TALK AT THE DEACONS’ CONVOCATION
GOING TO THE PERIPHERIES
March 17, 2018
+ Jorge Rodriguez
The Church is celebrating the five years of Pope Francis’ pontificate, and the media is full of articles evaluating his ministry as the Head of the Catholic Church. Something we must acknowledge is that beyond controversies on moral and discipline, he has given a new orientation to our way of being a church. And this new orientation affects directly the role of deacons in this new understanding of how to be the Church of Jesus today.
We can summarize it in the famous phrase: “going to the peripheries”, and Church “whose doors are open” to “go out.”
1. The invitation to go out:
Recently we have been hearing about the need to be a church of open doors, and we have worked hard in our parishes to train welcoming ushers, we have put in our gathering halls the “welcoming corner”, and we have told our people to be welcoming to everyone crossing the threshold of our church. And we have done a good job. Most of recent studies about how to bring people back to church mention to be a welcoming community, as a priority. (In fact, we changed our mission statement where I was a pastor…” Holy Cross is a welcoming community of intentional disciples…”
This model represents the romantic picture of the bell tower attached to the church building, the boy tolling the bells, and people coming to church. Pope Francis is given a very difference sense to his invitation to be a church of open doors: he means, open doors so the faithful can go out…
Even though Pope Francis in n. 47 of Evangelium Gaudii refers to a church with doors always open in the usual sense, we were referring before:
“The Church is called to be the house of the Father, with doors always wide open. One concrete sign of such openness is that our church doors should always be open, so that if someone, moved by the Spirit, comes there looking for God, he or she will not find a closed door.”
He emphasizes the other sense: open doors to go out: “46. A Church which “goes forth” is a Church whose doors are open. Going out to others in order to reach the fringes of humanity” …
“If the whole Church takes up this missionary impulse, she has to go forth to everyone without exception. But to whom should she go first? When we read the Gospel, we find a clear indication: not so much our friends and wealthy neighbors, but above all the poor and the sick, those who are usually despised and overlooked, “those who cannot repay you” (Lk 14:14). There can be no room for doubt or for explanations which weaken so clear a message. Today and always, “the poor are the privileged recipients of the Gospel”, and the fact that it is freely preached to them is a sign of the kingdom that Jesus came to establish. We have to state, without mincing words, that there is an inseparable bond between our faith and the poor. May we never abandon them. 49. Let us go forth, then, let us go forth to offer everyone the life of Jesus Christ. Here I repeat for the entire Church what I have often said to the priests and laity of Buenos Aires: I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security. I do not want a Church concerned with being at the center and which then ends by being caught up in a web of obsessions and procedures. If something should rightly disturb us and trouble our consciences, it is the fact that so many of our brothers and sisters are living without the strength, light and consolation born of friendship with Jesus Christ, without a community of faith to support them, without meaning and a goal in life. More than by fear of going astray, my hope is that we will be moved by the fear of remaining shut up within structures which give us a false sense of security, within rules which make us harsh judges, within habits which make us feel safe, while at our door people are starving and Jesus does not tire of saying to us: “Give them something to eat” (Mk 6:37).”
This is the Pope’s invitation to the whole Church, to his Curia, to the Dioceses, Archdioceses and Eparchies in the world; to each parish, to each bishop, priest and deacon, and to each Catholic in the pews: let’s move out of our comfort zone to look for those who live in the peripheries of cities, society and life.
2. Diaconate and the invitation to go out:
Vatican II, Lumen Gentium 41 calls deacons “servants of the mysteries of Christ and the Church.” But this has been the tradition of the Church since the early Christian community. In the “Didascalia of the Apostles” (3rd century), we find this text about deacons: “for we are imitators of Him and hold the place of Christ. And again, in the Gospel you find it written how the Lord girded a linen cloth about his loins and cast water into a washbasin, while we reclined at supper, and drew nigh and washed the feet of us all and wiped them with the cloth. Now. This he did that he might show us charity and brotherly love, that we also should do in like manner one to another. If then our Lord did thus, will you, O deacons, hesitate to do the like for them that are sick and infirm, you who are workmen of the true and bear the likeness of Christ? … It is required of you deacons therefore that you visit all who are in need and inform the bishop of those who are in distress; and you shall be his soul and his mind…”
Since the pages of the Acts of the Apostles, deacons close to Christ in the person of the Bishop, in the altar of the sacrifice and in the lacerated bodies of the suffering humanity… in Christ, as the servant of all.
