National Association of Diaconate Directors Congress
Remarks by Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila
July 25, 2018
Christ the Servant: Forever
I’ve been asked to speak this afternoon on the topic, “Christ the Servant: Forever,” as part of the day’s reflections on the diaconate. When one thinks about “forever,” one naturally thinks about eternal life with God.
To begin, I’d like to spend a moment reflecting on the immensity of eternity. A physical example is worth pondering: the remotest star that we have detected in the universe is 9 billion light years away, meaning the light we see now left the star 9 billion years ago. And yet, that distance is not even close to infinite; it is a mere hint of eternity.
The Dutch-American author and journalist Hendrik Willem Van Loon attempted to describe eternity with a different analogy in his 1921 children’s classic The Story of Mankind. “High up in the North in the land called Svithjod, there stands a rock. It is 100 miles high and 100 miles wide. Once every thousand years a little bird comes to the rock to sharpen its beak. When the rock has thus been worn away, then a single day of eternity will have gone by.”
In a very real sense, words fail to capture what it means to exist in eternity, and we will only know what the beatific vision is like when we are blessed to enter the perfection of God’s eternal and unchanging presence. These reflections belong to the realm of speculative theology. For that reason, my remarks on “Christ the Servant: Forever” will focus on how diaconal formation prepares us for eternal life. To give you a road map for what I will reflect on with you today, there are three specific ways diaconal formation should prepare us for eternity. The first concerns the cultivation of an eternal worldview that impacts every aspect of ministry and life. While the second two areas address the human and spiritual formation that is offered to men preparing for the permanent deaconate.
An Eternal Worldview
We live in a society that constantly emphasizes the present. From push notifications on our smart phones to the marketing that we encounter on a daily, even hourly basis, we are told that we must spend our time and attention on the here and now.
But how often are we encouraged to think about eternity? How frequently, especially in our younger years, is the prospect of eternal life with Christ at the forefront of our daily decision-making. The unfortunate reality is that we as a society have become myopic. Our vision has too often become confined to today or tomorrow, but rarely do we focus on the long range. We talk about 3, 5, and 10-year plans, but what about eternal plans?
Fortunately, we have the gift of the Magisterium and God’s grace to help us recover our sense of what truly matters. Through Baptism, every Christian is conformed to Christ and through the forgiveness of our sins, eternal life becomes possible.
But as deacons, you and I also have received an eternal, indelible mark that was placed upon us at our ordination. It seems that the first time this was explicitly mentioned in the Magisterium was not until Blessed Paul VI’s 1967 motu proprio Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem, in which he restored the permanent deaconate. He wrote that the deaconate “is not to be considered as a mere step towards the priesthood, but it is so adorned with its own indelible character and its own special grace so that those who are called to it ‘can permanently serve the mysteries of Christ and the Church.’” This indelible mark connects you to Christ the Servant now and in ways that will only be fully understood in eternity.
Even more fundamentally, our human nature points us toward eternity. The Catechism describes this well:
“…with his openness to truth and beauty, his sense of moral goodness, his freedom and the voice of his conscience, with his longings for the infinite and for happiness, man questions himself about God’s existence. In all this he discerns signs of his spiritual soul. The soul, the ‘seed of eternity we bear in ourselves, irreducible to the merely material,’ can have its origin only in God.”
We are made for God and for eternal life with him in Heaven, which is the “ultimate end and fulfillment of the deepest human longings, the state of supreme, definitive happiness.” In our celestial home, we live with and in Christ. In him, the book of Revelation tells us, we find our true identity. And it is out of this identity that we must live as sons of the Father, who are called to serve his bride the Church as Jesus did.
Living with an eternal worldview should change your approach to ministry, making the eternal salvation of the souls we encounter the primary goal of all that we do, whether we are caring for a homeless person, proclaiming the Word at Mass, or assisting in the Liturgy. Jesus declares that he is “the Resurrection and the Life,” and so we must do all that we can to help people recapture their true identity in him to reconnect them with the eternal realities that are easily forgotten.
