkage between the early liturgical movement (such as the Benedictine liturgical reforms at Solesmes) and the early discussions about a renewed diaconate: both stemmed from a desire to increase participation of the faithful in the life of the Church, both at liturgy and in life.  In Germany, frequent allusion was made to the gulf that existed between priests and bishops and their people.  Deacons were discussed as early as 1840 as a possible way to reconnect people with their pastoral leadership.  This discussion continued throughout the 19th Century and into the 20th.  It became a common topic of the Deutschercaritasberband (the German Caritas organization) before and during the early years of the Nazi regime, and it would recur in the conversations held by priest-prisoners in Dachau.  Following the war, these survivors wrote articles and books on the need for a renewed diaconate — NOT because of a priest shortage, but because of a desire to present a more complete image of Christ to the world: not only Christ the High Priest, but the kenotic Christ the Servant as well.  As Father Joseph Komonchak famously quipped, “Vatican II did not restore the diaconate because of a shortage of priests but because of a shortage of deacons.”

Vatican IICertainly, there was some modest interest in this question by missionary bishops before the Council.  But it remained largely a European proposal.  Consider some statistics.  During the antepreparatory stage leading up to the Council (1960-1961), during which time close to 9,000 proposals were presented from the world’s bishops, deans of schools of theology, and heads of men’s religious congregations, 101 proposals concerned the possible renewal of the diaconate.  Eleven of these proposals were against the idea of having the diaconate (either as a transitional or as a permanent order), while 90 were in favor of a renewed, stable (“permanent”) diaconate.  Nearly 500 bishops from around the world supported some form of these 90 proposals, with only about 100 of them from Latin America and Africa.  Nearly 400 bishops, almost entirely from both Western and Eastern Europe, were the principal proponents of a renewed diaconate (by the way, the bishops of the United States, who had not had the benefit of the century-long conversation about the diaconate, were largely silent on the matter, and the handful who spoke were generally against the idea).  Notice how these statistics relate to Father Tom’s observation.  First, the renewed diaconate was largely a European proposal, not surprising given the history I’ve outlined above.  Second, notice that despite this fact, it is also wrong to say that “the African bishops said no thank you” to the idea.  Large numbers of them wanted a renewed diaconate, and even today, the diaconate has been renewed in a growing number of African dioceses.

One other observation on this point needs to be made.  No bishop whose diocese is suffering from a shortage of priests would suggest that deacons would be a suitable strategy.  After all, as we all know, deacons do not celebrate Mass, hear confessions or anoint the sick.  If a diocese needed more priests, they would not have turned to the diaconate.  Yes, there was some discussion at the Council that deacons could be of assistance to priests, but the presumption was that there were already priests to hand.

In short, the myth that “the diaconate was a third world initiative due to a shortage of priests” simply has never held up, despite its longstanding popularity.

  1.  Deacons as Part-Time Ministers

Father cites national statistics that point out that deacons are largely unpaid, “most of whom make a living doing secular work.”  “Why,” he asks, “are we ordaining part-time ministers and not full-time ministers?”

shutterstock_137696915-660x350Let’s break this down.  First, there never has been, nor will there ever be, a “part-time deacon.”  We’re all full-time ministers.  Here’s the problem: Because the Catholic Church did not have the advantage of the extensive conversation on diaconate that was held in other parts of the world, we have not fully accepted the notion that ministry extends BEYOND the boundaries of the institutional church itself.  Some of the rationale behind the renewal of the diaconate in the 19th Century and forward has been to place the Church’s sacred ministers in places where the clergy had previously not been able to go!  Consider the “worker-priest” movement in France.  This was based on a similar desire to extend the reach of the Church’s official ministry outside of the parish and outside of the sanctuary.  However, if we can only envision “ministry” as something that takes place within the sanctuary or within the parish, then we miss a huge point of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council and, I would suggest, the papal magisterium of Pope Francis.  The point of the diaconate is to extend the reach of the bishop into places the bishop can’t normally be present.  That means that no matter what the deacon is doing, no matter where the deacon is working or serving, the deacon is ministering to those around him.

We seem to understand this when we speak about priests, but not about deacons.  When a priest is serving in some specialized work such as president of a university, or teaching history or social studies or science at a high school, we would never suggest that he is a “part-time” minister.  Rather, we would correctly say that it is ALL ministry.  Deacons take that even further, ministering in our various workplaces and professions.  It was exactly this kind of societal and cultural leavening that the Council desired with regard to the laity and to the ordained ministry of the deacon.  The bottom line is that we have to expand our view of what we mean by the term “ministry”!

  1.  “Laypersons can do everything a deacon can do

Father writes, “But the truth is that a layperson can do everything that a deacon can do.”  He then offers some examples.  Not so fast.

ANSA-John23Hospital-255x318Not unlike the previous point, this is a common misperception.  However, it is only made if one reduces “being a deacon” to the functions one performs.  Let’s ponder that a moment.  We live in a sacramental Church.  This means that there’s more to things than outward appearances.  Consider the sacrament of matrimony.  Those of us who are married know that there is much, much more to “being married” than simply the sum of the functions associated with marriage.  Those who are priests or bishops know that there is more to who they are as priests and bishops than simply the sum of what they do.  So, why can’t they see that about deacons?  There is more to “being deacon” than simply the sum of what we do.  And, frankly, do we want priests to stop visiting the sick in hospitals or the incarcerated in prisons simply because a lay person can (and should!) be doing that?  Shall we have Father stop being a college professor because now we have lay people who can do that?  Shall we simply reduce Father to the sacraments over which he presides?  What a sacramentally arid Church we would become!

The fact is, there IS a difference when a person does something as an ordained person.  Thomas Aquinas observed that an ordained person acts in persona Christi et in nomine Ecclesiae — in the person of Christ and in the name of the Church.  There is a public and permanent dimension to all ordained ministry that provides the sacramental foundation for all that we try to do in the name of the Church.  We are more than the sum of our parts, we are more than the sum of our functions.

  1.  “We have deacons. . . because they get more respect”

francis-washing-feetWith all respect to a man I deeply admire, I expect that most deacons who read this part of the column are still chuckling.  Yes, I have been treated with great respect by most of the people with whom I’ve served, including laity, religious, priests and bishops.  On the other hand, the experience of most deacons does not sustain Father’s observation.  The fact is, most people, especially if they’re not used to the ministry of deacons, don’t associate deacons with ordination.  I can’t tell the number of times that I’ve been asked by someone, “When will you be ordained?” — meaning ordination to the priesthood.  They know I am a deacon, but, as some people will say, “but that one really doesn’t count, does it?”  I had another priest once tell me, “Being a deacon isn’t a real vocation like the priesthood.”  If it’s respect a person is after “beyond their competence” (to quote Father Reese), then it’s best to avoid the diaconate.

No, the truth is that we have deacons because the Church herself is called to be deacon to the world (cf. Paul VI).  Just as we are a priestly people who nonetheless have ministerial priests to help us actualize our priestly identity, so too we have ministerial deacons to help us actualize our ecclesial identity as servants to and in the world.  To suggest that we have deacons simply because of issues of “respect” simply misses the point of 150 years of theological and pastoral reflection on the nature of the Church and on the diaconate.

In all sincerity, I thank Father Reese for his column on the diaconate, and I look forward to the ongoing conversation about this exciting renewed order of ministry of our Church.

