+SJA Address to Deacons on the Lenten Pastoral Note

Remarks by Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila

Deacon Convocation

March 13, 2021

9:15-9:45 a.m.

Delivered via Zoom

 What a whirlwind the last year has been! None of us had any idea how things would change so dramatically in our society, our parishes and even our homes. And with all this change, it’s natural to feel a sense of disorientation. What was once reliable and predictable, no longer is.

But we are gathered here today with the One who is our Rock of Salvation. We know that even though “the mountains fall away and the hills be shaken,” God the Father’s love will never be absent and he will keep his promises to us (Cf. Is. 54:10).

Those of you who have been reading my column in the Denver Catholic these past two months know that I have been urging the faithful to know our story as a people of faith, to know who we are and what we are made for. This is crucial spiritual armor for the environment we are living in as a Church and society. If we don’t know those two things, we will be swept away in the currents of godlessness that are increasingly growing stronger.

My goal in speaking to you today is to reflect on some of those same themes: where we are in our cultural moment, how I believe we as an archdiocese are being called to respond and, finally, to offer some ideas for incorporating this into your ministry of diaconal service.

You won’t be surprised to hear that the response we are being called to give in this moment is the one that is ever-ancient and ever-new. It is the only answer to the questions and longings of the human heart: Jesus Christ, and him crucified. He who is “the way, the truth and the life,” who leads us to and shows us the Father (Jn. 14:6-7).

So, let’s begin with orienting ourselves to our current situation.

The Close of Christendom

“Ours is not an age of change but a change of age.[1] In this phrase, Pope Francis summarizes our period in history well. Our Church has always encountered challenges in proclaiming Christ to the culture. Today, however, you and I are now living our Catholic faith in a post-Christian world.

What do I mean by “post-Christian?” Perhaps the easiest way to answer that is to look at what a Christian society looks like. The successful evangelization of the early Church during the first apostolic age flowered into a culture, referred to as “Christendom,” that was built on Christian principles and ideals. While Christendom was rarely the perfect embodiment of those ideals, it was a cultural period based on them, at least in principle, and striving to live them. It was marked by an explosion of art, science, universities, hospital systems, countless social services and the formation of peaceful societies based on the rule of law in what had previously been a barbaric and pagan Europe—all for the greater glory of God.

Despite their flaws and failures, the societies of Europe and our own country’s society were for centuries widely influenced by the Christian faith. Pinning down an exact date for when that stopped being the case is difficult, but we can say that we no longer live in a culture whose primary influence is Christianity.

Archbishop Fulton Sheen put it most bluntly, as long ago as 1974, when he stated, “We are at the end of Christendom. Not Christianity, not the church. Christendom is the economic, political, and social life as inspired by Christian principles. That is what is ending and, because we live in it from day to day, we do not see the decline.” We can see two clear and devasting effects of secularism in the empty churches of Europe, once a bastion of Christianity, and in the rapid growth in the numbers of “nones” in the United States.

Called to Hope

But more than a collapse in Church attendance, as people forget God, we can observe and experience a general collapse of hope. This clarifies so much of what we see going on today. In the words of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, “A spiritual desert is spreading: an interior emptiness, an unnamed fear, a quiet sense of despair.[2] Perhaps more frighteningly, we see a growth in violence, born of deep restlessness and the death of supernatural charity in many souls. Again, to quote the Pope Emeritus (then Cardinal Ratzinger), “The deepest poverty is the inability of joy (which) presupposes and produces the inability to love, produces jealousy, avarice—all defects that devastate the life of individuals and of the world.[3] To lose God is to lose the purpose and meaning of life, and in that barren landscape where can hope and love take root and thrive?

We could find ourselves tempted to wish for smoother sailing, a time that was more supportive of Christian beliefs and practices, but God did not choose you and me for those times. We are living in an apostolic era — like the early Church did — that calls for joyful witness in the face of opposition. He picked us for this moment for a reason and he wants us to engage with both the unique obstacles and opportunities of our time for the sake of the Gospel. He is calling his Church to go on mission.

Our Apostolic Moment

How do we as an archdiocese respond to this “change of eras?” In this new apostolic age, we will respond as we always have, with the Gospel. Like the early Church, we must become capable of compellingly proclaiming Jesus Christ and the freedom he won for us from the current and eternal damage inflicted by sin.

