Saturday, October 20, 2012

Deacons: called, ordained, and sent to serve

Today marks only the third time in more than 6 years of blogging that Καθολικός διάκονος features a guest blogger. Our guest today is Deacon Norbert Wethington, Ph.D, a dear friend, who serves in the Diocese of Toledo, Ohio, the parish of St. Joseph in Fremont, a community he serves as Pastoral Associate. Dcn Norb is also deeply involved in diaconal formation in his diocese.

This week I made much of the fact that at the Synod of Bishops meeting in Rome to discuss the New Evangelization, it took an Anglican bishop, Dr. Steven Croft of Sheffield, England, to mention deacons as evangelists. Dcn Norb in his homily, which he will preach at this evening's vigil Mass, does a great job of turning theory into practice, making what can all too easily remain abstract concrete when it comes to just how deacons serve, that is, exercise diakonia, which, as Dr. Croft noted, is the theological root of evangelization, the ministry of deacons being "listening, loving service, and being sent on behalf of the Church." _______________________________________________________________________________

My story today goes back about ten years.

Summer was rapidly approaching and our Diocese had developed some urgency about recruiting qualified men to become a part of a new Deacons Class that was to be starting in the following Fall. The problem was, they had the applicants . . . and the interest. . . but most of those names they did have on file needed a “Prep School” – a crash course “Prep School.”
So a sense of urgency was created;
Mercy College in Toledo volunteered to provide the classroom space;
and instructors were lined up for the week-long program.
And, YES, it would be in the daytime . . . and, YES, interested applicants might have to take some time off from work to attend.

Much to everyone’s surprise and delight, well over thirty men signed up for this very intense series.

I had been tapped to do a 12 hour long block on Church History . . . BUT . . . this block also had to include a strong emphasis on how deacons flourished in our church throughout the almost 2,000 years that Christianity has ministered to the wider world.

In my opening remarks, I introduced my topic by talking about the fact that historically Deacons were ministers of service to the people of God.

The Book of Acts, for example, describes how the very first deacons were empowered to minister to the disenfranchised Greek widows of their era.

The history of the medieval church describes deacons as the almsgivers –- making sure the sick were taken care of, making the hungry were fed and making sure the homeless were housed.

Then, I reminded my class that these guys worked in the background . . .

. . .and this ministry to the poor . . . the disenfranchised . . . the marginalized . . . was done in such quiet ways that 99%+ of the everyday lay-folks in those moments of history simply did not even realize what was going on.

Finally, I jumped to late-twentieth century Northwest Ohio:
--I told them about one area deacon who, even now in 2012, ten years after my talk at Mercy College -– toils without any recognition as the Port Chaplain of the Port of Toledo. He meets every foreign merchant ship as they dock, helps the crew take care of personal issues, provides for their religious needs by making sure they got rides to their own houses of worship, or connects with local residents with roots in their home countries; provides books for their ship’s library and even gives each of those sailors simple gifts from Toledo before they depart.

--I told them about a second deacon, now gone to his eternal reward, who during the worst of the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua ten years before that class, spent a great deal of his time working with un-documented immigrants who had fled Central America in absolute fear of their lives and were now living in our area. He was taking care of their food and shelter needs while others were working on the legal issues of political asylum.

--and lastly, I told them about a classmate of mine, a World War II veteran, who with his wife had a special ministry to the street people in Toledo: the homeless and the hungry . . . to pimps and prostitutes alike . . . spending most of his time walking the streets and finding those folks who actually hide in plain sight
and getting them connected to the help they need. The point I was making -- the same point that Jesus makes in today’s Gospel -- is that while personal ambition is the worst enemy for all sorts of pastoral ministers -- lay or clerical -- it is especially dangerous for deacons.

Deacons become great in the eyes of their God by ministering to the invisible -- ministering to the folks that society –- and maybe even some of its leaders -- dismiss as unimportant and meaningless and not worth worrying about.

At my first break, I got my expected reaction.

One of the guys in the class – whose size and “Type A” personality reminded me of a former professional football player –- came up to challenge me.

He accused me of being a “socialist” and even – far more dangerous in his eyes – a puppet for some political party or another.

        --No one in the Church had a right to tell him how to spend his money;
        --No one in the Church had a right to tell him who to associate with
            . . . at whichever Country Club he was a member;
        --No one in the Church had a right to tell him where to worship his God.