That means, that the Pope’s appeal to go to the peripheries must resound louder in the heart of the deacons in the Church. The suffering Jesus, the suffering brother you are called to serve resides in the peripheries, and going to the peripheries means to go out, to walk towards them, to encounter them where they are, and to show them the love of Jesus.
3. The peripheries1
1 Cf. Archbishop Jose Gomez, Lessons from the Peripheries: The Joy of the Gospel and Our Continental Mission, Orlando, FL., July 3, 2017.
We are dealing now with a model of the Church that adores and worships Jesus Christ, and answers his call to follow him; to leave security and comfort behind and to go forth to the “peripheries” of human experience.
“Peripheries.” It is a curious word. We do not find this word in the Scriptures or in the Catechism or even in the Compendium of the Church’s social doctrine. It turns up only in a few random places in the writings of recent popes. The Greek etymology (perifereis) refers to the line around the circle, the outer surface. That area that is far from the center: the outskirts of the city; where the “favelas” are built with carboard; the shanty towns, the slums…
According to Archbishop Gomez, this word — “peripheries” — gives us a window into the Holy Father’s vision for the modern world and his vision for the Church’s mission of evangelization. The Pope’s vision comes from the “Church of the peripheries.”
I want to begin by seeing what Pope Francis means by the peripheries — where they are; who lives there; what that means. The peripheries were the theme of the short speech that then-Cardinal Bergoglio gave in the meetings before the conclave in 2013. In fact, some people say these are the words that convinced his fellow cardinals to select him as Pope. So it is good for us to reflect on what he said:
“The Church is called to come out of herself and to go to the peripheries, not only geographically, but also the existential peripheries: the mystery of sin, of pain, of injustice, of ignorance and indifference to religion, of intellectual currents, and of all misery.”
In the text there are two understandings of peripheries: the sociological peripheries and the “geographical” ones. They are places on a map, places where people live. The peripheries are the parts of our cities and the rural areas that we never visit: “the other side of the tracks.” They are where the poor live. They are the prisons and the “tent cities” in our public spaces.
The peripheries are the bitter fruits of neglect, exploitation and injustice. They are all the places our society is ashamed of and would rather forget about; where the “invisible” live.
But for Pope Francis, the peripheries are more than a physical location or a social category. They are places where poverty is not only material, but also spiritual. There are “existential peripheries” — places where people are wounded and feel their life has no meaning and makes no difference. In the existential peripheries, men and women are caught in the webs of sin and addiction, in many kinds of slavery and self-deception.
And the Pope is saying that these peripheries are growing in the modern world. And these peripheries are the new mission territory. And, to be honest: Sometimes these are the places where the Church does not like to go, where we do not like to go. The Church has always been present in the peripheries — through our schools and our parishes and our ministries. Sometimes we are the only ones serving in these communities. But we can do better; we are called to do more. That is our challenge.
People living in the peripheries don’t smell well, they are rude, bitter, hurting… they don’t remember when was the last time someone showed them love and seemed to like them. They are used to people “in society” take the other sidewalk to avoid them; that people would like better to get rid of them; they consider that they make our streets and cities uglier; they can even read disgust in people’s faces when they cross their way. People in the peripheries know and have experienced and have assimilated this way of life they are obliged to live up to it.