I am reminded of a practice that was used by the monks at the Carthusian monastery in the small mountain town of Gaming, Austria, where Franciscan University of Steubenville now has a satellite campus. When one enters the interior courtyard that serves as the nexus for the 13th- Century monastery, one can see a mural depicting death and a clock counting down to zero with the Latin words “Frater, Memento Mori,” – “Brother, Remember Death,” written below. As the monks went about their life of prayer, this reminder of eternity served to orient all they did upon their encounter with the Lord.
Similarly, Thomas à Kempis writes in his classic devotional work The Imitation of Christ, “Every action of yours, every thought, should be those of one who expects to die before the day is out. Death would have no great terrors for you if you had a quiet conscience… . Then why not keep clear of sin instead of running away from death? If you aren’t fit to face death today, it’s very unlikely you will be tomorrow… .”
When I have reflected on eternal life in my own personal prayer, it seems impossible to grasp the meaning of it. While I can fully understand that everything on this earth will one day pass away, including my life on earth, it is hard to ponder what eternal life will be like and what eternal happiness will be like, for every human metaphor pales before the truth of it. In the Gospels our Lord assures us of eternal life, so I must trust in him and his promise and keep the reality of death before my eyes, knowing that “life is changed, not ended,” as affirmed in the preface for a funeral Mass.
To think about forever, the eternal aspect of Jesus’ existence, is to remind ourselves that we too are made for heaven. So, what can we as deacons, men called to lives of service of the Word, liturgy and charity, do to prepare for eternal life? To answer this question, I will now focus on the human and spiritual pillars of diaconal formation.
Saint Augustine centuries ago delivered a homily on the passage in Matthew’s Gospel where the apostles could not cast out a demon and asked Jesus why this occurred. Christ replied that it was due to their lack of faith, and in his reflection on these verses St. Augustine provides us with the insight that is now incorporated into the formation of seminarians and deacons. He writes, “And so, Brethren, we say, pray as much as you are able. … Bad times! Troublesome times! This is what men are saying. Let our lives be good; and the times are good. We make our times; such as we are, such are the times.”
How many times do we hear today that the times are bad? I know that I hear it frequently. But what Augustine said so long ago is true today. If we long for a holy and virtuous society, then we need to focus on letting Christ perfect us, on making our lives good, so that we can help those families that are struggling. And helping the faithful grow in virtue, in becoming good, must flow from a deep personal encounter with Jesus Christ which makes this possible.
That is why St. John Paul II said in Pastores Dabo Vobis, and it is reiterated in the National Directory, “Human formation aims to enhance the personality of the minister in such a way that he becomes ‘a bridge and not an obstacle for others in their meeting with Jesus Christ.’”
To borrow from the analogy of a bridge, the human formation that is provided to deacons in their period of discernment serves as the support that undergird the bridge to Christ. As directors of deacon formation, it is important that we make sure these supports aren’t faulty or rusting out.
I recently heard from a priest in the Archdiocese of Denver who helps form our seminarians and deacons. He mentioned that in his experience, the biggest source of friction for men in formation for the permanent deaconate comes from the interaction between their well-established personalities and the formation in virtue they receive. The older we are, depending how we have been formed, the less malleable we are. With that in mind, I would like to offer some suggestions for areas that need increased focus when it comes to human formation.
In consulting with those who form deacons on a regular basis, one of the biggest needs I have heard about is the need to help candidates grow in self-knowledge. This need becomes more acute the older the candidates are, since age typically brings with it more deeply rooted habits and behaviors.
At our seminary in the Archdiocese of Denver, St. John Vianney, we have integrated psychological services into our formation of the men studying for the priesthood and the results have been encouraging. Rather than shying away from the guidance provided by our staff psychologist, the awareness of the truth about themselves has yielded tremendous fruit for our future priests. This positive growth has also created a culture among the men that has removed the stigma from counseling, to the point that around 95% of them seek it out at some point in their formation.
Similarly, our most recent director of deacon formation was trained in counseling. He offered to meet individually with candidates for the deaconate who needed to grow in their awareness of the truth about their dispositions, moods and personalities. We have integrated this into both the screening of men applying to the deaconate, as well as providing the ongoing support for those men already in formation.
With this type of support, the men in formation can focus on generously revealing themselves to their mentors and spiritual directors, thus aiding the discernment process, which should primarily be the concern of the formator. Having the courage to receive feedback about one’s personality is a crucial element of making sure that the supports of the bridge to Christ are structurally sound and capable of leading others to him without injecting our own agenda, filtering things through our personal issues, or providing a counter-witness to the Gospel.