 

 

 

Ur-Fascism: A Reflection on Umberto Eco and American Politics

BACKGROUND

Politics-of-natureLet me state from the outset that this essay is not pointed at any particular political party or candidate in the United States.  I write it, not as a political scientist, but as a Catholic deacon who is trying to understand the current state of American political life; consider this a small reflection undertaken as part of my own formation of conscience.

I have written it also as a retired Navy Commander who has had a longstanding interest in the nature of leadership and in the styles of leadership exercised in any human institution.  I have written elsewhere, for example, on authoritarian leadership in religious institutions.  Therefore, I ask that readers not assume

Blurred text with a focus on leadership

or presume anything other than I find it fascinating on its face and that I do believe there are characteristics discussed herein that warrant our reflection during the current election cycle here in the United States (not to mention its possible applicability to other nations as well).

To explain a bit more, my generation was born shortly after the end of World War II.  As a child growing up in the 1950’s, I was always fascinated by the history of that war, especially since most of our parents and their families and friends had gone into the service and fought against the Axis powers or took jobs here at home which supported that effort.  One of our uncles was Uncle Joea paratrooper in the “Band of Brothers” who jumped into France on D-Day, and his letter to his brother following D-Day had a strong impact on all of us. (I’ve blogged about this before.) One of the first term papers I ever wrote in high school was on the history of D-Day itself, with Uncle Joe’s letter contributing significantly to the effort.  The question which fascinated me as a child and continues to haunt me to this day is this: How could an otherwise brilliant people such as the Germans, to take just one example, come under the spell of someone like Adolf Hitler?  Couldn’t they see and understand what seems so obvious to everyone today?  What did they “miss” about him?  More important, if they could “miss” Hitler, what would prevent other intelligent people from missing the boat in the future?  “It could never happen here” just doesn’t seem to cut it, in light of Hitler and the German people; I’m sure they thought the same thing.

umbertoeco-654x404So it was interesting recently to come across a 1995 essay by Umberto Eco, the great Italian author (The Name of the Rose), scholar and philosopher, entitled “Ur-Fascism.” Written for the New York Review of Books (22 June 1995),  it may be read in its entirety here.   It is on the points raised in his article that I want to reflect now.  Eco ends his article by writing,

Ur-Fascism is still around us, sometimes in plainclothes. It would be so much easier, for us, if there appeared on the world scene somebody saying, “I want to reopen Auschwitz, I want the Black Shirts to parade again in the Italian squares.” Life is not that simple. Ur-Fascism can come back under the most innocent of disguises. Our duty is to uncover it and to point our finger at any of its new instances – every day, in every part of the world. [Emphasis added.]

 

Eco begins his article by recounting his own wartime experience as a boy in Italy during the final years of the war, and his own growing awareness of what was happening around him.  He then writes,

I think it is possible to outline a list of features that are typical of what I would like to call Ur-Fascism, or Eternal Fascism. These features cannot be organized into a system; many of them contradict each other, and are also typical of other kinds of despotism or fanaticism. But it is enough that one of them be present to allow fascism to coagulate around it.  [Emphasis added.]

So, taking him at his word, let’s consider his fourteen “features” of fundamental (“ur“) fascism.  Notice well his caution that these do not constitute a coherent system of thought and action, but his final caution is apt, that just one of them needs be present to create a bloody (“coagulate”) fascism. Here is his list.  I offer them in his order and with his emphases.  For some of them, I simply report them as written; with others, I offer modest commentary.

CHARACTERISTICS OF UR-FASCISM ACCORDING TO ECO

  1. The Cult of Traditionalism: Don’t Let Reason Get in the Way

anti-intellectualEco points out the first feature of Ur-Fascism is a cult — worship — of tradition.  This of course does not deny the importance of tradition itself, as I read him.  Rather it is a question of emphasis and loss of balance: when this emphasis on tradition is taken to an extreme that it becomes traditionalism, an extremist point of view.  Traditionalism taken to this extreme is found in other times, cultures and systems beside Fascism, of course.  In fascist hands, however, traditionalism becomes focused on past glories, past identities, past expressions of truth understood in radical opposition to various forms of rationalism and rationalistic thought.  Eco points out that such a response is ancient, reflected in various schools of thought that reacted negatively to classical Greek rationalism.  In fact, perhaps the best way to think of this traditionalism that Eco is talking about would be as a kind of Gnosticism.  As a result of this worldview, there is no need for new learning, and it reflects an extreme anti-intellectual stance: “Truth has been already spelled out once and for all, and we can only keep interpreting its obscure message,” Eco writes.  So, Ur-Fascism would contend mightily with those who suggest that there might be other points of view to consider: this would explain frequent criticism of “intellectual elites” and others who not only seek to uncover the Truth that has existed for all time, but who might also suggest that this Truth might be understood in various ways under differing circumstances.  In short, the Fascist says, “We know the Truth, so don’t listen to the ‘intellectual elites’ who will only confuse you.”

2. The Rejection of Rational Modernism: “All that is New is Bad”

For this reason, Eco says that this extreme Traditionalism carries with it a rejection of all that is modern.  Here we Catholics need to be cautious with the terms.  I do not believe that Eco is using the term “modernism” as we sometimes see it used in late 19th and early 20th Century ecclesial discussions of “Americanism” and the like.  Here I believe Eco is speaking far more broadly about anything that is “modern” and at apparent odds with “Tradition.”  Eco explains:

Even though Nazism was proud of its industrial achievements, its praise of modernism was only the surface of an ideology based upon Blood and Earth (Blut und Boden). The rejection of the modern world was disguised as a rebuttal of the capitalistic way of life, but it mainly concerned the rejection of the Spirit of 1789 (and of 1776, of course). The Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, is seen as the beginning of modern depravity. In this sense Ur-Fascism can be defined as irrationalism.

3.  Irrationalism: Cult of Action for Action’s Sake

fascism1Such irrationalism is based on what Eco calls “the cult of action for action’s sake”. The fascist sees action as good in itself and therefore action is taken “before, or without” any prior reflection.  In the fascist view, thinking is a form of emasculation.

Distrust of the intellectual world has always been a symptom of Ur-Fascism, from Goering’s alleged statement (“When I hear talk of culture I reach for my gun”) to the frequent use of such expressions as “degenerate intellectuals,” “eggheads,” “effete snobs,” “universities are a nest of reds.” The official Fascist intellectuals were mainly engaged in attacking modern culture and the liberal intelligentsia for having betrayed traditional values.

When we hear candidates today making promises of immediate action upon assuming office, are we listening to echoes from the past?  References in stump speeches to “real Americans” over against those “who live in ivory towers” reflect this kind of radical dichotomy between action and contemplation.  It seems to me that the real indicator of Ur-Fascism here would be the demonizing of the opponent, making “the intellectuals” into an enemy.

4.  Disagreement as Treason

Eco’s words on this point need no explanation:

The critical spirit makes distinctions, and to distinguish is a sign of modernism. In modern culture the scientific community praises disagreement as a way to improve knowledge. For Ur-Fascism, disagreement is treason.

Several election cycles ago, someone published a piece — I can’t remember who or where — that pointed out the increasing use of American flags as backdrops to political speeches during rallies.  If one candidate showed up in front of four flags, the other candidate would go to ten, and on and on.  The implication is clear: if you agree with me, you are a patriot “like me,” but if you disagree with me, then you are unpatriotic and probably a traitor.  The more heated the rhetoric and the optics, even if the word “treason” itself isn’t used, the more this association is made.