When Jesus sent out the 72 disciples to preach and heal, he did not send them with material possessions, he sent them with a message of repentance and salvation in his name. And the result was that demons were cast out in Jesus’ name and peace settled on those who received their message. (Cf. Lk. 10:1-24). The Gospel message and the outpouring of God’s grace is powerful, but some parts of the Church seem to have forgotten this.

The way to return to fruitfulness is to encounter Jesus personally, repent and return to him. It is he who shows us what it really means to be fully human; he alone can teach us in these critical days how to find the fullness of life for which we all long.Jesus is calling us to be bold in fighting trends in the world that are opposed to the Gospel, and to be even bolder in loving people as we invite them to the joy that can only be found in his Church. This is a difficult challenge; doing so will require even greater conversion for every Catholic and institution in the Archdiocese of Denver. Still, I believe this is what God is calling us to and he promises to supply us all we need. In fact, he has already paved the way for the Gospel in every person’s heart by making us with the deep desire to love and be loved.

I am reminded of a story I heard about some little girls whose dad was working for the U.S. Army in 1952, and because he was deployed and poor, he couldn’t come home for Christmas. On Christmas morning the girls half-heartedly played with their new toys and eventually went outside to play. One of the girls, named Katie, thought she saw her dad in the distance, so she ran inside to tell her mom. But her mom assured her that daddy said he couldn’t make it and then warned her not to make up stories. Katie recalled what happened next:

I turned to go back outside when I heard familiar footsteps. I ran down the stairs. Daddy was home!

As I rushed into his outstretched arms, Daddy explained that he had tried everything to get home for Christmas, but without success. At the last minute, a group of the workers had decided to drive.

But the nearest guy lived miles away. So, Daddy started walking on Christmas Eve until he arrived home. He had walked all night to get home to his family.[4]

God has planted his story of redemption in every heart. And this story of an unrelenting father whose love drove him to go to such great lengths should remind us of the love of the Father. Likewise, the drama of falling away from God through sin and being sought out by him is one that plays out in every human heart. This story, our story, is planted within each of us, and it must be recaptured and retold if we are going to effectively evangelize today.

The task before us, then, is to answer the question: How do we as a Church begin to do this within the new apostolic environment? In my Lenten Pastoral Note on this topic, I invited the faithful of the archdiocese to a threefold commitment that involves rediscovering the vision of the Gospel, a regimen of prayer and fasting, and critically looking at what is forming our consciences.

I expect that each of you is already participating in this effort, so today I am going to address how you as deacons fit within the effort to recalibrate the archdiocese to our cultural context. To do so, I am going to speak about making charity the leading edge of your diaconal ministry.

Ministers of Charity

All of us know that deacons are ministers of Charity, the Word and the Liturgy. But I will begin my reflection with the ministry of charity because it is the key that unlocks the doors of hearts.

Who better to look to for letting charity lead our ministry than Saint Mother Teresa, the founder of the Missionaries of Charity? Mother once told a story about how she picked up a woman from a garbage dump. The woman was burning up with fever and she could tell that this poor woman was in her last days. As the dying woman lay there in the dirt and debris, she could only say: “My son did this to me.”

Mother Teresa recalled:

“I begged her: ‘You must forgive your son. In a moment of madness, when he was not himself, he did a thing he regrets. Be a mother to him, forgive him.’ It took me a long time to make her say: ‘I forgive my son.’ Just before she died in my arms, she was able to say that with a real forgiveness. She was not concerned that she was dying. The breaking of the heart was that her son did not want her. This is something you and I can understand.”[5]

Through her charity, Mother Teresa was able to convince the dying woman to forgive her son. Her patient, attentive and persistent care for this woman brought about a moment of freedom and an openness to grace. We don’t know what happened to this woman’s soul, but we do know that this encounter allowed Mother Teresa to love Jesus more deeply by serving his dying daughter.

When she was visiting Denver in 1986, Mother Teresa gave a talk at the Great Awakening II event, organized by then-Archbishop Stafford. She reminded everyone that the decision to love must begin in our homes, “because today, there is much, much suffering in our homes. And that is why, we must bring back prayer, prayer together as a family … bring the joy of loving back again into the whole family,” she said.

This is advice that everyone should follow, but particularly deacons since your ministry will be impacted if you are not first witnesses of charity within your own families. This is certainly not easy, but it is essential.