It is also important to note – recalling the necessity of an eternal orientation – that as the candidates and those already ordained to the deaconate grow in their conformity to Christ the servant, particularly in their ability to give of themselves, they can better prepare themselves and others for their eternal vocation. If they themselves are growing in the virtues, in being conformed to Christ the Servant, then they will be able to assist others on their journey to Christ.
For these reasons, I highly encourage every diocese to look for ways to take advantage of the benefits that come from faithful, professional psychologists and spiritual directors. One good resource for faithful psychologists is the Catholic Psychotherapy Association, which requires its members to demonstrate fidelity to the teachings of the Church. Another is IPF (the Institute of Priestly Formation), which provides many tools for human formation.
A second area of human formation that deserves attention, for most deacons, is ensuring the proper balance between their family obligations, work and ministry. I always remind our married deacons that marriage is the first vocational sacrament that they have received and that their marriage must come first, before the deaconate.
The National Directory for the Formation of Permanent Deacons observes that a “married deacon, with his wife and family, gives witness to the sanctity of marriage. The more they grow in mutual love, conforming their lives to the Church’s teaching on marriage and sexuality, the more they give to the Christian community a model of Christ-like love, compassion and self-sacrifice.” A man must demonstrate in his marriage that he, like Christ, has come to serve and not be served. In turn, growing in self-gift in his primary vocation enables the deacon to give of himself more fully in his ministry.
When society is so confused about what marriage is and what it means, as evidenced by no-fault divorce and the more recent assertion that people of the same-sex can “marry,” the witness of deacons and their wives to marriage is all the more important.
In addition to safeguarding and nurturing his marriage, deacons are also called to live out their ordination. “The married deacon must always remember that through his sacramental participation in both vocational sacraments, first in Matrimony and again in Holy Orders, he is challenged to be faithful to both. With integrity he must live out both sacraments in harmony and balance.” Permanent deacons and their wives need to reflect the love of Christ for the Church.
Furthermore, in his work in the secular world, the deacon is called to infuse his efforts with “a spiritual and moral character that gives work its genuine value and workers their specific dignity.” “Too often,” as then-Bishop Sample noted in his wonderful pastoral letter on the permanent deaconate, “the transforming Christian message in the area of human labor is obscured and the deformities of society distort the divine image in men and women.” Human formation helps the deacons bring the light of Christ into their workplaces, since the dignity of human labor is made evident by his virtues.
St. John Paul II also touches on this in his 1993 address titled, Deacons Serve the Kingdom of God, in which he said, “The deacon, because of his familiarity with the day-to-day realities and rhythms of the family, neighborhood, and workplace, can relate the rich tradition of Catholic teaching to the practical problems experienced by people.”
In my experience, the solution to maintaining this balance is found in having a deep understanding of one’s identity as a son of the Father. When one is rooted in his sonship and has experienced the intimate love of the Father, then he is able to happily, joyfully and faithfully love his wife and children. Even in the challenging times in marriage, when one’s identity is rooted in Jesus, things work for the good, as one has the heart of Christ. With the assurance that one is infinitely loved and forgiven, then one can love and serve the Church with all his heart.
For those of you not familiar with the Jesuit Father Pedro Arrupe, I would like to share a quote from him and some of his life story with you, since they capture the power of knowing one’s fundamental identity in Christ so well.
Father Arrupe once remarked to a group of religious sisters:
“Nothing is more practical than finding God,
than falling in Love in a quite absolute, final way.
What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination, will affect everything.
It will decide what will get you out of bed in the morning,
what you do with your evenings,
how you spend your weekends,
what you read, who you know,
what breaks your heart,
and what amazes you with joy and gratitude.
Fall in Love,
stay in love,
and it will decide everything.”
It is clear from Father Arrupe’s life that he was in love with Jesus Christ and that this love fed all he did.
Shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, Father Arrupe was arrested by the Japanese security forces on suspicion of espionage. He was kept in solitary confinement. As he waited for his fate to be decided, Father Arrupe experienced great uncertainty and suffering. He missed celebrating the Eucharist most of all.