5.  The Fear of Difference/Racism

feature-sidebar-police-racismYet again, Eco is succinct and on point:

Besides, disagreement is a sign of diversity. Ur-Fascism grows up and seeks for consensus by exploiting and exacerbating the natural fear of difference. The first appeal of a fascist or prematurely fascist movement is an appeal against the intruders. Thus Ur-Fascism is racist by definition.

As we continue  confronting racism in our country (and around the world), fear against “others” whether this is expressed through language about race, immigration, or terrorism.  Fear is a normal enough emotion, but language and policy that “exploits and exacerbates” fear of the other (Eco: “the intruders”) crosses the line into fascism.

6.  Individual or Social Frustration

Ur-Fascism derives from individual or social frustration. That is why one of the most typical features of historical fascism was the appeal to a frustrated middle class, a class suffering from an economic crisis or feelings of political humiliation, and frightened by the pressure of lower social groups.

In our own day, this would seem to be reflected quite obviously in the growth of certain movements, such as the “Tea Party” and in our ongoing debates about immigration policy, especially in light of a struggling and “frustrated middle class”.  Such groups make the claim that they speak for this angry and disenfranchised middle class.

7.  Nationalism and an Obsession with “Plot”

fascism quote mussoliniCertainly, sometimes people are out to get us!  Terrorists have made that terribly, tragically, and repeatedly obvious.  However, look what Eco points out:

To people who feel deprived of a clear social identity, Ur-Fascism says that their only privilege is the most common one, to be born in the same country. This is the origin of nationalism. . . .  At the root of the Ur-Fascist psychology there is the obsession with a plot, possibly an international one. The followers must feel besieged. The easiest way to solve the plot is the appeal to xenophobia.

Consider that opening clause: “to people who feel deprived of a clear social identity.”  Do we experience that reality in our society today?  When people feel powerless, forgotten, disenfranchised, it is easy to look for that which will give a sense of power, belonging, and identity.  Therefore, anything or anyone who threatens that identity will become the enemy who is “besieging” us.  Political rhetoric which creates, emphasizes or exaggerates “the plot” against “our people” quickly crosses into fascistic language and behavior.  Here again, we see that fear directed against the “other” which we saw earlier, this time writ large.

8.  Humiliation by Others

The followers must feel humiliated by the ostentatious wealth and force of their enemies. . . . However, the followers must be convinced that they can overwhelm the enemies. Thus, by a continuous shifting of rhetorical focus, the enemies are at the same time too strong and too weak. Fascist governments are condemned to lose wars because they are constitutionally incapable of objectively evaluating the force of the enemy.

What a fascinating observation!  People are to feel humiliated.  I was particularly struck by the notion of humiliation by the force of enemies.  When we discuss foreign policy today, especially on strategies about how to deal with ISIS and other forms of terrorism, people often complain of being powerless: how can a superpower be apparently powerless in dealing with such a threat?  In the heat of political debate on this issue, we hear echoes of Eco’s “continuous shifting of rhetorical focus” in which the threat is characterized as too strong on the one hand, or too weak on the other.  His conclusion is stunningly apt: a fascist government will always lose because “they are constitutionally incapable” of an objective evaluation of the threat.  After all, if we could evaluate objectively, there would no longer be the humiliation the fascist seeks.

Hitler-Mussolini-Neo-Fascists9.  Life Lived for Struggle

For Ur-Fascism there is no struggle for life but, rather, life is lived for struggle. Thus pacifism is trafficking with the enemy. It is bad because life is permanent warfare. This, however, brings about an Armageddon complex. Since enemies have to be defeated, there must be a final battle, after which the movement will have control of the world. But such a “final solution” implies a further era of peace, a Golden Age, which contradicts the principle of permanent war. No fascist leader has ever succeeded in solving this predicament.

Have you ever known a person who is always in some kind of struggle, no matter what is going on in their life?  Some years ago in the cartoon strip Li’l Abner, artist Al Capp introduced a character named Joe Btfsplk who was always down on his luck and with a rain cloud always over his head.  In fundamental Fascism, struggle is not something that is transitory leading to an eventual peace, but rather struggle is the point of life. It is no coincidence that Afolf Hitler’s prison manifesto was titled Mein Kampf: “My Struggle”!

In political rhetoric we hear from many candidates about “war against” this or that: drugs, terrorism, whatever — but the war is never won.  Most people want there to be a victory in these struggles so that we can live in peace; the fascist mindset, however, wants to keep the struggle going.

ubermensch10.  Populist Elitism

Ur-Fascism [advocates] a popular elitism. Every citizen belongs to the best people of the world, the members of the party are the best among the citizens, every citizen can (or ought to) become a member of the party. [The fascist leader] also knows that his force is based upon the weakness of the masses; they are so weak as to need and deserve a ruler.

We have had many political conversations over the last twenty years or so about “American exceptionalism”, which risks easily crossing over into Eco’s notion of belonging “to the best people of the world,” while demonizing opponents (including opposing political parties).  Notice the implied cynicism about the character (“weak”) of the people; only the Leader can save them.  He is their strong-man, their Hero.

11.  Heroism is the Norm

With these ideas of life-as-constant-struggle coupled with populist elitism, it is not surprising that what will be valued most is “heroism”: the people want and need a hero, and they are themselves called to become heroes.  Reading Eco, I was reminded of German philosopher Friedrich Nietsche and his concept of the ubermensch (Super-man); his philosophy had direct influence in Hitler and others.

In such a perspective everybody is educated to become a hero. In every mythology the
hero is an exceptional being, but in Ur-Fascist ideology, heroism is the norm. This cult of heroism is strictly linked with the cult of death. . . .  In non-fascist societies, the lay public is told that death is unpleasant but must be faced with dignity; believers are told that it is the painful way to reach a supernatural happiness. By contrast, the Ur-Fascist hero craves heroic death, advertised as the best reward for a heroic life. The Ur-Fascist hero is impatient to die. In his impatience, he more frequently sends other people to death.

12.  Transference to Sexuality

In light of our highly sexualized society in general, and the often reported sexual improprieties (and sometimes outright crimes) on the part of certain politicians, Eco’s point here is insightful:

Since both permanent war and heroism are difficult games to play, the Ur-Fascist transfers his will to power to sexual matters. This is the origin of machismo (which implies both disdain for women and intolerance and condemnation of nonstandard sexual habits, from chastity to homosexuality). Since even sex is a difficult game to play, the UrFascist hero tends to play with weapons – doing so becomes an ersatz phallic exercise.

13.  Selective Populism

For Ur-Fascism. . . the People is conceived as a quality, a monolithic entity expressing the Common Will. Since no large quantity of human beings can have a common will, the Leader pretends to be their interpreter. Having lost their power of delegation, citizens do not act; they are only called on to play the role of the People. Thus the People is only a theatrical fiction. . . .  There is in our future a TV or Internet populism, in which the emotional response of a selected group of citizens can be presented and accepted as the Voice of the People. Because of its qualitative populism Ur-Fascism must be against “rotten” parliamentary governments. . . .  Wherever a politician casts doubt on the legitimacy of a parliament because it no longer represents the Voice of the People, we can smell Ur-Fascism.

I was immediately struck by Eco’s remark about the internet.  Consider how politicians and political parties today rely on social media: Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and the like.  This “internet populism” risks becoming taken as the true and proper voice of the all the people.  Couple this with the general frustration and dissatification of most Americans with the ineffectiveness and inefficiency of the Congress, we should probably be alert for the odor of fascism (Eco: “we can smell Ur-Facism”).