The rant went on for a good five minutes.

Finally, when he got it out of his system and managed to take a deep breath. . .

I said simply: “Deacons – you have to realize -- are ordained for service to a God who washes feet !.”

He walked away. The look on his face was one of amazed contempt.


For a moment, let’s break away from this story and go back to the Gospel reading we used last Sunday:
Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the Kingdom of God!”
The disciples were shocked by his words. So Jesus again said to them in reply, “Children . . . It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the Kingdom of God.”

Now, with that second scripture passage in mind, here is how my story-line for today finally ends up.

Deacon Norb Wethington, Ph.D.

My challenger . . . obviously . . . did not finish that class on Church History and . . . thus . . . dropped–out of that “crash” program to become a deacon.

Becoming a deacon did not seem to be important to him anymore. In fact, he wanted no part of it at all – perhaps it was far too threatening to the values that he held.

But the story does continue. Less than three years after that summer school I just described, my challenger died at a surprisingly young age.

When I read his obituary in the Toledo Blade, I found out some amazing things about him that I did not know . . . but probably should have suspected:
--As young as he was, he was an extraordinarily wealthy businessman whose name –- at that time -- was well known in northwest Toledo from Franklin Park Mall all the way out to Sylvania Township.

--He was very used to getting his own way and was not afraid to use his wealth as a source of his power.

--He apparently had been very involved in one of those smaller Toledo area Polish ethnic parishes that Bishop Blair closed at the same time that Saint Casimir’s locally was closed.

--Thus . . . I have every reason to believe . . . that his opposition to Bishop Blair’s decision –- over ten years ago now -- was very loud and very noisy and very VERY obnoxious.
You know, folks, there is a God out there who has the power to look after all of us. God does all that by using human tools.

Deacons are a part of God’s cosmic tool-box. From day one, deacon candidates are taught that in their formation program.

I have to wonder whether . . . when my former student did check-in with St. Peter a few years back now . . . the response might not have been something like this:

“My friend, let me remind you -- there is only one God ! And you ain’t it!”

You know, somehow, it seems to me that this would be a good teaching for all of the leadership in our church – whether we are the Pope, OR Bishops, OR Priests, OR Deacons, OR Religious Sisters, OR lay-folk. . . .

A teaching –- squeezed out of today’s Gospel -- to take really REALLY seriously!

“There is only one God ! And you ain’t it!”


  1. Thank you for your thoughtful blog entry. Over the past 2 years or so, I have gotten to know a few deacons, such as Deacon Scott and a few others, over the internet. I have also gotten to know a few deacons in my 3-year formation in lay ministry through my diocese.
    I want to thank all of you for your example, because it is rubbing off on me (albeit slowly. i am a slow learner, me thinks).

    I never appreciated the vocation to service in the way I am beginning to discover now. I'm just a Dan and a husband who has been given a great enthusiam for living my faith. And while I realize that I fall short every day, I am inspired by the good men I see in the diaconate who are my role models. I don't need to be ordained to see how serving others in my life right here and now, as a father, as a husband, as a member of the community is really the focus of what it means to be a disciple.
    God certainly isn't done with me yet, but I am blessed to have examples of what service looks like.

    As a royal priesthood, we all have the opportunity to be, Christ present, for each other. Thank you for saying yes to your calling, for it has blessed me.

    1. Dan

      Many gracious blessings on your insights here! Continue to pray unceasingly for the deacons who so inspire you.

      Deacon Norb in Ohio

  2. How did I miss this entry? Glad I came back and found these words from my friend Deacon Norb. Such thoughtful wisdom, such good food for the heart.

  3. Most of my entries are missed, Fran, which is quite alright. I, too, thought Norb's homily was worth thinking about, praying with, and passing along.

    1. I have you in my reader, Scott. I try to keep up, but some days it does not happen. Your blog is a spiritual treasure, plus your eye for music and a particular kind of Catholic integration and sensibility is a gift. Prayers for you always.

    2. Thanks, Fran. I appreciate your encouragement and friendship tremendously. I enjoy what I do here for its own sake. The biggest temptation I have had to resist over the years is choosing quantity, not over quality per se (I cannot judge the quality of what I put up), but over a certain kind of integrity and independence I think the Catholic blogosphere, such as it is, sorely needs these days.