November 16, 2023 at 7:00 a.m.
All about love
When a man accepts the call to Holy Orders, he is accepting a call to love.
Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger
This coming Saturday, November 18th, at 11:00 a.m. in the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, our diocesan family is most blessed and full of joy to welcome two new deacons and a new priest among us through a Eucharistic celebration of Holy Mass at which I will confer the Sacrament of Holy Orders on them. Our very act of prayerful attendance, on our part, will be a sign of our thanksgiving to God and a powerful exercise of our own baptismal priesthood to build up the Body of Christ, his beloved Church.
On their part, they will be bearing public witness to their freedom and willingness to receive the Sacrament, by making a promise of obedience to me as Bishop of Albany and to my successors, and by an unqualified promise to live chaste and celibate lives. This is a momentous occasion then, not only for them but for all of us and to those whom they will serve, for primarily they are accepting a ministry of service, a ministry of love, which is what diakonia (Greek for diaconate) is all about. I warmly and most heartily invite you to attend. This is so much more than a celebration of their “special day,” it is an affirmation of our Catholic faith, its meaning and its mission, our Catholic identity.
When we celebrate any sacrament, it is never just about the one receiving or conferring it. Even a celebration of nuptials — a Catholic wedding — is more than an event for the couple exchanging their marriage vows. The very action of exchanging those vows in public, not just in a private and quiet ceremony, but before an entire congregation, is a sign of the depth of the love the couple are bearing witness to. They are able and willing to give themselves totally to each other until death, faithful throughout their lives and ever open to the most intimate acts of love that define a conjugal union as unique among all friendships, one in which other human beings are conceived and born, the very image of our three-personed God. Because no marriage is valid without these essential promises that the couple are making publicly, in the presence of witnesses, as the ministers to each other of this Sacrament. It is a celebration of their faith and their baptismal mission in their diakonia, or service, to one another, their family, the Church and the world — by, with and through one another for life.
If marriage bears witness to the depth of love, priesthood is a commitment to live the breadth of love, the hope that love brings. Of course, the one does not exclude the other. Love has many levels of breadth and depth. Many deacons do, in fact, receive Holy Orders as married men. This has been called, somewhat colloquially, the “permanent” diaconate. A “transitional” diaconate has been ascribed to the order that a man intending to become a priest receives, but this is not entirely accurate. In fact, every deacon is a permanent deacon. The diaconate does not disappear when a man is ordained a priest, any more than his priesthood and diaconate dissolve when a man is ordained a bishop.
Diakonia in a very broad sense is rooted in the baptismal mission of every Christian, to be a disciple of Christ and to proclaim his Gospel to all the world, the so-called “great commission” (Mt 26:16-20, Mk 16:14-18, Lk 24:44-49, Jn 20:19-23). Read these passages again. They contain some pretty heady language and unsettling images which may remind us that “deaconing” is not about being comfortable in any sense of the term. It is all about sanctification, being made holy and making others — the whole world, ultimately — holy, for God wants everyone to be holy and to be saved. They are the same thing and they are all about love.
What distinguishes the diakonia or service that Holy Orders entails is the uniquely sacramental character that is imparted to the ordained, almost like a spiritual tattoo, a soul-mark, that cannot be eradicated in time or eternity (“thou art a priest forever”) and that is a guaranteed font of grace for the person himself and those whom he serves. It is as if God places in the depths of the ordained man’s identity a permanent guarantee to all who come to him or to whom he goes that he will bear the assurance of the divine presence through the sacramental, liturgical actions that he engages in. This is sometimes characterized as “ex opere operato,” conferred with certainty regardless of the particular state of the soul of the minister who confers them. In other words, any sacrament that you receive is not invalidated because the minister is himself lacking in holiness or even eventually falls out of full communion with the Church.
What is at the root of all of this, however, is God’s insatiable desire, his love for each and every one of us. Since we are not, and never will be, angels, the only way for God to reach us is through our humanity, our bodies and souls being essentially bound together, incarnate spirits that we are. It is all about God’s love for us and God’s desire that we be caught up in it — in HIM – by feeding us with the very flesh and blood of the Incarnate Word, Jesus Christ himself. We eat and consume God, which may seem blasphemous to some, unless we understand — or, at least, accept that not one iota of God’s sovereignty can be lost in the supreme gift of God’s total being in this most generous action of divine love which we call the Eucharist, the Mass. The great All-Holy One is not confined to the boundaries of the heights of heaven and can descend to enter the intimate smallness of the human heart. Because, well, God is God, and love knows no bounds.
Through this Holy Communion, it is not God but we who are changed, “divinized” in the sense of being made holy. We do not become God for our identities still remain intact, in fact we become even more ourselves, fully ourselves, to the extent that we allow God to transform and transfigure us. I know some people may find this a little scary, something uncomfortable. To become holy is to change and often we fear giving up the many things we hold onto, that we think we need for the sake of comfort. God can never hurt us. And who says living the life of the Spirit is all about being comfortable anyway? No, it’s all about love and love knows no bounds, no limits in doing good for the sake of the beloved and in receiving from the beloved all that love can express and be.
This is how God sanctifies us: by giving us the very best that can be offered, Jesus the Christ, the Word of God incarnate, his body and blood poured out for us on the Cross and now re-presented in the form of a meal, the Holy Eucharist, as bread is broken, and to be consumed, eaten so that we become that holy body and blood in the sacrament of sacraments, the Church, the mystical Body of Christ. This ministry, the diakonia, to which we will be ordaining two men as deacons, and one as a priest. They are ordained to serve God in us and in the world into which they will be sent. Permanently, without holding back the love to which they are being called.
So, what does this leave us with then? A win-win! As perhaps the greatest apologist of the 20th century, C.S. Lewis, puts it in “The Joyful Christian:” “Aim at heaven and you will get earth thrown in. Aim at earth and you get neither.” When a man accepts the call to Holy Orders, which comes from God through the Church, the community of faith, the Body of Christ, he is accepting a call to love, every bit as wide and deep as the vocation to sacramental marriage. Different ways of living and being what love is, both boundless in the outpouring of the gift that is received to be given.
Finally then, it is not about them, the men to be ordained. Finally, it is a matter of love. It is about who God is (“God is love”) and what God is calling them to be, to bring honor and glory to the All-Holy One for the sake of the world, each and every one of us, whom God loves enough to give us the promise of an Eternity. Finally, it’s all about love.