But amid his suffering, Father Arrupe experienced a special moment of grace. On Christmas night, 1941, he heard the noise of people gathering outside his cell door. He couldn’t see them and wondered if his execution was at hand.
“Suddenly, above the murmur that was reaching me, there arose a soft, sweet, consoling Christmas carol, one of the songs which I had myself taught to my Christians. I was unable to contain myself. I burst into tears. They were my Christians who, heedless of the danger of being themselves imprisoned, had come to console me.”
“After the few minutes of song, Arrupe reflected on the presence of Jesus, who would soon descend onto the altar during the Christmas celebration: ‘I felt that he also descended into my heart, and that night I made the best spiritual communion of all my life.’”
When his jailers arrived to release him 33 days later, Father Arrupe was convinced that they were there to lead him to his death. But his experience of the love of God in captivity had created within him a deep calm founded on a radical trust in God’s love for him. The eternal presence of God entered into and shaped his finite experience within the world.
In his humanity and frailty, Arrupe encountered Jesus Christ in a deeply personal and life changing way. His living in communion with Jesus, the Father and the Holy Spirit created trust and confidence in his human heart that allowed him to take up his cross.
The way that we form deacons on a human level in masculine and spousal identity in Christ creates the necessary foundation essential for their witness and their ministry. Their personal human encounter with Jesus Christ and their living out of the beatitudes and virtues will impact their marriage and their ministry as deacons. With Jesus as their formator, he will teach them how to serve, healing their wounds, forgiving their sins, and helping them to grow in personal holiness.
At this point I would like to turn to the importance of the spiritual pillar of deacon formation programs. The Vatican’s Basic Norms for Formation of Permanent Deacons notes that, “Human formation leads to and finds its completion in the spiritual dimension of formation, which constitutes the heart and unifying center of every Christian formation. Its aim is to tend to the development of the new life received in Baptism.”
Deacon formation programs should seek to develop each man’s baptismal graces so that his ministry of the Word, Liturgy and charity can draw upon the spiritual riches and depths that reside there, and which are too often not sufficiently explored and relied upon.
As noted by the Congregation for the Clergy, “The three contexts of the diaconal ministry … represent a unity in service at the level of divine Revelation: the ministry of the word leads to ministry at the altar, which in turn prompts the transformation of life by the liturgy resulting in charity.”
I strongly believe that the practice of Lectio Divina, that is, praying contemplatively with the Word of God, is essential for laying a solid foundation for the ministry of the Word. When the Catechism speaks about the Word of God it recalls Aquinas’ saying that it can be called “the heart of Christ,”  since the Scriptures make known Jesus’ heart. As disciples of the Lord called to the ministry of the Word, deacons should seek to rest their heads upon his heart. Pope Benedict XVI noted in his post-synodal exhortation Verbum Domini that “Bishops, priests, and deacons can hardly think that they are living out their vocation and mission apart from a decisive and renewed commitment to sanctification, one of whose pillars is contact with God’s word.” Put another way, prayer with Scripture allows God’s words to shape our own so that we echo his eternal wisdom.
Although he was speaking to priests, Benedict XVI’s guidance can be equally applied to deacons, who receive the Word of God from the bishop at their ordination. “He needs to approach the word with a docile and prayerful heart so that it may deeply penetrate his thoughts and feelings and bring about a new outlook in him – ‘the mind of Christ’ (1 Cor. 2:16). Consequently, his words, his choices and his behavior must increasingly become a reflection, proclamation and witness of the Gospel; ‘only if he “abides” in the word will the priest become a perfect disciple of the Lord. Only then then will he know the truth and be set truly free.”
A living, breathing relationship with the Word of God allows each deacon to not only perceive areas of needed growth within himself, but it also nourishes the community, particularly in the context of the liturgy.
Again, Verbum Domini provides us with profound insight.
“In this regard, however, one must avoid the risk of an individualistic approach, and remember that God’s word is given to us precisely to build communion, to unite us in the Truth along our path to God. While it is a word addressed to each of us personally, it is also a word which builds community, which builds the Church. Consequently, the sacred text must always be approached in the communion of the Church. … As such, it is important to read and experience sacred Scripture in communion with the Church, that is, with all the great witnesses to this word, beginning with the earliest Fathers up to the saints of our own day, up to the present-day magisterium.