Mother illustrated how loving within the family can spill out into the broader community by recalling an experience she had a few years earlier. Some of you probably remember the terrible suffering that happened in Ethiopia between 1983 and 1985 when it was ravaged by famine and hunger that killed 1 million people. As Mother Teresa prepared to leave India to visit the Missionaries of Charity who were serving in Ethiopia, she was approached by small children from Calcutta who gave her small, inexpensive coins for the children in Ethiopia, and then, one boy approached her with a small piece of chocolate.

“I think it maybe was the first time that he got a piece of chocolate in his hand,” Mother observed. “And he came up to me and he said, ‘Please give this to the children that you go see.’” Touched to the heart, Mother Teresa remarked, “I think he gave millions because he gave until it hurt. This is tenderness!”[6]

Many of the people you encounter in your ministry will need this kind of charity, although perhaps not as visibly as a person living on the streets. We should remember the story of the Good Samaritan who was beaten by robbers and left for dead. He is like so many people today. He needed his wounds tended, he needed to be clothed and taken to safety. He was not ready to hear an apologetics argument or a catechesis on the 10 Commandments.

More often than not, the first step in announcing the Gospel to someone and leading with charity is what Pope Francis calls “the apostolate of the ear.”[7]

The Pope first alludes to this idea when he ponders how relativism has led more people to consult fortune tellers and psychics because they are desperately searching for the truth.  He states, “Mostly, people are looking for someone to listen to them – someone willing to grant them time, to listen to their dramas and difficulties. This is what I call the ‘apostolate of the ear,’ and it is important. Very important.”

So, even though you might be met with derision and suspicion by those in need because of the culture around us, respond with charity. Ask Jesus for the heart to see him in all you meet, especially those who think you are their enemy.

Ministers of the Word

Deacons are also ministers of the Word. While responding with charity to people who are wounded is intuitive for many of us, it’s probably more difficult to know how we should respond to the challenges of the culture as ministers of the Word.

It might seem obvious, but my experience is that opportunities to bring the Word of God into our ministry flow more freely when our initial encounters with people are rooted in charity and listening, and that should be the order in which we look for these openings.

When he spoke to deacons as part of the Jubilee Year of Mercy, Pope Francis emphasized the importance of availability.

He said: “One who serves is not a slave to his own agenda, but ever ready to deal with the unexpected, ever available to his brothers and sisters and ever open to God’s constant surprises. … Dear deacons, if you show that you are available to others, your ministry will not be self-serving, but evangelically fruitful.”[8]

St. Francis of Assisi, who was a deacon during a period of cultural upheaval provides us with a good model for how to bring the Word of God into such a world. St. Francis was often regarded as a “holy fool,” and we must not be afraid to appear that way for the sake of bringing the Gospel to the spiritually and materially poor.

As the English scholar Father John Saward put it, “In a world gone mad the guardian of truth is invariably dismissed as a raving lunatic.”[9]

That being said, when we lead with charity, the person hearing the Gospel will be far less inclined to dismiss it immediately. They will know that you care about them and might be spurred on to a deeper engagement with the truth.

The Coming Home Network, which features conversion stories of people to the faith, recently published the story of Elvis Gutierrez, which shows how charity paved the way for the Word of God in his life.

Elvis was raised in Yonkers, New York in a rough neighborhood. His father was increasingly absent from his life and the only male role models he had were drug dealers and actors on TV. But he remembers a man named Anthony Fellicisimo who went out into the worst neighborhoods at great personal risk to invite kids to a youth group he started for them called Shepherd’s Place. Listen to how God used this group to plant seeds in Elvis’ heart that would later cause him to say: “I had let go of God, but God never let go of me.”

In 1996, Tony brought two Franciscan (CFR) seminarians to assist him at the youth center. Their names were Brother Juniper and Brother Sylvester. At that time, I was enamored of hip-hop music, wanting to be a “tough guy.” The role model shaping my young life wasn’t my father, or Tony. It was Tupac Shakur, the rapper. I recall Brother Juniper, who is now a priest and goes by his birth name, Father Brian Sistare, serving in Rhode Island, was the first person that I felt met me where I was. He personally befriended me and was highly interested in finding out why I was so enamored of Tupac. He sat with me on many occasions and would listen to me speak about how my life in many aspects related to that of Tupac. I felt alone, depressed, so I had to be tough. I don’t recall the stories that he would tell me, but I do remember how he would speak to me about the love of Christ in a way that was understandable and relatable.[10]