Let’s name some of these peripheries: poverty, addictions, prisons, gangs, homelessness, the sick, the abandoned and lonely, those who have no meaning in life; those dealing with mental illnesses and depression; those who have no values and don’t value themselves; the abused and the abusers; those who have no God in their hearts; the migrants, the refugees; the broken families; those who suffer discrimination…
The peripheries are the consequence of social structures of sin — of a culture that throws away everything that it does not find useful anymore. But the “existential peripheries” are growing, too. When we talk about the random violence that goes on every day in our communities; when we talk about the epidemic of opioid addiction or the alarming number of suicides — especially among our young people — we are talking about “the existential peripheries.” And this is where we must go as a Church: to these people who are hurting. This is where the Church is called to be.
This is what Pope Francis is helping us to see about our society. The peripheries are the place of the poor. And poverty is both spiritual and material — existential and social. And as the saints always remind us, the greatest poverty is to not know God, not to experience his tender mercy, his beautiful plan of love for our lives.
Deacons: the response of the Church
The question for us now is: How do we respond to these realities? How do respond as Deacons?
“49. Let us go forth, then, let us go forth to offer everyone the life of Jesus Christ. Here I repeat for the entire Church what I have often said to the priests and laity of Buenos Aires: I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security. I do not want a Church concerned with being at the center and which then ends by being caught up in a web of obsessions and procedures. If something should rightly disturb us and trouble our consciences, it is the fact that so many of our brothers and sisters are living without the strength, light and consolation born of friendship with Jesus Christ, without a community of faith to support them, without meaning and a goal in life. More than by fear of going astray, my hope is that we will be moved by the fear of remaining shut up within structures which give us a false sense of security, within rules which make us harsh judges, within habits which make us feel safe, while at our door people are starving and Jesus does not tire of saying to us: “Give them something to eat” (Mk 6:37).”
This a very challenging text because it challenges some of our attitudes and ways:
– To be an unhealthy and confined church, closes herself, and her achievements…
– A church clinging to her own securities based in relationships of power, money, authority, “connections”
– A church concerned about keeping her centrality, getting everyone’s attention
– A church caught in the web of obsessions and procedures
– An immobile church because of fear of trying new ways
– A church shut within her structures to feel more secure
– A church that judges people harshly and keeps what make her feel secure
And he invites us to:
– Go out: let’s us go forth to offer everyone the life of Jesus Christ
– To be a bruised church, hurting and dirty because it has been in the streets dealing with the people who live in the peripheries
– To trouble our consciences thinking on the fact that so many of our brothers and sisters are living without the strength, light and consolation born of friendship with Jesus Christ, without a community of faith to support them, without meaning and a goal in life.
– And to go out to meet all those people at our door begging for the love of Jesus Christ.
Deacons are the living Jesus of the XXI century leaning on the wounds of people. Deacons are the balm of Jesus touching the sick, the suffering and the abandoned. Deacons are the consoling word for the hopeless and desperate. Deacons are the medicine of love for those enslaved by addictions and lack of faith in God.
We have great examples of this diaconal heart: S. Lawrence was in charge of the poor of the city of Rome and S. Francis of Assisi, took care of the lepers and the least of society.
Today, besides the ministry of the word and the altar, deacons are sent to the peripheries to touch and heal the wounds of those in prison, those who are sick, the immigrants, the homeless, the brokenhearted, the hopeless, the broken families; those who are threatened by abortion…. Deacons are the heart and the hands of Jesus going forth to look for all these people who live in the peripheries of society and of the world.
The question is, how do deacons offer this ministry without being reduced to social workers, good will volunteers, social welfare agents?
Pope Benedict XVI, in his encyclical Deus Caritas Est, gives us key:
21. A decisive step in the difficult search for ways of putting this fundamental ecclesial principle into practice is illustrated in the choice of the seven, which marked the origin of the diaconal office (cf. Acts 6:5-6). In the early Church, in fact, with regard to the daily distribution to widows, a disparity had arisen between Hebrew speakers and Greek speakers. The Apostles, who had been entrusted primarily with “prayer” (the Eucharist and the liturgy) and the “ministry of the word”, felt over-burdened by “serving tables”, so they decided to reserve to themselves the principal duty and to designate for the other task, also necessary in the Church, a group of seven persons. Nor was this group to carry out a purely mechanical work of distribution: they were to be men “full of the Spirit and of wisdom” (cf. Acts 6:1-6). In other words, the social service which they were meant to provide was absolutely concrete, yet at the same time it was also a spiritual service; theirs was a truly spiritual office which carried out an essential responsibility of the Church, namely a well-ordered love of neighbour.
