The Unexpected Moments

Why we should be prepared to serve at all times

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Several years ago I had the privilege of teaching a graduate course in moral theology to a group of seminarians in the Caribbean. Arriving at the monastery, a big steel gate opened, and the car entered the courtyard. I was then taken to what can be described as a large dormitory with metal bunk beds shrouded in mosquito netting. As I was shown my bunk, a bell rang indicating night prayer. We gathered in the chapel, and after night prayer was over, one of the brothers read the next day’s Gospel, as is their tradition. It was Matthew 16:18: “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church.” I remember thinking that some lucky guy gets to preach on this reading tomorrow.

Later that evening, I climbed into my bunk, adjusted the netting, removed my glasses and began to fall into a deep sleep. At some point I heard a voice. “Deacon, would you mind preaching one day this week?” I opened my eyes to two white figures blurred by my poor vision and the dim light. Since I’m not accustomed to angelic visitations, I quickly realized it was two of the brothers. I responded with something like, “Sure, just give me a heads-up so I can reflect on the readings.”

The next morning, I made my way to the chapel for morning prayer and Mass. Dressed only in clerics, I sat in the pew. The superior of the order, whom I met once before, was celebrating Mass that day. As the time came to read the Gospel, the superior nodded at me. At first I thought, “Oh, he must recognize me,” so I nodded back, because that’s what clerics do. He then pointed to the ambo and my heart dropped. He wanted me to read the Gospel.

Believing it imprudent at the time to discuss why such an invitation is liturgically problematic, I left the pew, approached the ambo and proclaimed the Gospel. Without vestments, I felt completely exposed. Continuing, I read the familiar words: “Peter, you are Rock.” It was at that point, I recalled my thoughts the night before about the lucky guy who would preach, and my heart dropped even further.

Upon finishing the Gospel, I turned to the celebrant, and with a smile he said, “Go on,” indicating that I was to preach. Surrendering to the moment, I stepped out in front of the altar and began to preach. Fortunately, I had taught on this passage many times before, and, by God’s grace, I was able to pull things together.

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As I later reflected on this situation, I began to realize that diaconal ministry — in fact, all ordained ministry — must constantly be available to the needs of the moment as they arise. This is not to suggest that we ought to spend the time and effort preparing a homily for a Sunday we’re not scheduled to preach. Rather, it means that, should we be called out of the blue to exercise a form of diaconal ministry, whatever that ministry might be, we must be open and willing to surrender and rely on the grace of our orders. This openness allows Our Lord to stretch us well beyond our comfort zone to become more than we are, revealing Christ the Servant in ways we never thought possible.

As you can see by our cover and the selection of features, this second issue of Deacon Digest is dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary. From the Annunciation to her assumption, no one more typifies what it means to surrender and rely on grace than she who is the fullness of grace. Let us, in our lives as deacons, always turn to her so that we may be permanently available for ministry.

Sancta Maria, Mater Diaconati, ora pro nobis.

DEACON DOMINIC CERRATO, Ph.D., is editor of Deacon Digest and currently the director of Diaconal Formation for the Diocese of Joliet, Illinois. He provides spiritual direction through the Pastoral Solutions Institute and is founder of Diaconal Ministries, where he gives national presentations and retreats to deacons and diaconal candidates.