Bundesarchiv_Bild_2102-09844_Mussolini_in_Mailand-464x26114.  Impoverished Vocabulary and Newspeak

Ur-Fascism speaks Newspeak. Newspeak was invented by Orwell, in 1984, as the official language of Ingsoc, English Socialism. . . .  But we must be ready to identify other kinds of Newspeak, even if they take the apparently innocent form of a popular talk show.

American politics has always been jingoistic, using words as slogans representing movements, goals and objectives.  Eco’s point here, though, is well worth considering: when does language become a weapon in the constant war, a weapon designed to control and coerce?  What is the language of our public discourse these days?  I think most of us would agree, regardless of political affiliation, that what passes for cultured discourse today is a far cry from that of our predecessors.

 

CONCLUSION: Where to go from here?

My point, as I stated at the outset, has been to review the characteristics of fascism as presented by the late writer, Umberto Eco.  I do so with no agenda in mind than to offer a cautionary message.  This is not about Republican versus Democrat, liberal or progressive versus conservative, Trump versus Clinton.  It is about a worldview.  There are other worldviews, of course, and as time permits I may attempt similar essays about them.

For deacons, I submit that the next step is to compare and contrast ideas such as these with the principles of Catholic Social Teaching, especially those directly related to political life.  We need that as part of our own formation of conscience but also as we attempt to help others.  That task exceeds the scope of this particular essay, however.  I hope to turn my attention to such an effort in the near future.

I conclude this essay with a final, well-known quote from Umberto Eco.  It seems an appropriate summary statement of his comments on ur-fascism:

“Nothing gives a fearful man more courage than another’s fear.”

Umberto-Eco-009-600x250

 

Terrorism, Dachau and Diaconate: Perspectives and PBS

INTRODUCTION

12172xlAs I write this, reports are coming in from Baton Rouge about yet another attack with multiple casualties.  The world is reeling from the endless chain of violence and death of recent months.  On Friday, the PBS series Religion and Ethics Newsweekly ran a program on the Order of Deacons in the Catholic Church.  Given the state of the world, one might think this an odd or even irrelevant topic.   Upon reflection, however, I believe that there are some important dots to connect.  It is precisely because of the current state of violent death, destruction and havoc that the diaconate — properly understood — might offer a glimmer of hope.  After all, it was precisely because of the “abyss of violence, destruction and death unlike anything previously known” (John Paul II, referring to World Word II) that the Order of Deacons was renewed in the first place; we’re here to help do something about it. So we shall review the PBS story against that critical backdrop.

47e73934-588c-4a95-985f-3ddac791ede4.png.resize.298x135THE PBS PROGRAM: Religion & Ethics Newsweekly

First, watch the program or read the transcript for yourself; you may find both of them here.  The diaconate is not often covered in the media, so this could have been a wonderful opportunity to spread the word about a remarkable ministry.  Unfortunately, despite very obvious good intentions, the program was full of errors ranging from simple errors of fact to more serious, even egregious, errors of history and theology.  Furthermore, a wonderful opportunity was missed to connect the “concrete consequences” which the diaconate might offer a hurting world.

The Mistakes

Why focus on some of the errors made in the program?  First, simply to get them identified and out of the way.  Second and more important, it is crucial to dispel such errors because they can distort the meaning of the diaconate and distract the audience from its proper potential.

  1. “He’s a married layman.” This simple error of fact is made twice at the very beginning of the report.  Of course this is simply not true.  Deacons are clergy and not laymen.  For those of us who live and teach about the diaconate, this is usually the first red flag that the rest of the discussion is not going to go well.  Why is this distinction important?  Back to that in a moment.
  2. “Celebrating Mass is a function reserved only for priests who are considered heirs to the original apostles.” In Catholic theology, of course, the “heirs” or “successors” of the apostles are bishops, not priests.
  3. “[The deacon] did have to step in recently to speak the words of consecration at communion – for Catholics the most sacred part of the Mass. That’s because his pastor is on leave, and the priest filling in doesn’t speak English.” This is terribly wrong on several levels.  First, the deacon can be seen and heard praying part of the Eucharistic Prayer, which is absolutely reserved to priests alone.  The priest in question should have just said the prayer in his native language, whatever it is.  For years, Catholics of the Latin Rite celebrated Mass in Latin: no one stood next to the priest to translate the Latin for us.  Not only did the deacon not “have to step in” to do such a thing, church law expressly forbids it.  Canon 907 states: “In the eucharistic celebration deacons and lay persons are not permitted to offer prayers, especially the eucharistic prayer, or to perform actions which are proper to the celebrating priest.” My guess is that every deacon who saw that part of the segment is still cringing!  (The other cringe-worthy tidbit was seeing the deacon improperly vested, wearing his stole on the outside of his dalmatic. How cringe-worthy ?  Think wearing underclothing over your pants).
  4. VaticanII“In the Middle Ages the role of deacons began to fade as the power of priests and bishops grew. In the 1960s, the Second Vatican Council restored the role of deacons – but only for men.” The evolving role of deacons throughout history is far more complicated than that, and overlooks the fact that the diaconate never completely disappeared, but became primarily a stepping stone to the priesthood.  I fully acknowledge that the history of the diaconate in all of its complexity goes far beyond what can be covered in such a brief program, but still: the broad brush strokes of the history could have been recognized and acknowledged.  This is also when the program shifts to the question of the possibility of ordaining women as deacons.  I will deal with that question below.
  5. “Until recently, the wives of deacons were required to take the same classes over four years as their husbands did to prepare for the diaconate.” Here the reporter falls victim to a common danger when discussing the diaconate: extrapolation.  There are nearly 200 Catholic dioceses in the United States, and the procedures and processes of formation vary greatly from place to place.  National standards established by the US Bishops do not mandate such a requirement, although wives are definitely encouraged to participate to the extent possible so that the couple grows together throughout the formation process.  Even the “until recently” is confusing: perhaps in that particular diocese something has changed, but not in all.  Not every wife of every deacon candidate is required to write papers or attend classes. Like many things in the renewed diaconate, it varies by location and bishop. But even more important — and completely left out of the piece — is the question of vocation.  Preparing for ordination is far more than taking classes, writing papers, and giving practice homilies.  At the heart of formation is the crucible of discerning God’s will: is God calling a person to ordained ministry?  Becoming a deacon is not simply “signing up”, taking a few courses, and putting on the vestments.  This is a life-altering process which at the moment is only engaged in by men.  Whether that changes in the future remains to be seen.  And, if it does, and women enter formation, they too will then go through that crucible of formation — as well as the papers, the courses and the homilies.
  6. “After increasing for several decades, the number of men entering the permanent diaconate has begun to decline, despite a growing need.”  It is worth noting that the diaconate is the only vocation that is growing in the United States—outpacing the priesthood, sisters and religious life. In my own research on the diaconate, I would question again the extrapolation going on: perhaps in some areas or in some dioceses, the number of deacons is going down, but that is simply not the case throughout the country and the rest of the world.  The diaconate has been growing steadily for decades and continues to do so.  The diaconate worldwide has the potential to be one of the great success stories of the Second Vatican Council.

13-2-600x450Now, on the PLUS side:

One exceptionally brief section of the program was a bright spot, and captured the characteristic identity of the deacon.  Several deacons were shown installing a laundry room in a home for women emerging from crisis.  The reporter describes this group as “a ministry that responds to crises. . . .”  One of the deacons involved points out that “besides doing liturgical functions, we’re also called to serve the poor and serve the people of God.”  There it is: the role of the deacon is to respond to crises, to serve those most in need.  The identity of the deacon is expressed in many ways, but most characteristic is this focus on the needs of others: while we are called to exercise our ministries of Word, Sacrament, and Charity in a balanced way, all of it finds its most significant expression in the servant-leadership of the community in service.  If the program had focused on these dimensions — on the very heart of the diaconate itself — it might have avoided the problematic areas which they got largely wrong.

