June 8, 1974, myself and 25 other candidates for the Permanent Diaconate had hands imposed upon us by Bishop Vincent M. Leonard in and for the Diocese of Pittsburgh. For over two years we studied, waited, and finally reached that moment when the power of the Holy Spirit would become part of us. Of course, Baptism and Confirmation began our spiritual journey towards God and the mysterious life which was ahead, but this infusion of the Holy Spirit was different.
At first, even after a very endearing and deeply spiritual retreat, given by a priest and deacon from the Washington/Richmond Diocese the weekend before ordination, the impact of what this sacrament was about to bring hadn’t registered yet. It has taken a number of years with a lot of trials and errors through my ministry for the essence of this God-given Grace to mature and have meaning in my life.
I often wonder how many people, especially priests and deacons, try to discern the reason for the ultimate assignment given them that they would not have chosen on their own. Yet, God places each person in various positions because they may be the only one, at that time, who is capable of reaching one or more persons whom God needs for his work on earth. Most of us may never see the harvest of those we minister to. The parable of the sower or farmer stating one plants, another waters, and yet another reaps the harvest. Each one has a task of bringing about the final product known only to God.
An interesting message from a radio minister I heard recently was a sermon regarding stories from the Acts of the Apostles. It referred to St. Stephen as one of the first deacons and his faith and ultimate martyrdom. However, the minister said that Stephen was a layman. In the Apostolic succession in the Church, deacons, priests, and bishops have the imposition of hands during ordination and are no longer laymen but clerics. I just wanted to emphasize that.
We all have certain gifts given us by the Holy Spirit, each with a special task to perform as God wills for the increase of the Kingdom. As we accept these gifts there becomes a responsibility to be accountable for the care and performance that is now under our charge. How we handle the task at hand requires us to make a final accounting of the outcome and how well each one rises to the challenge. Our judgement depends on the gift(s) given and the manner in which each one completes his assignment according to the Will of God. The impact of the accountability depends on the amount of Grace given to accomplish the given task.
Priests and deacons however receive a special grace at ordination, and it may appear to be extraordinary, and it is. But, the grace given here will require a much greater accountability than those not receiving that grace. The greater the gift is the greater the responsibility will be and consequently the accountability. No priest or deacon should take lightly this gift and understand the judgement will be more severe for the result of their action . Fortunately the Holy Spirit will be with them to assist in their given assignment.
Going back to the statement regarding discernment for a given assignment priests and deacons should realize there is always someone in authority who has a job directing persons within different areas of need and that person must place the most qualified person to accomplish the specific task at hand. Unfortunately, it may not always be the cream of the crop, so to speak, and often will not please the one sent. God sent His Son in the fullness of time and the final result did not appear to be a success, according to the standards of smart administration. But, we do not always know the ways of God. Aren’t we lucky none of us was given the job of saving mankind? If ever any of us needs an exemplar to follow look to Calvary, the Passion of Christ, and the Resurrection.
I mentioned that it took some time in my ministry to realize the impact of the Grace received at ordination and as I matured in my quest to follow Jesus Christ more fully the realization of this special grace became more prevalent and the responsibility surfaced not only during my active years as a deacon, but lately more alive with people not affiliated with church issues or walking loosely without Christ. Not everyone in the church or professing the name Christian is completely saved in their walk, if indeed they are walking as Christ would want them.
One incident found me performing an electrical inspection in an upscale apartment where the opportunity arose to converse with an elderly couple about the church and Jesus Christ. The gentleman had been attending classes at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary in the East Liberty section of Pittsburgh and his wife was Jewish. As we talked I mentioned I was a deacon and if they were willing I would confer a blessing upon them. They accepted and the lady began to cry tears of joy that a Catholic cleric would do this. It made me realize the power of the Grace I had, and the impact the Catholic Church has on other than Catholics. This was just one incident of many that brought the reality of priesthood and the grace of ordination to light. We often reach people in many places and use the gifts given us through ordination.
