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Preaching from experience: permanent deacons can break open the word in a unique way.

Seven young men were ordained to the Roman Catholic diaconate May 30 at St. Vincent de Paul Seminary in Boynton Beach, Fla. They had just completed their master of divinity degrees and were preparing to spend a year as deacons before their ordination to the priesthood. I was there as a permanent deacon to vest one of these young men and to offer to be one of his mentors during the ensuing year.

As always, I was taken by the words of the ordination rite: "Receive the Gospel of Christ whose herald you now are. Believe what you read, teach what you believe, and practice what you teach." Not the easiest admonition to live.

Three weeks later, five men were ordained to the permanent diaconate in the Orlando diocese in Florida. The words of the ordination rite were the same. These permanent deacons, while accepting the same ordination rite as the transitional deacons, were preparing for a very different experience of diaconate. They had lived a very different life of formation.

For most of those becoming transitional deacons, formation had consisted of the lived experience of a single male adolescent, transitioning to young adulthood among a community of peers in a quasi-university setting. At the same time, they were receiving directed exposure to a pastoral community of parish church under the leadership of clergy, staff and laity with multiple life experiences far more advanced in their personal years. The transitional deacon's formation was always pointing them to the day when they would be ordained to the Roman Catholic priesthood.

The permanent deacons, on the other hand, are, for the most part, mature adults who bring their lived experience to ordination with no expectation of priesthood, but rather with the expectation of sharing their faith through the lens of experience with the community in a ministry of service.

For the most part, then, the permanent deacon has lived most of his life in the secular world. Most of these men are parents, husbands and, often, the principal source of income for their families. In many cases the deacon has graduate degrees and experience that is very diverse from his religious parish life. His life experience provides a source of pertinent understanding from which he can draw similarities to the great stories found in scripture, enabling him to unpack these readings in a unique and personal way. Just as Jesus preached his message of good news through the use of parables, stories that graphically illustrated the central theme being conveyed, so too these deacons can rely on the stories of their unique experiences to convey these universal Gospel truths in contemporary terminology In essence, they are fulfilling their ordination call to service of the word by fulfilling the Gospel imperative from Matthew 28:18-20, where Jesus says, "Full authority has been given to me both in heaven and on earth; go, therefore and make disciples of all the nations. Baptize them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Teach them to carry out everything I have commanded you. And know that I am with you always, until the end of time."

The deacons, relying on their personal experience and their academic formation, are thus called and sent to catechize all people through the preaching event. They are also employing the ancient art of lectio divina to identify and define their continuously forming spirituality as servants. That spirituality will become a major part of their homiletic message. Without homiletic training and formation, the catechetical task is far more difficult, and in most cases, far less effective.

In "teaching what you believe," you are addressing the admonition to catechize. Pope John Paul II, in his 1979 apostolic exhortation Catechesi Tradendae, emphasized the incredible importance of catechesis: "The name catechesis was given to the whole of the efforts within the Church to make disciples, to help people to believe that Jesus is the Son of God ... and to educate and instruct them in this life and thus build up the Body of Christ."

And so it is that permanent deacons become primary ministers of word, liturgy and charity, bringing a fresh conversion to the faithful by relating their personal experiences of Christ as they preach, serve and work among the people. Because of their ability to relate to the experience of those whom they serve, the deacons' service in the daily life of the church establishes a discipline of meditation and prayer among the faithful that transcends their daily activities.

Sacred scripture is of the utmost importance in the life of the church and especially in the life of the faithful. For it is from scripture that lessons are read and explained in the homily, and psalms are sung; the prayers, collects and liturgical songs are scriptural in their inspiration and their force, and it is from the scriptures that actions and signs derive their meaning. It is from the many genres of scripture that the congregation relates their experiences and, in a sense, marries their story to God's story In effect, their personal spirituality is developed as they see themselves in these stories and hear God's message of salvation on a very personal level.

Through his preaching activity, the deacon is instrumental in facilitating the formation of the faithful so that they can discern where they find God in all that they see, hear and do. Thus, to achieve that formation, it is essential to promote that warm and living love for scripture to which the venerable tradition of both Eastern and Western rites gives testimony These rites have long attested to the spirituality of contemporary Christianity that the deacon relates to in his homily of experiences both lived and anticipated. All is visible and doable through his relationship with Jesus.

Jesus is quoted in John 14:6: "I am the way, the truth and the life." The Way became the synonym for the Jesus movement in the first century. Most scholars believe that the early deacons preached about the Way, this early notion of the Christ, this new concept of Christianity, as they catechized potential converts to the Jesus movement.

The deacon who lives in this world but is not of this world prayerfully connects God's word, as handed down in scripture, to the lives of the contemporary faithful as they ponder the retelling of the stories. The deacon learns to construct contemporary stories that parallel the ancient stories that form the basis for the faith as told by the authors of both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. These illustrative narratives serve to expand and clarify the teachings and give contemporary meaning to the ancient texts.

Although the sacred liturgy is, above all things, the worship of the divine majesty, it likewise contains much instruction for the faithful. For in the liturgy God speaks to his people and Christ is still proclaiming his Gospel. And the people reply to God both by song and prayer. All scripture is story told in narrative, song, poetry, prayer. And yet all scripture is not the whole story. Each of the ancient storytellers tells an important part of the story that makes moral, ethical and significant points. The deacon's homily leads the faithful in determining what else might have happened, what might be left out of the story that could have made the message clearer, how they might see their story in God's story They are free to imagine a different experience, to find what drives God's revelation home to them with greater force.

The people are free to allow the stories to remind them of similar times and similar outcomes. Above all, the deacon preacher allows his imagination to share his life experience with the faithful and invite them to become a part of his story. And he asks the faithful to allow him to be a part of their story At the same time, the deacon preacher is leading the faithful on a journey to find God in all creation and all human activity, especially in their quest for self-identity in their relationship with the Christ. He invites the faithful to see these lived stories of today and yesteryear as a significant part of God's story that has been shared and expanded through preaching.

Finally, the contemporary permanent deacon, called to be "herald," must spend time in prayer and contemplation developing an ever-changing personal spirituality for his ministry in this 21st century. The contemporary permanent deacon is a new creation, very different from the original call to ministry in Acts and in Pope Paul VI's 1972 apostolic letter Ad Pascendum. The contemporary deacon lives in a postconciliar world with a post-20th-century mindset and worldview. He is heralding a new spirituality of the Christ who was and is. Today's permanent deacon must be ever aware of this present-day world and God's constantly changing activity in the experience of the faithful.

[Marshall Gibbs is a deacon of the Orlando, Fla., diocese. He earned his doctorate in preaching from the Aquinas Institute of Theology in St. Louis. This article first appeared in the September 2011 issue of Celebration, the worship resource of the National Catholic Reporter.]
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Author:Gibbs, Marshall
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 3, 2012
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