POPE WAVES AS HE ARRIVES FOR GENERAL AUDIENCE AT VATICAN

Diaconate and Diakonia: An Essential Element of the Church

The entire Church is called to be a servant-church, a diaconal church.  Pope Paul VI repeatedly taught that deacons are to be “the animators of the Church’s service,” and St. John Paul II carried it a step further when he referred to the diaconate as “the Church’s service sacramentalized.”  These popes were echoing the teaching and the decisions of the the bishops of the Second Vatican Council when they determined that the Church’s diakonia should be a permanent part of the sacramental life of the Church.  Being a deacon is not simply some activity which a person takes on themselves, at their own initiative; rather, it is believed to be a call from God as discerned through the help of the broader Church.

Pope Benedict wrote in Deus Caritas Est, citing St. Luke:

20. “All who believed were together and had all things in common; and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need” (Acts 2:44-5). . . .  As the Church grew, this radical form of material communion could not in fact be preserved. But its essential core remained: within the community of believers there can never be room for a poverty that denies anyone what is needed for a dignified life.

21. A decisive step in the difficult search for ways of putting this fundamental ecclesial principle into practice is illustrated in the choice of the seven, which marked the origin of the diaconal office (cf. Acts 6:5-6). . . .  Nor was this group to carry out a purely mechanical work of distribution: they were to be men “full of the Spirit and of wisdom” (cf. Acts 6:1-6). In other words, the social service which they were meant to provide was absolutely concrete, yet at the same time it was also a spiritual service; theirs was a truly spiritual office which carried out an essential responsibility of the Church, namely a well-ordered love of neighbor. With the formation of this group of seven, “diaconia”—the ministry of charity exercised in a communitarian, orderly way—became part of the fundamental structure of the Church.

It is time now to bring all of this together: in the light of Baton Rouge, Nice, Dallas, “Black Lives Matter,” terrorist acts and wounded communities all around the world: why should we care about an order of ministry within the Church?

THE DIACONATE IN CONTEMPORARY CONTEXT: WHY?

DachauBunkBedsSo, what is the connection?  How can the diaconate be understood against that much larger and violent backdrop?  The most important question of all is perhaps, why do we have deacons in the first place?

  1. We have deacons because the church and the world needed ministers to link the needs of people with the providence, mercy and love of God.  This is why deacons have always been described as being associated with the ministry of the bishop and with having the skills to administer “the goods of the Church” for the good of people.
  2. Deacons have historically not been exclusively associated with parish ministry.  For the bulk of church history, deacons served as the principle assistants to their bishops, often representing them in councils and as legates, in catechesis (consider Deacon Deogratias of Carthage), in homiletics (Deacon Quodvultdeus, also of Carthage) and by extending the reach of their bishops, such as Deacon Lawrence of Rome.  Over time, deacons became subordinate to presbyters as well as bishops, and increasingly involved in what we would recognize as parish ministry.  To this very day, deacons are ordained solely by their bishop, for service to him and under his authority: where the bishop is, so should be his deacon.
  3. dachau_collIn our time, as I’ve written about extensively, the Second Vatican Council decided overwhelmingly that the diaconate should be renewed as a permanent ministry in the church once again, even to the extent of opening ordination to married as well as celibate men.  The bishops in Council did this largely because of the insights gleaned from the priest-survivors of Dachau Concentration Camp.  Following the war, these survivors wrote of how the Church would have to adapt itself to better meet the needs of the contemporary world if the horrors of the first half of the 20th Century were to be avoided in the future.  Deacons were seen as a critical component of that strategy of ecclesial renewal.  Why?  Because deacons were understood as being grounded in their communities in practical and substantial ways, while priests and bishops had gradually become perceived as being too distant and remote from the people they were there to serve.

    In short, the diaconate was renewed in order to deal more effectively with the horrors of the contemporary world, not simply to function as parish ministers.

    As I frequently challenge myself and other deacons: is the energy I’m expending as a deacon helping to create the conditions in the world in which another “Dachau” could not exist?  Or am I involving myself in things that are superficial, contingent, and relatively inconsequential?

  4. light_christThe diaconate today, fifty years after the Council, has matured greatly.  Those who would talk intelligently about the diaconate need to keep that in mind.  Over the past fifty years, formation standards have evolved to better equip deacons for our myriad responsibilities, for example.  The diaconate has, at least in those dioceses which have had deacons for several generations, become part of the ecclesial imagination.  In some dioceses we have brothers who are deacons, fathers-in-law and sons-in-law who are deacons, fathers and sons who are deacons.  In one archdiocese, an auxiliary bishop is the son of that archdiocese’s long-time director of the diaconate.  As I mentioned above, the diaconate looks and feels different from one diocese to another and while it is tempting to generalize whenever possible, it is particularly dangerous.
  5. Let me briefly address the question of women and the diaconate.  This is a question demanding serious conversation, just as the Holy Father has indicated.  He is not alone, nor is he the first pope to think so.  Pope Paul VI, St. John Paul II, Pope Benedict (both before his ascension to the papacy and after), and now Pope Francis have all been interested in the question.  The 2002 study document of the International Theological Commission (ITC), convened by the authority of then-Cardinal Ratzinger, concluded that it remained for the Church’s “ministry of discernment” to work toward a resolution of the question.  But the main thing at this point is to have the conversation.  And that conversation will need to take place within the broader context of the lived diaconate, the diaconate whose pastoral praxis and theological reflection has deepened over the past fifty years.  Many who opine about women and the diaconate do so from a dated or inadequate understanding of the order.  If this conversation is going to be done, it must be done well.  In short, to understand the possibilities of women in diakonia, one must first understand the diaconate itself.

violenceHere is my point: If we deacons were restored in response to Dachau and similar world shattering violence, translate “Dachau” to Baton Rouge.  “Dachau” to Nice.  “Dachau” to “Black Lives Matter”.  “Dachau” to 9/11.  “Dachau” to every act of senseless terror and random  violence.  What are we doing to confront these tragedies?  What are we doing to work toward a world in which THEY can no longer exist?  This is so much more than who gets to exercise “governance” (a technical canonical term) in the Church, or who gets to proclaim the Gospel in the midst of the community of disciples.  Like the bishops of the Second Vatican Council, we must ask ourselves how we must evolve and adapt to the new violent conditions of our own age.  How can they best be addressed in the interest of the millions of suffering people — here at home and abroad — whose needs we are called to serve?  We deacons must, like our “founders” at Vatican II, look beyond the normal categories of parish and issues of “insider baseball.”

Paul-VII hope that there will be more media programs on the diaconate.  I hope that not only will they be done accurately, but that they will also be done with a sense of the vision and potential of the diaconate.

As Pope Paul VI said of us, we are to be “the animators” of the Church’s service: May we give our lives to change the world.

 

 

Pope Francis and the Permanence of Marriage

pope-francis-one-man-one-woman-marriage-original-picThe Catholic blogosphere has been buzzing recently over some comments made by Pope Francis about marriage.  Specifically, he remarked that some sacramental marriages are “null” because the bride and groom come from a “culture of the provisional” and do not truly understand the nature of a permanent commitment.  Initial reports said that the pope’s original words were that “most” sacramental marriages were null, and then were modified from “most” to “some” or “a part of”.  Here’s the original Italian for those who would like to offer their own English translation: “E per questo una parte dei nostri matrimoni sacramentali sono nulli, perché loro [gli sposi] dicono: ‘Sì, per tutta la vita’, ma non sanno quello che dicono, perché hanno un’altra cultura.”  You can read the entire address here on the Vatican website.