Brother Juniper led with charity and then proclaimed the Gospel after love had opened Elvis’ heart. At the heart of the Gospel is the message of God’s love for his people, his love for each person. In a world that seeks to banish God and place new gods in his place, this is the message that must be central. The results probably won’t be immediate, as was the case with Elvis Gutierrez, but the Word of God will be effective.[11]

Ministers of the Liturgy

As deacons, you know that the Eucharist is the source and summit of our faith. It is the occasion where you most fully live out your vocation as a minister of the Liturgy. For that reason, it might be reflexive for you or others to mention inviting your friends and neighbors to Mass to evangelize them. But in an apostolic era, that approach will rarely work. While that might have made sense in a culture that drew its inspiration and communal thinking from Christianity, the mysteries contained in the Eucharist are likely to be incomprehensible or unappreciated by a secular person.

Fortunately, we can look at how the early Church handled this for guidance. In the first centuries, the Mass was divided into two parts, with the Liturgy of the Word being open to anyone and the Eucharistic liturgy being open only to the baptized and converted. This allowed the pagans to experience the charity of Christians and hear the Word of God, but only encounter the deepest mysteries of the faith when their hearts were ready.

The Catechism speaks about this order of evangelization as follows: “‘The sacred liturgy does not exhaust the entire activity of the Church (SC, 10)’: it must be preceded by evangelization, faith, and conversion. It can then produce its fruits in the lives of the faithful: new life in the Spirit, involvement in the mission of the Church, and service to her unity.”[12]

In a post-Christendom culture, it seems wise to return to the ancient practice of the Church, as currently is done with those in the RCIA process. Yes, the beauty of the Liturgy and the quality of your preaching should draw people deeper into faith, but timing is crucial.

Conclusion

When one surveys the strong and swift cultural currents that swirl around us, it can be quite daunting. I am reminded of St. Peter after he betrayed Jesus and decided to return to fishing. Peter was disoriented and went back to what he knew best. He and the other disciples fished all night but caught nothing. Peter surely felt dejected and powerless.

In the morning, Jesus appeared on the shore and asked if they had caught anything. They replied, “‘No.’ So he said to them, ‘Cast the net over the right side of the boat and you will find something.’ So they cast it, and were not able to pull it in because of the number of fish.”[13] We know that when they met on the shore, Jesus asked Peter if he loved him three times and to each query Peter responded honestly that he knew his love was limited and weak.

What was Jesus’ response? Two words: “Follow me.”[14]

As we seek to minister to a world that is lost and has forgotten its identity, running after solutions that will never satisfy, let us do exactly as St. Peter did. Let us follow he who is the Way, the Truth and the Life. We in the Archdiocese of Denver have been entrusted with much, and to “whom much is given, much will be expected.”

May we respond to the challenge before us with generosity and trust in our Lord. Let us ask the Lord to give us the gift of charity, help us to place it at the front of our ministry, give us the wisdom to announce his words of life to the lost and to draw people into deeper faith through the Liturgy. Saint John Paul II, pray for us!

[1] Pope Francis, Meeting with the Bishops of Brazil, 28 July 2013.

[2] Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, World Youth Day Mass Homily, July 20, 2008.

[3] Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, “On the New Evangelization,” Address to Catechists and Teachers, December 2000.

[4] Retrieved online on March 4, 2021 from https://www.rd.com/article/long-walk-home-christmas-present/

[5] Retrieved online on March 5, 2021 from https://www.crossroadsinitiative.com/saints/quotes-from-blessed-mother-teresa-of-calcutta/

[6] Audio recording #31 from the archives of the Archdiocese of Denver. Speech given at “A Great Awakening II – A Renewal Experience for You” on June 15, 1986.

[7] Pope Francis, The Name of God is Mercy, p. 17.

[8] Pope Francis, Jubilee for Deacons, May 29, 2015.

[9] Perfect Fools: Folly for Christ’s Sake in Catholic and Orthodox Spirituality, Fr. John Saward, p. 1, 1980.

[10] https://chnetwork.org/story/return-from-hell. Retrieved online on March 8, 2021.

[11] Cf. Hebrew 4:12.

[12] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1072.

[13] Cf. John 21:5-6, NABRE.

[14] Cf. John 21:15-19.

[15] Luke 12:48.

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