The Bishop was visiting groups of kids preparing for their Confirmation. At the first stop, he visited with the children and concluded his visit by giving them a pop quiz. He asked them, “What is a pectoral cross?”
None of the kids knew the answer. The confirmation director was terribly embarrassed, and he didn’t want his friend at the next stop to suffer the same embarrassment, so he called ahead of the Bishop and warned him of the pop quiz so he could prepare his kids.
Sure enough, the Bishop ended his visit with another pop quiz. This time, hoping to make it a little easier for the kids, he asked: “What is a deacon.”
Every hand in the room shot up. He pointed to one girl in the front row and invited her to give her answer. She proudly stood up and proclaimed, “A deacon is a large, heavy cross that hangs around the neck of the bishop!”
So, what is a deacon, really? Bishops and priests were all once deacons. They were transitional deacons, which means they were ordained deacons as part of their formation for the priesthood. And from the priesthood, some few are called to be bishops – to possess the fullness of Holy Orders and to be a successor to the Apostles. There are also Permanent Deacons, which is what I am. I will always remain a deacon.
Deacons are called to a threefold ministry: they are called to proclaim the Word of the Lord both by their lives and in Mass, which is why you’ll see deacons reading the Gospel at Mass; they are called to service at the altar, which is why you will see deacons participating in some roles while the priests lead us in the celebration of Mass; and they are called to a ministry of charity, which means deacons work on behalf of the bishop at an assigned task, which is usually to help the poor and the marginalized.
A deacon also keeps his day job; he is expected to be in the world, but not of the world. That means, he keeps on working for a living to support himself and his family; he is not paid by the parish for the work he does as a deacon.
A deacon gets to baptize, can witness marriages, and is sometimes allowed to preach the homily on Sundays. A deacon is also very fortunate in that when he gets asked a really hard question, he can respond: “Gee, that’s a tough one. We’ll have to ask Father.”
I am very happy to have been assigned to serve in my home parish here at Our Lady of Lourdes. The formation process lasted almost five years; it was a very rewarding and enriching process, but I am glad now that it is over because now the real work can begin: putting into practice what I learned in formation and serving the Bishop, our parish, and our community as a Permanent Deacon.
Today is the feast of Saints Peter and Paul. Peter is – as Christ teaches – the rock upon which His Church is built; every pope is the successor of Peter. Paul was the apostle to the gentiles. He carried God’s word out into the world, making converts and building churches throughout the Mediterranean.
Peter sometimes doesn’t get quite the respect I think he deserves. I kind of wince when I hear someone comment that Peter didn’t always get it as if that made Peter a little goofy. You’ve probably heard that, too. There goes Peter. Again.
The fact is, the apostles and the followers of Christ were dealing with something never before encountered in human experience. They were encountering God in the person of Jesus Christ, born of the Virgin Mary. If you encounter something that is totally new to human experience, it’s okay to not completely understand what you are encountering. This is especially true if what you encounter is as much of the supernatural order as it is of the natural order.
“But who do you say that I am?” Asks the Lord; Simon Peter gives the lone response. Notice that everyone was able to give an answer to who others said Jesus was. And all the answers were perhaps surprising – prophets who were deceased – Jeremiah, Elijah, even John the Baptist. Surprising, but not outside the realm of human experience. If Elisha could ask for a double portion of Elijah’s spirit, then could Jesus conceivable be in some way the prophet, also?
Only Peter stepped forward with the answer – and the right answer – but the supernatural answer, and the answer entirely outside the realm of human experience: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
You are the Christ, the Son of the living God. This gives me chills. What a powerful insight Peter has been given, and Christ recognizes that fact. “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father. And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.”
If you ever hear anyone make the sadly uninformed but all-too-common claim that they think Jesus was a good man, but that He never claimed to be God, this is one of several passages from the Gospel you can use to show that person how wrong he is. Jesus was either God, as He claimed, or else he was a liar.
I assure you: He was not a liar. The One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church continues today as it has for two millennia. The Church is shepherded by the Pope, the successor to Peter, and by the bishops, the successors to the Apostles. When I was ordained, I was ordained by our Bishop Finn, who in his turn was ordained by a bishop, who in his turn was ordained by a bishop, and so on all the way back to the time of Christ. The Church has seen empires come and go and still she continues.
It is sustained by Our Lord and guided by the Holy Spirit. If this were not true, it could not endure. Nothing human is eternal, but Christ’s Church is until He comes again. The gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.