The response from certain quarters has been overheated and dramatic.  One poor soul on FoxNews has even suggested that the Pope should now resign for these comments!  [You can read his assessment here.]  What is going on here?  Is the ecclesial sky really falling?

I have been reflecting on these opinions and, more important, on the pope latest comments from a pastoral-theological frame of reference (and for the record, I’m NOT saying that a canonical frame of reference is NOT pastoral or theological!).  Some initial thoughts:

POPE FAMILIES PASTORAL CARE

Pope Francis gestures as he speaks during the opening of the Diocese of Rome’s annual pastoral conference at the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome June 16. Looking on is Cardinal Agostino Vallini, papal vicar for Rome. (CNS photo/Tony Gentile, Reuters)

CONTEXT:  I have great respect for many of the canon lawyers who have weighed in on this.  They are, for the most part, highly upset for many reasons with the pope’s comments.  However, what troubles me in what I’ve been seeing in the blogosphere is a tendency to take the pope out of context; he himself is always cautioning people not to do that with his statements.  So, were these latest comments being made to a convention of canonists?  Were these comments from an address to the Roman Rota?  Were these comments from a lecture being given to canon law students? They were not.  Rather, this speech (actually, his words were a response to a question at the end of his speech, so they were not part of his prepared text) was made during the opening of the annual Ecclesial Convocation of the Diocese of Rome, held in the Cathedral for the Diocese of Rome, St. John Lateran.  The Pope is, of course, the Bishop of Rome, but he appoints a Cardinal to serve has his Vicar for running the day-to-day operations of the Diocese. At this time, that is Cardinal Agostino Vallini, who served as the host for the opening of this annual event for the Diocese.  So, I think the first thing for us to remember is that the pope is speaking here to a gathering of the priests, deacons and other pastoral ministers of his diocesan Church.

POINT OF VIEW:  Within this general context, then, I think we need to read the particular comments about marriage within the broader scope of the point he was making.  What the Pope was talking about is his recognition and concern with today’s “culture of the provisional” (Italian: E’ la cultura del provvisorio.)  In fact, his first example of this culture is not on marriage, but on the priesthood.  The pope recounts the story of a young man who expressed interest in serving as a priest, but only for a period of ten years!  His primary concern here is to express how an overarching culture of the provisional impacts every state of life today, including the priesthood, religious life and matrimony.  It is for this reason that he then makes his statement that many sacramental marriages today are null.

This is certainly not a new theme for Pope Francis.  Here are just a few random links to earlier comments which make the same point, but without the use of the term “null”: here, here, and here.

754It seems pretty clear and straightforward that, whether the pope originally said “most” or “some” marriages is pastorally irrelevant to the point he’s trying to make: that because we are now living in such a culture of the provisional, everyone struggles with the ability to make lifelong commitments; on one level, they may think they understand the nature of permanence, but on another level, they may be incapable of making such a judgment.  The pope is not speaking here as the Legislator or as a judge in a marriage tribunal: he’s speaking from the perspective of an experienced pastor.

He’s actually saying what most ministers readily admit: that most people today have lost a sense of the permanent and that it is hard to find anyone who is willing or able to make a long-term commitment to anything or anyone.  One retired pastor, when I mentioned this kerfuffle to him, replied, “The Pope didn’t say anything that most bishops, priests and deacons who work with engaged couples don’t already acknowledge.” The pope was simply telling his diocesan pastoral ministers that they need to do what they can to help ALL of their people come to a greater sense of permanent commitment: to their faith in general, to their vocational aspirations, and so on.  In my opinion, to read his words and then to jump immediately to canonical judgments about those statements risks losing the BIG PICTURE of what the pope was saying.

Wedding ringsThe bottom line, it seems to me, is pretty straightforward: The first step in listening to the pope is to look at the overall message he is trying to make and to whom he is making it.  Generally speaking, with Pope Francis, he chooses to speak as who he is: a pastor.  He does not speak as an academic theologian, or as a canon lawyer, nor should he, in my opinion.  He is first, foremost and always, a Pastor: that’s his frame of reference, that’s his motivation, that’s his primary concern.  Theology, canon law, curial structures, and all the rest of the ad intra organs of the Catholic Church exist to SUPPORT that pastoral effort.  We all look at the world through the lenses we’ve been given in life: as teachers, as lawyers, doctors, farmers, business people, parents, and even deacons.  For some canon lawyers to be upset and concerned by the pope’s comments is only natural, but they should not be considered the first — or only — line in interpretation of papal statements.

I think, for those of us who serve as deacons, our take away from all of this might best be: how can I help the couples with whom I’m working come to a greater appreciation and understanding of the permanence of our beautiful sacrament of Matrimony?

Deacons and Politics: Walking the Tightrope

Religion + PoliticsI have written a lot on this subject, but it is one that bears revisiting every election cycle.  As I write this, it seems certain that the two nominees for this year’s presidential election will be Donald Trump for the Republicans and Hillary Clinton for the Democrats.  In my lifetime I have never experienced anything approaching the madness of the primary process, and the general campaign promises more of the same.  So, I hope this review is helpful, since deacons fall into some unique categories on this subject under canon law!

Before turning to the specifics of canon law, let me offer three preliminary points:

  1. chest7One often hears that the reason we clergy are supposed to be impartial with regard to support or opposition to particular political parties, campaigns or candidates is because “the Church” might lose its tax-exempt status.  Often, after making such a claim, chest-pounding ensues as the claimant declaims, “Some things are just too important to worry about such things!  If we lose tax exempt status, so be it!  We have to stand up for what we believe.”  In the Navy, we refer to this as the “damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead” response.  Here’s the problem.  This isn’t about tax exempt status.  It is, rather, about the universal law of the Latin Church, which couldn’t care less about our tax exempt status.
  2. Another claim holds that “this is my right as an American citizen” to participate publicly in political life.  That is certainly true.  However, by accepting ordination, the deacon has voluntarily placed himself under the authority of additional legal and moral authority.  Namely, how a cleric, and in particular, the deacon participates in political life is now affected by more than the US Constitution.
  3. buildWe clergy exist, according to Church teaching (cf. especially Lumen gentium #18) to build up the People of God.  Our actions then must be understood with that end in mind: are the words I’m using, the actions I’m taking, the positions I’m teaching all serving to build up, or do they tear down.  It is easy in the heat of the moment to let our emotions get the better of us, and especially when the rhetoric surrounding our current political “discourse” is so heated and volatile, we might succumb to the temptation to be just as superheated in our responses.  Again, not only does our teaching enlighten us in this regard, so too does our church law, as shall be seen below.

zzclsacodesmCanon 285 directs that “clerics are to refrain completely from all those things which are unbecoming to their state, according to the prescripts of particular law.” The canon continues in §3: “Clerics are forbidden to assume public offices which entail a participation in the exercise of civil power,” and §4 forbids clerics from “secular offices which entail an obligation of rendering accounts. . . .” Canon 287, §1 reminds all clerics that “most especially, [they] are always to foster the peace and harmony based on justice which are to be observed among people,” and §2 directs that “they are not to have an active part in political parties and in governing labor unions unless, in the judgment of competent ecclesiastical authority, the protection of the rights of the Church or the promotion of the common good requires it.”