Each time a homily is given at Mass the intent reflects the background and experience of the homilist that may impact the listeners. Here is an example of how God can reach one or more persons in the congregation using the tenacity of the speaker’s ability and expertise in any given arena of education, work ethic, or personal connection from life. If one listens intently, not to the words alone, but the deep content that may slip through during moments of exhortation, The Holy Spirit will allow a message to creep in, even unbeknown to the speaker.
There once was a time when my turn to preach on Sunday became what might have been my most devastating period of preaching. It did become my most memorable period of speaking and still remains in my mind as the perfect example of how the Holy Spirit uses our gift of ordination, and the opportunity to show His intervention into the human endeavor without our doing anything in the process.
Sunday morning arrived and as usual, I opened the readings for that day, to refresh my mind with what I had mentally prepared for preaching. This was my operative as I never wrote my homilies.
Wow! I couldn’t remember a thing! Even rereading the scriptures found my mind completely blank. All the way driving to St. Angela’s my only thought was; “Lord give me a word.”
When Fr. Steve came into the Sacristy he said, as usual; “What’s your theme?” When I told him I couldn’t remember, he said; “I wouldn’t dream of going out there not knowing what I was going to say.” It was too late for him to go back to the Rectory for his notes, so we began the procession singing the opening song. All the way to the sanctuary my only thoughts were; “O Lord give me something.” The first reading was read, the Psalm response was sung and the second reading was proclaimed. I got up for the Alleluia got his blessing and proclaimed the gospel still wondering all the while what I was going to talk about. Have you ever been there? It’s frightening to say the least.
Walking to the center of the Sanctuary and taking the microphone off the stand (nothing to hide behind) raised it to my lips said to myself; “here goes nothing.”
Where the words came from and the message proclaimed I never knew. They came from somewhere beyond me and I knew it was the Holy Spirit. He will never allow an indifferent or negative message flow from Him through us .
Once home and inside the house I looked up and said; “What are you doing to me?” The words I will never forget. “you’re always teaching about faith; today I tested yours.” I have never forgotten those words and see how the Grace of Ordination can impact the best of us. We are not always in control of the message God wishes us to deliver, or for that matter even the effects of our ministry in any given area of ordination. One more thing, I was told the homily was very good. I related this incident to Deacon Fred (many years after that and at St. Bernard). He told me the hairs on the back of his neck were raised.
Many clerics could relate stories that are personal which might be beneficial to the public, especially parishioners who would welcome some insight into the day to day experiences of their priests and deacons seeing how ordained life is more than altar commitments or just parish work. Evangelization is the most critical need in the world today; be it from clerics or lay-people. Reaching out to the disenfranchised and those who are just on the fringe of the church’s inner circle who don’t quite feel that they are an important part of God’s Kingdom must be assured that their place in the Church is as important as the ordained/religious components. Christ came that all might have salvation and part of that essence is reaching those who are unsure or frightened and timid. This is one reason this writing might reach just one person who is not certain about the church and might seek the friendship of priests or deacons that really are human vessels of God’s Kingdom.
As I write this reflection wondering of the task at hand, I am reminded of what I wrote back in the third paragraph; “I wonder how many persons, especially priests and deacons, try to discern the reason for their ultimate assignment that they would not have chosen on their own?” In the trek of life and the many avenues we may find ourselves how often we see the down-side of life’s failings, disappointments, and at times disastrous endings. Then the vision of Christ hanging on the cross, dying as He shed every drop of His Precious Blood, for you and me, and the thought of “what was all this for?” Can I or anyone say the assignment was wrong or not for me? Look again at the vision!
Then reflect on Matthew’s Gospel; “Come you blessed of my Father, for you saw me hungry, naked, sick, and in jail; and you came to my need and cared for me.” Perhaps no other words in scripture, no other means of ministry, and no other possibility of reaching those to whom we are sent can our ordination and the Sanctifying Grace from our Baptism have meaning than to do as we are sent. He will say; “Well done my son/daughter/“ “Enter into my Glory.”