Jose Bueno prays during his ordination to the diaconate May 19 at St. Agnes Cathedral in Rockville Centre, N.Y. Deacon Bueno was one of five men ordained permanent deacons during the Mass by Bishop John O. Barres of Rockville Centre. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

‘The Handmaid of the Lord’

Mary plays an inspirational role in the formation of deacons

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Surely, the Blessed Virgin Mary plays a significant (if, at times, subtle) role in diaconal formation. In fact, at our information nights prior to aspirancy, we affirm that we are looking for guys who already have a devotion to Our Lady.

Once men are accepted into our program, in due course they receive catechetical and theological instruction regarding the role of Mary in the mystery of Christ and the Church. They are exposed to a wide variety of Marian feasts and popular devotions, especially the Rosary. They even learn to conclude the day with the traditional Marian antiphon appropriate to the given liturgical season — in Latin, no less!

In addition to all these explicit ways of drawing our candidates to Mary, one of the hallmarks of our formation program is “Love for the Church.” I am convinced that the intrinsically Marian dimension of the Church enables our candidates to experience the Church more palpably as a beloved mother rather than merely a large, religious institution (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 972).

In fulfillment of biblical prophecy, “all generations” call Mary blessed, so a loving devotion to our Blessed Mother is meant to be part of the spiritual life of all Christian believers (see Lk 1:48). But I think we’re correct in discerning a “deacon difference” — that Mary has a specific connection to all deacons and, in particular, to all men in formation.
 

Trusting in God

Turning to one of the Church’s key documents on the diaconate, Basic Norms for the Formation of Permanent Deacons, one may discern a preference of referring to Mary as “handmaid of the Lord” (Lk 1:38).

For example:
• “The element which most characterizes diaconal spirituality is the discovery of and sharing in the love of Christ the servant. … Let Mary, the handmaid of the Lord, be present on this journey” (No. 72).

• “Love for Christ and for his Church is profoundly linked to love of the Blessed Virgin Mary, handmaid of the Lord. With her unique title of Mother, she was the selfless helper of her divine Son’s diaconia” (No. 57).

• “With deep veneration and affection Mary looks on every deacon. … This love of the Virgin Mary, handmaid of the Lord, which is born and rooted in the word, will cause deacons to imitate her life. In this way a Marian dimension is introduced into the Church which is very close to the vocation of the deacon” (No. 57).

Mary chose the title “handmaid” for herself at the Annunciation, and later she repeated this self-designation in the Magnificat, her great hymn of praise.

The term “handmaid” is not meant in a pejorative, self-abasing sense. Rather, in the context of Old Testament servant theology, it suggests a strong confidence in God’s loving providence, which evokes love and a pervasive attitude of service. The connection to the deacon’s ministry of service should be obvious. The deacon’s love for the Lord must lead him to embrace his servant mysteries. The one whom we imitate came to empty himself, to give his life in service to the Father and to his people (see Mk 10:45; Phil 2:5-8).

If men aspiring to become deacons strive to emulate Mary’s servant heart, they do well to also embrace her openness to the word of God: “I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word” (Lk 1:38). I think we can discern a three-step process in diaconal formation of men opening themselves to God’s word in imitation of Mary.
 

Ponder the Word

We know from the rite of ordination that deacons are set apart as “heralds of the Gospel.” This entails the profound responsibility of proclaiming the Gospel at Mass, but deacons, at their core, are called to be heralds of the Gospel 24/7. This responsibility presupposes an intense engagement with the word of God that only comes through daily meditation.

Mary is presented to us in the Gospel as a woman of prayer — a woman who pondered the mighty works of God in her heart (see Lk 2:19, 51). Not surprisingly, the Church was revealed to the nations by the power of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost only after nine days of fervent prayer with Mary (Acts 1:14).

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Prayer to the Blessed Virgin Mary

Mary,
Who as teacher of faith, by your obedience to the word of God, has cooperated in a remarkable way with the work of redemption, make the ministry of deacons effective by teaching them to hear the word and to proclaim it faithfully.

Mary,
Teacher of charity, who by your total openness to God’s call, has cooperated in bringing to birth all the Church’s faithful, make the ministry and the life of deacons fruitful by teaching them to give themselves totally to the service of the People of God.

Mary,
Teacher of prayer, who through your maternal intercession has supported and helped the Church from her beginnings, make deacons always attentive to the needs of the faithful by teaching them to come to know the value of prayer.

Mary,
Teacher of humility, by constantly knowing yourself to be the servant of the Lord you were filled with the Holy Spirit, make deacons docile instruments in Christ’s work of redemption by teaching them the greatness of being the least of all.

Mary,
Teacher of that service which is hidden, who by your everyday and ordinary life filled with love, knew how to co-operate with the salvific plan of God in an exemplary fashion, make deacons good and faithful servants, by teaching them the joy of serving the Church with an ardent love. Amen.

Source: Basic Norms for the Formation of Permanent Deacons

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Even before the Annunciation, Mary pondered the word of God, taking to heart the teaching of the Hebrew Scriptures. As a result of her faith, she was able to discern God’s will at the Annunciation. Even more, her great Magnificat reflects a knowledge of Scripture that has penetrated her very being. It is the response of a woman who has made God’s words her words. A time-tested way for deacons to ponder God’s word at the school of Mary is in the recitation of the Rosary. The Church needs to hear the Magnificat of its new and growing cadre of deacons!
 

Changed by the Word

Pondering the word has to entail openness to having the word act upon us and change us. In this regard, Luke 11:27-28 is instructive. A woman from the crowd calls out to Jesus: “Blessed is the womb that carried you and the breasts at which you nursed.” Jesus replies, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it.”

We keep our deacon candidates busy doing all sorts of good things, some of them explicitly designed to foster greater Marian devotion. There are people who look on the commitment of our men in formation and are quick to affirm their godly undertaking and all the good things they are already doing on behalf of God’s people.

Surely the externals — the actions — of our deacon candidates matter greatly. Still, their internal transformation — their being — matters infinitely more. So the words of Christ here should resonate with every deacon candidate: “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it.”

They are blessed not because of their own supply of energy, goodwill and altruism, but because, like Mary, they are open to having the word of God take root in their hearts to change them — to form them as deacons in and for the Church.
 

Ambassador of the Word

Changed by the word, the deacon’s ministry of service often is exercised as presence — as an ambassador of divine mercy in the present moment. We see this at the foot of the cross, where the beloved disciple — apostle and deacon — is present with Our Lady at Our Lord’s execution. St. John is not there to administer sacraments or even to preach, but to offer precious gifts of presence, fidelity and obedience, culminating in his saying “yes” to taking Mary into his home as his mother and the mother of all Christians (see Jn 19:26-27).
 

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May all deacons and deacon candidates, with renewed devotion and love, take Mary into their homes and into their hearts.

LEON SUPRENANT is co-director of the Office of the Permanent Diaconate for the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas. He may be reached at leons@archkck.org.