However, c. 288 specifically relieves permanent deacons (transitional deacons are not exampted) of a number of the prior canons, including cc. 285 §§3 and 4, and 287 §2, “unless particular law establishes otherwise.” Particular law in this instance is provided by the National Directory on the Formation, Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons in the United States, which states at #91: “A permanent deacon may not present his name for election to any public office or in any other general election, or accept a nomination or an appointment to public office, without the prior written permission of the diocesan bishop. A permanent deacon may not actively and publicly participate in another’s political campaign without the prior written permission of the diocesan bishop.” The diocesan bishop may also create particular law within his own diocese on such matters. In one case, a diocesan bishop notified his clergy that if anyone could even infer, through their speech, manner or demeanor, which political party or candidate the cleric was supporting, then that cleric had gone too far. While we are each entitled to form our own political decisions for ourselves, we must always be aware of the political lines we must not cross.

AllSaintsSo where does this leave us?  Deacons, although clerics, may participate in political life to a degree not permitted other clerics under the law. However, they are required by particular law in the United States to obtain the prior written permission of their diocesan bishop to do so. I find that two other aspects of this matter are too often overlooked. First, is the requirement under the law that all clerics (and, most significantly, permanent deacons are not relieved of this obligation) are bound by c. 287 always “to foster peace and harmony based on justice.” This is a critical point for reflection for all clerics: How do my actions, words, and insinuations foster such peace and harmony, or are my actions serving to sow discord and disharmony? Since permanent deacons may become more engaged in the political sphere than presbyters (with the permission of their bishop), this will take on particular relevance for deacons. Second is the whole area of participation in political campaigns. Deacons may only participate in their own or someone else’s political campaign with the prior written permission of their bishop.

mediaThings are so much more complicated today than in years past, with all of the various social media available.  Tweets can replace reasoned response, a Facebook status can mimic a political platform, and even a “like” can raise political tempers.  Furthermore, what about the deacon’s family and their rights and obligations to participate fully in the political process?  In one common example, what if the deacon’s family wants to put a yard sign supporting a particular candidate in the yard, or to put a bumper sticker on the family car?  Today, when political support is often reflected through the social media, all of us might well reflect on how our opinions stated via these media constitute active participation in someone’s political campaign.

All of us, lay and cleric, are obliged to participate appropriately in the political process. One would hope that all people, lay and cleric, will want to “build up the People of God” and not tear down!  However, as clerics – and in a particularly challenging way, permanent deacons – we have not only a moral obligation to do so, but a legal one as well.  This means that we must often walk a fine moral tightrope in doing so.

Reckless person

Holy Jubilee and Deacons: “Proclaim and Serve”

unnamed-2-740x493The Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy focused over the last few days on the ministry of deacons.  Today the Holy Father celebrated Mass in Saint Peter’s Square and thousands of the world’s deacons were there.  The Holy Father’s homily is a short but powerful lesson in diakonia.

In one sense, Pope Francis picks up where St. John Paul II left off sixteen years ago at the 2000 Jubilee.  In his address to deacons during this audience with us, Pope John Paul challenged deacons to be “active apostles of the New Evangelization.”  Today Pope Francis began his homily by quoting St. Paul:

“A servant of Jesus Christ” (Gal 1:10). We have listened to these words that the Apostle Paul, writing to the Galatians, uses to describe himself. At the beginning of his Letter, he had presented himself as “an apostle” by the will of the Lord Jesus (cf. Gal1:1). These two terms – apostle and servant – go together. They can never be separated. They are like the two sides of a medal. Those who proclaim Jesus are called to serve, and those who serve proclaim Jesus.

Active apostles, active servants: no better challenge for deacons!  Not surprisingly Pope Francis reflects what Pope-emeritus Benedict once referred to as “the great et. . .et” (both-and) as contrasted to “aut. . . aut” (either-or).  Pope Benedict was responding to a question from an older priest who had recalled that his seminary spiritual director had once criticized him for preferring playing football over studying, and Pope Benedict rather humorously reassured the priest:

Catholicism. . . has always been considered the religion of the great “et. . . et” [“both-and”]: not of great forms of exclusivism but of synthesis. The exact meaning of “Catholic” is “synthesis”. I would therefore be against having to choose between either playing football or studying Sacred Scripture or Canon Law.

DEACONS JUBILEE MASS

Today, Pope Francis says the same thing about apostles and servants.  We are called to be both, not one or the other.  His simple simile captures it perfectly: apostle and servant “are like the two sides of a medal.”  “A disciple of Jesus cannot take a road other than that of the Master. If he wants to proclaim him, he must imitate him. Like Paul, he must strive to become a servant. In other words, if evangelizing is the mission entrusted at baptism to each Christian, serving is the way that mission is carried out.”

Pope Francis offers three ways deacons can live this great “et. . . et” in our lives:

  1. Be Available.  Most deacons I’ve known over the years readily joke that there’s no such thing as a deacon’s “day off”!  Between responsibilities for our families, our various jobs and professions, as well as ministries, most deacons wouldn’t know what a real “day off” feels like, any more than we can take a “sabbatical” from any of those responsibilities.  I’m sure that Pope Francis’ words touched many a deacon and his family when he observed:

A servant daily learns detachment from doing everything his own way and living his life as he would. . . . [He] has to give up the idea of being the master of his day. He knows that his time is not his own, but a gift from God which is then offered back to him. Only in this way will it bear fruit. One who serves is not a slave to his own agenda, but ever ready to deal with the unexpected, ever available to his brothers and sisters and ever open to God’s constant surprises.

The pope had some words about trying to keep to a “timetable” for service, too:

One who serves is not worried about the timetable. It deeply troubles me when I see a timetable in a parish: “From such a time to such a time”. And then? There is no open door, no priest, no deacon, no layperson to receive people… This is not good. Don’t worry about the timetable: have the courage to look past the timetable. In this way, dear deacons, if you show that you are available to others, your ministry will not be self-serving, but evangelically fruitful.

2.  Be Meek.  Using the example of the centurion who pleads with Jesus to save his servant, the pope stresses that even though the centurion was a man in authority, he was also a man under authority.  The centurion could have thrown his weight around to get help for his servant, but he did not: he approached the Lord meekly and in acknowledgment of Christ’s authority, power, and mercy.  “Meekness,” says Francis, “is one of the virtues of deacons.”

When a deacon is meek, then he is one who serves, who is not trying to “mimic” priests; no, he is meek. . . .  For God, who is love, out of love is ever ready to serve us. He is patient, kind and always there for us; he suffers for our mistakes and seeks the way to help us improve. These are the characteristics of Christian service; meek and humble, it imitates God by serving others: by welcoming them with patient love and unflagging sympathy, by making them feel welcome and at home in the ecclesial community, where the greatest are not those who command but those who serve (cf. Lk 22:26). And never shout, never. This, dear deacons, is how your vocation as ministers of charity will mature: in meekness.

3.  Be Healed.  Finally, Pope Francis turns to the example of the servant whom Christ heals.

The Gospel tells us that he was dear to his master and was sick, without naming his grave illness (v. 2). In a certain sense, we can see ourselves in that servant. Each of us is very dear to God, who loves us, chooses us and calls us to serve. Yet each of us needs first to be healed inwardly. To be ready to serve, we need a healthy heart: a heart healed by God. . . .  .

