Every once in a while I send a little booklet to our priests as a small way to join them in ongoing formation. I sent one at the beginning of Lent 2012, and it was part of the spiritual thought series from USCCB entitled The Face of Jesus.
This series compiles short excerpts from the talks and writings of our Holy Father. At the very core of the Gospel narratives and abundant in the encyclicals and writings of Pope Benedict is the simple conviction that to live our faith we must meet a person … the person of Jesus. We must see his face.
In fact the two-volume Jesus of Nazareth by our Holy Father revolves around an encounter with the person of Jesus. This is captured so well in my favorite quote from his first encyclical: “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.” (Deus Caritas Est n. 1)
Open the Gospel according to St. John to the 12th chapter and find it once again. There you find one of my favorite verses from the New Testament — a very brief one that echoes throughout the Gospel according to St. John: John 12:21. It is easy to remember because the numbers of the verse form a palindrome, reading the same frontward or backwards.
The scene involves a small group who identify themselves as Greek and who say to Philip: “We wish to see Jesus.”
I recall a sermon of Cardinal Dolan’s in which he describes this verse embossed on the pulpit of a Church in St. Louis, reminding the preacher (about) whom he should preach. It is interesting that the first chapter of this same Gospel has another of the first apostles, this time Andrew, asking Jesus where he lives only to receive that invitation: come and see. They were to seek the face of Jesus.
This Saturday I will ordain three deacons to Holy Orders: Nick Brown, who is in formation at Saint Meinrad; Steve Henriksen at Sacred Heart in Milwaukee and Chris Lubecke at St. Mary’s in Baltimore. Three fine men will be ordained for service to the Lord Jesus.
My homily will focus on the three Greek words of liturgia, martyria and diakonia. In turn they mean worship, witness, and service. For these men, the diaconate is a step toward ordination to the priesthood this time next year. However, it also will be a permanent step because once a man is ordained a deacon, he is always a deacon.
These three words remind us that we are not producing social workers but rather those whose mission is spiritual and who never tire of seeking the face of Jesus. All three Greek words need to shape the lives of our new deacons and for that matter of all of us.
Our service begins with worship: seeking God’s face. It is from this foundation that the grace of bold witness — martyria — springs forth. This can be as simple as making a public sign of the cross when we pray grace before meals in a restaurant or can progress to efforts to provide leadership in morally sound public policy. It surely affects the call that the deacons will receive to preach Christ Jesus and to witness to him. Service then flows from this worship and witness and in a sense confirms the genuine quality of both. This integrity is reflected in the famous and often-quoted words from St. Francis of Assisi, who advised his friars as they went into the world to serve: “Preach always and when necessary, use words.”
The words of the diaconate ordination that most remember are worth repeating here. When I present the newly-ordained deacons with the Book of the Gospels, I will charge each one with the words: “Receive the Gospel of Christ, whose herald you now are. Believe what you read, teach what you believe, and practice what you teach.”
I had flashbacks to my own diaconate ordination when earlier this month I hosted ten of my ordination classmates from 1972. What a joy it was to recall our 40 years as priests and our seminary days.
There is something precious about lifelong friendships and the Church at its best is about relationships that bind us to Christ and to each other. Thank you for the prayers and good wishes as I rejoice in forty years of priesthood. May together we continue to seek the face of Jesus.