For this reason, the privileged place for the prayerful reading of sacred Scripture is the liturgy, and particularly the Eucharist, in which, as we celebrate the Body and Blood of Christ in the sacrament, the word itself is present and at work in our midst. In some sense the prayerful reading of the Bible, personal and communal, must always be related to the Eucharistic celebration.”
The spiritual depth and insight that a deacon gains from an intimate relationship with the Word of God will go a long way toward resolving many of the issues that appear during formation and in ministry. As a man grows deeper in his prayer life, many human formation issues are eased by the graces he receives. The light of God’s grace sheds light on areas for repentance, matures him in self-donation, draws him closer in union with his wife, helps him deliberate more thoughtfully about his children, and makes his discernment about issues that arise in ministry clearer.
The innerworkings of grace remind me of a description of St. John Vianney given by Abbot Bernard Nodet.
“Thus, the Mass was for John Mary Vianney the great joy and comfort of his priestly life. He took great care, despite the crowds of penitents, to spend more than a quarter of an hour in silent preparation. He celebrated with recollection, clearly expressing his adoration at the consecration and communion. He accurately remarked: “The cause of priestly laxity is not paying attention to the Mass!”
Finally, there is an area of the deacon’s ministry of charity that Pope Francis has raised recently in Placuit Deo and in Gaudete et Exsultate, which is important to mention. The Holy Father has spoken several times about the danger of ordained ministers having a “spirituality without flesh.”
Archbishop Patron Wong, secretary of the Congregation for the Clergy, notes in a recent paper, titled “Profoundly Human Priests,” that both human and spiritual formation cannot be superficial – they must seek to form men who are authentically human in every dimension.
Citing Placuit Deo, he provides some concrete warnings for formators and spiritual directors, including avoiding “the tendency to view Christian salvation as a merely interior journey, detached from the body, from relationships and from material reality.” Similarly, he warns about measuring “the spiritual life starting with the accumulation of knowledge and encompasses the mystery of God in formulas, without bothering with the flesh, that is, with real life.”
The Word of God and the Eucharist must be at the heart of the spiritual formation of the deacon if he is to truly be configured to Christ the Servant. To be configured to Christ the Servant can just be a lofty theological term if it is not lived out each day in the real life of the deacon, whether it be in his marriage and family, in his work place or in the various ministries he may be engaged in. He must truly be in love with Christ and the Church if he is to be a missionary disciple with the heart of Jesus.
When the vast scope of what must be accomplished in deaconate formation programs looms before us, it’s important to maintain this focus on forming the whole man with an approach that is not merely task-oriented but in a way that keeps the goal in mind: forming deacons who are able to serve as effective, strong bridges for the Gospel who will bring others to Jesus, who alone gives eternal life.
To put all of this in perspective, I’d like to share a story with you that I heard told by a young woman named Makena who served in a ministry called Christ in the City. This apostolate seeks to know, love and serve the homeless of Denver by building relationships with them. While it is a young layperson’s story, it captures what it means to be both in touch with the humanity of oneself and the spiritual life with a focus on eternal life.
“You look like Mother Mary,” Rob told me as my long hair peeked out from my hood. I didn’t feel at all like Mary. I had only gone on this street walk because I was forced to. My “yes” was cold and begrudging, unlike Mary’s.
We were visiting San Antonio for the SEEK conference and doing street ministry while there. I had been cold all day, and it was now five o’clock, freezing, and getting dark. I reluctantly headed out with my street partner, Trey, and two volunteers; we found Rob, who I had met earlier that day. We started talking to Rob and the conversation turned to our Blessed Mother.
I never had a close relationship with Mary, but several months ago after a friend’s recommendation, I began to spend ten minutes each day speaking with her. These ten minutes usually seemed to drag on. But gradually I started to speak to her spontaneously throughout the day. I started going to her when things happened in my life even before I went to my earthly mother. She was becoming someone I knew.
“Why do Catholics like Mary so much?” Rob asked. We explained that just like a mother knows their child best, so Jesus’ mom knew Him best. Wheels started turning in Rob’s head. “So, it was really Mary who defeated the devil,” Rob said in a moment of realization. “I want to know her better!”