Dear deacons, this is a grace you can implore daily in prayer. You can offer the Lord your work, your little inconveniences, your weariness and your hopes in an authentic prayer that brings your life to the Lord and the Lord to your life. When you serve at the table of the Eucharist, there you will find the presence of Jesus, who gives himself to you so that you can give yourselves to others. . . ,  to encounter and caress the flesh of the Lord in the poor of our time.

Those final words echo the promise we make at ordination.  The bishop asks, “Are you resolved to shape your way of life always according to the example of Christ, whose body and blood you will give to the people?”  We respond:”I am, with the help of God.”  This Jubilee — this holy season of Mercy — gives us a chance to re-affirm that promise:

“I am, with the help of God!”

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Formation of Conscience, Step Two: “Be an Adult”

Vatican PopeOne thought has remained with me from the first reading of Pope Francis’ Amoris Laetitia: this is an ADULT document.  It is written by a mature adult man who is comfortable in his own relationship with God and with other people, able to see things both as they are and as they could be.  Through the lens of his own life’s experience he recognizes his own weaknesses and failures and owns his own need for God’s forgiveness and the help of others to get through any given day.  This mature adult man has written a document that presumes his readership is similarly disposed.  He writes directly, explicitly, and knowledgeably about the human condition, the role of the Church, and the relationship of the two.  It is, in short, a text written by an adult for other adults.  As Archbishop Blase Cupich of Chicago observed in his press conference on the release of Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis is calling us all to “an adult spirituality.”

What does an “adult spirituality” look like?  I ask this in connection with these short reflections on the formation of conscience, because I think it lies at the heart of the matter.

simple balanced cropped-500x500First, I think an adult spirituality is balanced, reasonable and well-integrated.  An adult point of view, it seems to me, is found when a person has learned — usually through hard experience — to steer a course between extremes.  Consider one simple example.  Some people seem naturally disposed to see everything through a negative lens: nothing can ever be done right, some people can just never say anything that is not immediately criticized, and no one can really be trusted.  I suppose if one crept along this point of view to its extreme, one would arrive at the home of cynicism.  On the other hand, some people are just as disposed to see everything in a positive light: they see the good in what others do and say, giving them the benefit of the doubt.  Following this point of view to its extreme, one would arrive at the land of rose-colored glasses.  However, the wisdom of maturity would generally find, along  with Aristotle, the “golden mean”or, as the ancient Latin has it, “In medio stat virtus“: virtue stands in the middle.  Applying this to Pope Francis and Amoris Laetitia: consider some of the online responses one finds everywhere: some people were determined to condemn it even before it was promulgated while others were similarly inclined to “canonize” it, also without reading it.  A balanced, reasonable, and well-integrated adult would, of course, read the document and form conclusions both positive and negative.  Amoris Laetitia is not Holy Writ; neither is it from Satan.

respect-honesty-ethics-integrity-street-sign-photo-846x634Second, an adult spirituality is honest with one’s self and with others, especially about one’s own limitations.  When confronting challenges, an adult comes to know that there are limits to his or her abilities: intellectual, affective, and physical.  They come to accept that we all need assistance in a variety of ways.  In recognizing their own limitations, the mature adult tends to be more understanding of the limitations of others.  This is a key theme of Amoris Laetitia.  All are weak in various ways and we acknowledge and work within that weakness; we do not demand that a person first become strong before we work with them.  God’s grace and mercy is necessary for all and, as the Holy Father stresses, “true charity is always unmerited, unconditional and gratuitous.” (AL 296)  A person does not have to “prove” or “earn” our mercy any more than we have deserved God’s mercy in our own lives.  Mature adults understand that.

keep-calm-because-stuff-happensThird, an adult spirituality acknowledges the contingencies of life.  In the sections of Amoris Laetitia which address the specifics of marriage and family life, the Holy Father shows a remarkable understanding of  how hard most people struggle with the uncertainties of life: holding a job that can support one’s family, dealing with fatigue and failure, the pressures of being a single parent and on and on.  Most people come to understand that the vast majority of folks are simply trying to do the absolute best they can despite whatever challenges they face.  Others may come to different decisions than we might, but there is a presumption based on experience that most people are trying to do their best.  However, here we find some tension again between those who have a more positive perspective on human nature and those who are more negative, and would never presume that other people would do their best!  Pope Francis recognizes this difference of perspective when he writes,

I understand those who prefer a more rigorous pastoral care which leaves no room for confusion.  But I sincerely believe that Jesus wants a Church attentive to the goodness which the Holy Spirit sows in the midst of human weakness, a Mother who, while clearly expressing her objective teaching, “always does what good she can, even if in the process, her shoes get soiled by the mud of the street.”

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Christ at Dachau

Fourth, an adult spirituality finds God’s presence in all aspects of life.  Experience teaches a person of faith that God is active and present even when a person feels alone, abandoned, or powerless.  There is a sense of tranquility that comes to a person, even in the midst of suffering, which communicates God’s “accompaniment” (to use one of Pope Francis’ favorite expressions) on that journey.  Just as God never abandons us, we are not to abandon others in their own need.  The Holy Father spends considerable time in AL reminding us that not only should those who are divorced or in irregular unions are not to feel themselves cut off completely from the church, nor are we to adopt practices and attitudes which convey or support such a feeling of isolation and excommunication.  Simply put, God never abandons us, and we cannot abandon others.

 

Fifth, an adult spirituality deals with the real, not the hypothetical.  Hypothetical situations abound, but we generally have to deal with one situation at a time, resolve it as best we can, and move on to the next.  While a certain amount of hypothesizing happens with all of us as we try to plan for the future, but in general, we take one very real circumstance on at a time.  I keep thinking of St. John XXIII’s famous passage in his opening address to the Second Vatican Council when he proclaims to the thousands of assembled bishops:

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        In the daily exercise of our pastoral office, we sometimes have to listen, much to our regret, to voices of persons who, though burning with zeal, are not endowed with too much sense of discretion or measure. In these modern times they can see nothing but prevarication and ruin. They say that our era, in comparison with past eras, is getting worse, and they behave as though they had learned nothing from history, which is, none the less, the teacher of life. They behave as though at the time of former Councils everything was a full triumph for the Christian idea and life and for proper religious liberty.

We feel we must disagree with those prophets of gloom, who are always forecasting disaster, as though the end of the world were at hand.  In the present order of things, Divine Providence is leading us to a new order of human relations which, by men’s own efforts and even beyond their very expectations, are directed toward the fulfillment of God’s superior and inscrutable designs. And everything, even human differences, leads to the greater good of the Church.

In much of the criticism of Pope Francis and this Exhortation, one detects the same voice of the “prophets of gloom” which St. John XXIII mentions.  I think Pope Francis would agree wholeheartedly with his sainted predecessor that it is still God who is in charge and still “leading us to a new order of human relations” which goes far beyond our poor human attempt to understand fully.  Like those earlier critics of the Council, much hand wringing is taking place about “what ifs”: “What if” a pastor just looks for a loophole to let divorced and remarried people back to Communion?  “What if” a person doesn’t form their conscience as rigorously as they should?  “What if” people abuse this teaching and simply ignore the longstanding teaching of the church?  “What if,” indeed.  Realistically, will such things happen?  Of course they will, and no mature adult would deny that possibility.  On the other hand, shouldn’t we adopt a position that we will deal with those situations as they occur, if they occur, and when they occur?  In the meantime, as John did with the Council, let’s move forward. “Siempre Adelante!” as Pope Francis challenged us during his homily in Washington, DC.

So, in forming our consciences, we do so as mature adults, striving as best we can and with the help of the Holy Spirit, to discern God’s will for our lives.