Deacon Bernard Casey of St. Thomas Aquinas Church reads the Gospel during a Mass at Lee Arrendale State Prison in Alto, Ga. (CNS photo/Michael Alexander, Georgia Bulletin)

A Time to Lead, to Serve

In a time of reform, the deacon can be a light and voice of change

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“Blessed be God who lives forever, because his kingdom lasts for all ages.”

— Tobit 13:1

In 1975, on the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Pope St. Paul VI issued an apostolic exhortation to address Evangelization in the Modern World (Evangelii Nuntiandi). The opening paragraph of this exhortation states, “There is no doubt that the effort to proclaim the Gospel to the people of today, who are buoyed up by hope but at the same time often oppressed by fear and distress, is a service rendered to the Christian community and also to the whole of humanity.”

The exhortation goes on to stress the following desire for the Church, “striving to proclaim the Gospel to all people,” has had “the single aim of fulfilling her duty of being the messenger of the Good News of Jesus Christ — the Good News proclaimed through two fundamental commands: ‘Put on the new self’ and ‘Be reconciled to God’” (No. 2).

Released 10 years after the close of the Second Vatican Council, this document emphasizes one single objective that sums up the purpose for evangelization in the modern world: to make the Church of the 20th century better fitted for proclaiming the Gospel to the people of the 20th century.

Renewed focus

Following in the footsteps of Pope Paul VI, St. John Paul II called for a renewed focus on evangelization, rooted in the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, a New Evangelization centered in the Pauline spirit of inner conversion as the essential source for our outreach to others. This challenges us, in the midst of current scandals in our Church, to reflect on the need for inner conversion in the life of the Church and what that might look like. The challenges we face today, in many ways, are reflective of the challenges the apostles faced in the earliest days of the Church and the challenges their successors faced throughout the history of the Church as they struggled to define and defend the doctrine and tenets of our Catholic faith.

So we must pause in our time of crisis in the Church. Like Elijah we must listen for the voice of God in the midst of the storm. We must recognize and bring honor to the Church in the modern world in which we are called to serve. We must claim this modern-day crossroad of strife and hope in our Church. Like those who have gone before us, we are called to carry forward the heritage of an imperfect past that is rooted in faith, hope and love — what we know in our heart to be an imperfect journey that leads to the perfection of love between the human and the divine.

Heritage of Faith

Serving as deacons in the modern world we are called to find hope in the fullness of truth, as did the apostles at Pentecost and their successors from the time of the Council of Nicea to the Second Vatican Council to our modern-day hope for the New Evangelization. Drawing strength from this rich heritage of faith, hope and love, we must ask ourselves, “What does the Lord expect of us today, in our time of service to the Body of Christ?” In claiming our call to be humble servants in the Church we must challenge ourselves to reflect anew on the question posed by Evangelii Nuntiandi: “At this turning-point in history, does the Church or does she not find herself better equipped to proclaim the Gospel and to put it into people’s hearts with conviction, freedom of spirit and effectiveness?”

The objective for Evangelii Nuntiandi and for the New Evangelization emphasized by Paul VI and John Paul II is perhaps more complex given the modern world we live in, but one could argue the objective has not changed — to make the Church better fitted for proclaiming the Gospel to the people of the 21st century.

Reflection and Grief

If our love for the Church comes from the depth of our heart and the tenets of our faith, then I suspect this call for a time of reflection in the midst of another crisis is both heart-wrenching and frightening.

From my personal reflection, the resurfacing of this crisis reminds me of a difficult time following the sudden death of my father. The veil of grief I experienced left me searching for clarity as I sorted out a mix of emotions — complex feelings deeply rooted in the complicated love of a human relationship between an imperfect father and an imperfect son. There wasn’t a lot left unsaid between us. I certainly wasn’t left with any doubt about his love for me. Nonetheless, his death brought about a time of deep, sometimes dark, reflection on the purpose of my father’s life, the meaning of our oftentimes complicated relationship, and how it all translates into a greater sense of purpose for how I choose to live out the rest of my days.

In the end, as the veil of grief gradually was lifting, I came to realize the greatest part of my father was the seeds of faith he (and my mother) planted in my soul — my love for the fullness of truth woven into my identity and forming the foundation of my Catholic faith. This truth is at the heart of how my father lives in me — and how my father lives on in me. Something of an eternal grace.

So we find ourselves grieving over the human frailty of our Church and clinging to the fullness of truth entrusted to her by Christ, passed down from generation to generation through the apostles and their successors.

Our hearts ache for the Church and the fullness of truth it stands for in every generation — truths ingrained in the soul of our identity as deeply as the love shared between an imperfect father and an imperfect son. Our hearts are broken. We find ourselves hurt and angry, dumbfounded and angry, confused and angry, broken and tired, and anxious and angry.

At the same time we remain more committed than ever to answering the call to serve our Church and all of our sisters and brothers in Christ. The grace that flows through our calling to the diaconate comes from the Holy Spirit, leaving us no more able to abandon the Church in the midst of this crisis than the apostles were after witnessing the crucifixion of Christ.

Firm Confidence

As deacons in the modern world we must walk with firm confidence in service to God and his Church. We must walk in the light of truth with eyes of faith and purity of heart, trusting in our profession of faith that the Church is one, holy, catholic and apostolic, whose power derives from the fullness of grace and truth that Christ has entrusted to the Catholic Church.

If we believe our call as deacons is one of service in the fullness of grace and truth that Christ has entrusted to the Catholic Church, then our time has come to be washed in the blood of the lamb. We must take up the cross Christ needs us to bear in the modern world, to spread the light of truth in the spirit of Vatican II by being the messenger of the Good News of Jesus Christ — the Good News proclaimed through two fundamental commands: “Put on the new self” and “Be reconciled to God.”

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Three Questions on Evangelization

The central axis of the Second Vatican Council’s Evangelization in the Modern World has three burning questions applicable to the modern Church (see Evangelii Nuntiandi, No. 4):

• In our day, what has happened to that hidden energy of the Good News, which is able to have a powerful effect on man’s conscience?
• To what extent and in what way is that evangelical force capable of really transforming the people of this century?
• What methods should be followed in order that the power of the Gospel may have its effect?

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The truth we must face is that there is little hope for a New Evangelization in our generation without the grace that comes out of reconciliation and reparation. As deacons we must commit ourselves to the challenges of a new reformation in the Church. This is our purpose — our call to a “New Evangelization in the Modern World,” our call to lead from the heart of our community with grace and humility during this particular era of challenge and uncertainty: to support our brothers in Christ ordained in service to the community and to walk this difficult journey of faith with all our sisters and brothers in the Body of Christ. The challenge before us, the challenge at the heart of the diaconate today, is found in our call to be a voice for change and a light on the path of a new reformation.

“May your mercy, Lord, be upon us; / as we put our hope in you” (Ps 33:22).

DEACON JOE KNAPP, MTS, was ordained for the Diocese of Peoria, Illinois, in 2017 and holds a master’s degree of theological studies from St. Meinrad School of Theology. He serves as the manager of pastoral care for OSF HealthCare Saint Francis Medical Center in Peoria.

 
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