We prayed together and Rob humbly begged God for the opportunity to get to know his heavenly mother better. I asked him before we left if he’d ever had a rosary. “No,” he replied, “What is a rosary?” As we fumbled through our pockets, Trey pulled out his old, worn wooden rosary.
This wasn’t just any rosary. Every missionary gets one at the start of their year, and it’s made from a special rose-colored Brazilian wood that slowly darkens with each use as the oils from skin stain the wood. He had also attached his own crucifix that had been touched to the Jordan river and other holy places in Israel. The beads glistened a dark mahogany after three years of prayers.
I wanted to cry out, “No, don’t do it Trey!” I knew how special this rosary was for him. But he carefully placed it in Rob’s hands and explained gently the significance of the cross and all of the holy places it had been. Our fingers barely worked due to the cold, but we wrote down the words to the Hail Mary and practiced it with him, preparing him for this special encounter with his long-lost mom.
We left the city the day after, so I don’t know how Rob’s new friendship with our mother is going. But I’m grateful for Mary reaching out to me so that I feel more confident leading others to her.
These two young lay missionaries embodied the love of Mary through Jesus for Rob in their encounter in San Antonio. They helped him meet Jesus through his mother and pointed him toward the eternal reality of the supernatural world that surrounds us. In teaching this homeless man to pray the Hail Mary, they taught him Scripture and helped him worship God. Finally, they engaged in charity by introducing him to Mary and the gift of a treasured Rosary.
In closing, let us remember the words St. John Paul II spoke about the deaconate when he visited Detroit in 1987, cited in the national directory. “‘This is at the very heart of the diaconate to which you have been called: to be a servant of the mysteries of Christ and, at one and the same time, to be a servant of your brothers and sisters. That these two dimensions are inseparably joined together in one reality shows the important nature of the ministry which is yours by ordination.’”
In your ordination as deacons, you have been forever configured to Christ the Servant. May you always keep the eyes of your hearts on Jesus the Servant and eternal life – in both your human formation and spiritual life. May you continue to grow each day in a deeper understanding of the reality of this truth and live it out in every aspect of your life and ministry as deacons, until that day when you will enter eternity and see the face of the Father.
 Blessed Pope Paul VI, Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem, Introduction, paragraph 4, June 1967.
 Catechism of the Catholic Church, #33-34.
 CCC, #1024.
 CCC, #1025. Citing Rev. 2:17.
 Jn. 11:25.
 Thomas a Kempis, Imitation of Christ, 1, 23, 1.
 Roman Missal, Preface of Christian Death I.
 St. John Paul II, Pastores Dabo Vobis, #43; National Directory for the Formation, Ministry, and Life of Permanent Deacons, #109.
 USCCB, National Directory for the Formation, Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons in the United States (NDPD), #68.
 Saint John Paul II, Laborem Exercens, 4.2.
 Bishop Alexander Sample, The Deacon: Icon of Jesus Christ the Servant, pages 7-8, 2011.
 Saint John Paul II, Wednesday General Audience, Deacons Serve the Kingdom, Oct. 5, 1993, no. 6.
 Kevin Burke, Pedro Arrupe: Essential Writings, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books 2004, p. 57.
 Ibid. p. 58.
 Congregation for Catholic Education/Congregation for the Clergy, Basic Norms for Formation of Permanent Deacons, 1998, #71.
 Congregation for the Clergy, Directory for the Life and Ministry of Permanent Deacons, #39, 1998.
 CCC, #112.
 Pope Benedict XVI, Verbum Domini, #78, 2010.
 Ibid, #80.
 Ibid, #86.
 Abbot Bernard Nodet, Jean-Marie Vianney, Cure d’Ars: His Thoughts, His Heart, 1958, p. 108.
 Archbishop Jorge Patron Wong, Profoundly Human Priests, article posted on the website of the Congregation for Clergy and retrieved on July 17, 2018 at: http://www.clerus.va/content/dam/clerus/Dox/Incontri/Human%20formation%20-%20Conference.pdf.
 Ten Minutes with Mary, by Makena Clawson. Retrieved from www.christinthecity.co/tenminuteswithmary on July 19, 2018.
 NDPD, #36.