With the formation of this group of seven, “diaconia”—the ministry of charity exercised in a communitarian, orderly way—became part of the fundamental structure of the Church…. love for widows and orphans, prisoners, and the sick and needy of every kind, is as essential to her as the ministry of the sacraments and preaching of the Gospel. The Church cannot neglect the service of charity any more than she can neglect the Sacraments and the Word.”
So, it is a concrete service but with the heart of Jesus. That is what makes the difference. The result is probably the same; the touch is full of love.
It is a service with the heart of Jesus
a) Following the example given in the parable of the Good Samaritan, Christian charity is first of all the simple response to immediate needs and specific situations: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for and healing the sick, visiting those in prison, etc… Individuals who care for those in need must first be professionally competent: they should be properly trained in what to do and how to do it, and committed to continuing care. Yet, while professional competence is a primary, fundamental requirement, it is not of itself sufficient. We are dealing with human beings, and human beings always need something more than technically proper care. They need humanity. They need heartfelt concern. Those who work for the Church’s charitable organizations must be distinguished by the fact that they do not merely meet the needs of the moment, but they dedicate themselves to others with heartfelt concern, enabling them to experience the richness of their humanity. Consequently, in addition to their necessary professional training, these charity workers need a “formation of the heart”: they need to be led to that encounter with God in Christ which awakens their love and opens their spirits to others. As a result, love of neighbor will no longer be for them a commandment imposed, so to speak, from without, but a consequence deriving from their faith, a faith which becomes active through love (cf. Gal 5:6) (DCE 31)
“Christian charitable activity must be independent of parties and ideologies. It is not a means of changing the world ideologically, and it is not at the service of worldly stratagems, but it is a way of making present here and now the love which man always needs…. The Christian’s program —the program of the Good Samaritan, the program of Jesus—is “a heart which sees”. This heart sees where love is needed and acts accordingly.” (cf. 31)
33. With regard to the personnel who carry out the Church’s charitable activity on the practical level, the essential has already been said: they must not be inspired by ideologies aimed at improving the world, but should rather be guided by the faith which works through love (cf. Gal 5:6). Consequently, more than anything, they must be persons moved by Christ’s love, persons whose hearts Christ has conquered with his love, awakening within them a love of neighbor. The criterion inspiring their activity should be Saint Paul’s statement in the Second Letter to the Corinthians: “the love of Christ urges us on” (5:14).
Deacons, you are Jesus going forth to the peripheries. You are Jesus’ heart going to meet all people, especially those nobody cares for, to let them know that Christ cares for them; you are the Savior bringing them back their dignity and self-esteem because they will find out that you love them.
Blessed Stan Roher is a great example: he could have been in a comfortable parish in Oklahoma: staff, resources, good collection money, lots of collaborators… He went to serve the poor, the culturally segregated, the despised Indian from Guatemala. Fr. Roher left his comfort zone to learn their language (when at school he was rejected because he was incapable to learn Latin!), to eat their food, to walk on dirty paths, and to be exposed to threats like them. He worked the soil with them, he built with his own hands like everybody else in the village. Priests, catechists and people were kidnaped and killed… many priests in surrounding parishes were killed. Many other priests left and went back to their countries. Fr. Roher couldn’t leave his people: those dirty, poor, count nothing people…. And he touched their wounds. He died with them. He left Oklahoma to the peripheries of the jungle in Guatemala. He shared their destiny.
May through the intercession of blessed Stan Roher all deacons of the Archdiocese receive the heart of Jesus, the hands of Jesus and the courage of Jesus, to go forth to the road and streets of life today -in the geographical and existential peripheries of society- to bring to everyone the love of Christ Jesus. May the hands of our deacons be dirty for touching the lives and wounds of those society considers today “throwaway” people…. But remember… in each one of them… you are touching the living Jesus!