Saturday, June 13, 2015

Deacons are evangelizing disciple-makers

For many different reasons I have been thinking a lot recently about evangelization. More specifically, I have been pondering ways I can be a better evangelist in my own diaconal ministry. As ministers of the Word, sacrament, and charity, there can be no question whatsoever that evangelization is inherent to being a deacon. This is what two of the original seven men set apart by apostles and, taken from at least the time of St Irenaeus of Lyon, to be the first deacons, show us, especially Stephen and Philip. In addition to their witness, the diaconate has a long and illustrious history of evangelists: Ephrem the Syrian, Lawerence, Francis of Assisi, Nicholas Ferrar, to name several of the most prominent.

But I am a little ahead of myself. What is evangelization? Stated most simply, evangelization is proclaiming the Gospel. It is from the Greek neuter noun εὐαγγέλιον, transliterated as euaggelion, that we derive our English word "Gospel," which simply means, as does euaggelion, "good news." It is with the important understanding that because Jesus, in His person, makes the kingdom of God a present reality, described in the writings of Origen by his reference to the Lord as autobasileia, we can point to Jesus' words on evangelization: "I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose" (Luke 4:43).

Jesus gave His apostles (apostle meaning one who is sent) what we call the Great Commission (see Matt 28:16-20). It seems to me that we often skip over the first part of our Lord's commission in order to more quickly get to the second part, which is to baptize people in name of the Holy Trinity. What part is that? "Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations" (Matt 28:19a).

So, the question is, in our parishes are we "making disciples" or just baptizing? Yes, the sacraments confer grace. Baptism, in a particular way, infuses the baptized with sanctifying grace, thus restoring the one baptized to the state of original grace, which is communion with God, with each other, and with creation. In our dying, being buried, and rising with Christ in and through Baptism (see Rom 6:4) we are not only to see, but to experience firsthand, that eternal life is not life that begins after mortal death, but starts now. In baptism we are reborn as children of God through Christ by the power of the Spirit, thus making what is implicit explicit. But because the sacraments do not work and were not instituted by our Lord to work like magic, preparation is required in order to live this new life freely given.

Whether it is preparing adults through RCIA - "The [year-long] catechumenate is an extended period during which the candidates are given suitable pastoral formation and guidance, aimed at training them in the Christian life. In this way, the dispositions manifested at their acceptance into the catechumenate are brought to maturity" (RCIA par. 75) - or preparing parents and godparents to keep the solemn promises they make when having infants and children who have not yet reached the age of reason baptized, we must be mindful that we are engaging in disciple-making. It is useful here to point out that the Christian initiation of children is modeled on that of adults, not the other way around.

Considering the above, an important question arises, In all of these "ordinary" parish activities are we rushing to baptize or taking seriously Christ's mandate to "make disciples"? In other words, are those being baptized, along with those having their children baptized, being formed in the disciplines that constitute Christian discipleship, the way of Christian life, which was initially known as "the Way" (see Acts 9:2)? Judging by the often truncated nature of RCIA (i.e., the school year September to Easter model, which frequently does not include a Period of Evangelization and discernment called "Precatechumenate"), coupled with the lack of a truly mystagogical approach to the periods of catechumenate and purification and enlightenment (the approach is usually didactic- it needs to be formational, not merely informational), along with the very often cursory nature of baptismal preparation for parents and godparents (being a godparent is usually reduced to an honorary and titular role), which, at least in my experience tends to be quite didactic, sometimes consisting of watching a video and being handed a booklet, I'd have to say that with regard to disciple-making we have much work to do.

During a panel discussion this past week at the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy's annual Symposium on Formation for Marriage and Priesthood, one of the panelists, Msgr Bill Schooler, pastor of a large parish in Indiana, stated simply, "Marriage preparation, more than anything else, is evangelization." As indicated above, so is baptismal preparation and RCIA. It seems to me that this would also hold true for funerals. Evangelization is not just proclamation, but also consists of formation. While catechesis and evangelization can be distinguished one from the other, there is a rather large overlap between them. After all, don't both fundamentally consist in handing on the good news? Just as evangelization refers to the proclamation of the good news, which is nothing other than proclaiming the great Paschal mystery, to catechize is to "resound" (to fill a place with sound loud enough to make it echo) the teaching of Christ and the apostles (i.e., to unpack the good news). The content of evangelization and catechesis are the same, the Paschal mystery, only the methods differ. So, while distinct, these two activities are inextricably bound together. The result of our recognizing how bound together evangelization and catechesis are, as well as recognizing they are oriented to (they flow out of and back to) the Eucharist, is a mystagogical approach.

How does this tie back to deacons? In addition to preaching, which, at least when done well by expounding the Scriptures, deacons exhort by both evangelizing and catechizing. Deacons preach both in the context of the Mass and other liturgical celebrations, like graveside committal services, funeral vigils, the funeral rite that takes place outside of Mass, and Rites of Marriage outside of Mass, which are usually between a Catholic and a non-Catholic, increasingly between a Catholic and a non-Christian. Deacons are usually deeply involved in marriage and baptismal preparation and very often in RCIA. How the deacon engages in his secular work is yet another way he evangelizes, by the sacramental grace he received in ordination, he makes the Church present, as a cleric, in a wholly unique and singular way. For the married permanent deacon, this extends to living out marriage and family life according to the good news. In a similar way single, never married, deacons serve as a powerful sign by providing support and encouragement for lay single Christians; widowed deacons to the widowed; the divorced deacon (there are some) to those who have suffered the pain and anguish of a divorce.

In his address to permanent deacons in the Jubliee Year of 2000, Pope St John Paul II said, "Whoever believes that Christ the Lord is the way, the truth and the life, whoever knows that the Church is his continuation in history, whoever has a personal experience of all this cannot fail, for this very reason, to become fervently missionary. Dear deacons, be active apostles of the new evangelization. Lead everyone to Christ! Through your efforts, may his kingdom also spread in your family, in your workplace, in the parish, in the Diocese, in the whole world!"

Another avenue worth some exploration, along with the renewed and restored diaconate as a successful and concrete example of the primary goals of the Second Vatican Council (i.e., ressourcement and aggiornamento), is the relationship of the three-fold service of the deacon that consists of Word, Liturgy, and Charity to what Pope Benedict XVI, in his first encyclical Deus caritas est, insisted were expressions of the "Church's deepest nature," which is also three-fold: "of proclaiming the word of God (kerygma-martyria), celebrating the sacraments (leitourgia), and exercising the ministry of charity (diakonia)" (par 25a). "These duties," Benedict explained, "presuppose each other and are inseparable" (par 25a). In his life and ministry, in his very person, the deacon is to be a concrete sign of the inseparability of these expressions of the Church's deepest nature.

Hence, the very essence of being a deacon is to be an evangelist, or, to use the phrase so central to Pope Francis' teaching, a missionary disciple.

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