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We celebrate the Feast of the Most Holy Trinity. Perhaps at times we can become trapped into a reflection of the Trinity which remains narrowly within technical theological formulations. These are not unimportant but they are most unlikely to inspire in us a dynamic spirituality of the Trinity.
On this Feast of the Trinity, the liturgy presents us with a Gospel reading which is taken from the farewell discourse of Jesus before he takes his leave of his apostles and begins the path towards his death. Its description of the life of the Trinity is dynamic; it is about relationships; it is about interaction and communion: the communion of life and love which takes place between the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit. The Trinity is not like a shamrock, something static which one can hold and admire. The Trinity is the very internal life of God.
But that life of the Trinity is not something which stops there within the Trinity. It opens out to us. God communicates to us, he reaches out to us and he loves us, so that the love of God can enter into our hearts and that that we in turn can live the divine life within us.
That dynamic continues in the Church today. The divine life which is present in our hearts and in the action of the Church is not something static and inward looking. It is always driving us forward to understand and to speak about the God revealed in the love of Jesus Christ. As our world and our Church live throughout the realities of history the Spirit is present with us. It is the Spirit alone who in all the turmoil of history continuously guides beyond ourselves into all truth. Our God is not a closed God, but a God who reaches us in love and spurs us on to go beyond ourselves driven by that same love.
The deacons we ordain here this morning are called to a particular mission within the Church: they are called to witness to Jesus who serves. This is not a mission which is separated from the life of the Church. Deacons are called, rather, to witness to one of the essential characteristics of the mission of Jesus: to serve. Anyone who is called to ministry in the Church is called not to be served but to serve. A self-serving Church is not the Church of Jesus Christ.
It is important to remember that there is only one deaconate in the Church. The rite of ordination of permanent deacons is identical with the rite of ordination we use today. There is only one deaconate. Permanent deacons do not exercise some lesser form of deaconate because they are not going to be priests. We have yet to rediscover more clearly the place of the deaconate within the Church. The mission of all deacons is something which crystallises an essential dimension of the Church as the Church witnesses to Christ who serves. There is nothing transitory in the essential mission of the deacon.
Our God is not a closed God, but a God who spurs us on to go beyond ourselves driven by that his love. The temptation for all of us believers is to construct a god who suits our own ideas, whether it be the god of the comfort zone who shields us from engaging with the realities of life or the god of authority who urges us to impose our god on others, either by force or by self-righteousness.
The images of god we create for ourselves are images which reflect our fears and our ambiguities in facing the real challenges of the world we live in. The gods of our creation are gods that entrap us. The God revealed in Jesus Christ is one who frees and empowers. The Church is not ours to construct, but it is ours to receive from the Spirit. The one called to service in the Church never serves in his own name.
I want in this context to reflect with you on some recent comments of Pope Francis. As yet we have no great collections of his thoughts. His manner of presenting himself and his ministry is not one which has up to now been marked by lengthy, scholarly academic discussions. His vocabulary is simple. When he celebrated Mass for young prisoners in a Roman detention centre on Holy Thursday he was able to present his thoughts for such a major Church Feast in simply ten lines. (Perhaps there may be lesson to our new deacons as they begin their preaching career).
He gave a remarkable talk at the meeting of the Cardinals just before the Conclave. Once again it was not an elaborate essay, but a single handwritten page. The dominant word was la periferia: “the periphery”, “the outskirts”, “the frontiers”. He said that the Church is called boldly to break out of herself and go towards the outskirts, not only the outskirts of place but also to the outskirts and the frontiers of human existence. Pope Francis is reminding us that just as the life of the Trinity never closes within itself to us, but always reaches out to us, so ministry in the Church can never be inward looking and focusing on ourselves. Pope Francis added when the Church does not break out of herself in that way she becomes self-referential. “The evils which as time passes afflict ecclesial institutions are rooted in self-reference, a sort of theological narcissism”.
Often our discussions on renewal in the Church can drift into being introverted and focused on inner-Church quarrels and become narcissistic and narcissism is not the way to win minds and hearts for the message of Jesus. Theological and ecclesial narcissism will never heal wounds and will never offer the men and women of our time a sense of meaning and peace, of hope and purpose in life.
Pope Francis noted that at times we feel that the failures in our evangelising efforts are due to the fact that so many in today’s world are closed to God; that when Jesus knocks on our doors we do not let him in. The Pope however counters that by adding: “we also fail at times when Jesus knocks from within and we do not let him out. The self-referential Church keeps Jesus within her and does not let him out A self referential Church believes that she is her own light and stops being a witness to the [true light]”. A self referential Church fails to know Jesus and can never witness to Jesus.
Dear friends called today to the office of deacon: when you receive the book of the Gospels, the sacred rite reminds you of the nature of your ministry as a Deacon: “Believe what you read, teach what you believe and practice what you teach”.This is in the first place a mandate to live a life of integrity and coherence with the Gospel.
“Believe what you read” is not just an intellectual exercise.It is not something that is attested to by a diploma or an academic degree. It is attested to by the manner in which we accept the word and allow it to enter into our lives.The effectiveness of the word comes not from our intellectual skills, but through the power of the Spirit.
“Teach what you believe”. It is the Spirit which enables the Word of God to be translated into human language. The same spirit who throughout the history of salvation has spoken through the prophets will work through you in the language and the culture of the world in which you live today and tomorrow.
Today our societies have radically changed. The pace of social, scientific and political change is increasing. This means that risk is today part and parcel of the way we live and the range of choices that are open to us. In the face of the rapidity and uncertainty of change we may become fearful in new ways and once again become closed-in within the familiar and the comfortable.
Bringing the message of Jesus Christ to the frontiers of our society inevitably involves – to use another key word of Pope Francis’s thought – breaking out. It involves breaking out from ourselves to follow Christ, breaking out from a tired faith based on pure habit and breaking out from being imprisoned in our own dissatisfactions and frustrations and false certainties which only impede the creative action of God working in and through us.
Faith is challenging. It is not just a generalised ethos of goodness to which anyone can vaguely adhere. Faith in Jesus Christ must open new horizons; it must open us out beyond human horizons. It involves trusting in God’s love rather than in the tangible securities of day to day life and institution. When faith leads to conformism it has betrayed the very nature of faith. Conformism falsely feels that it has attained certainty.
Dear future deacons: ministry in the Church requires a deep freedom from all attachments to material goods and ideas; it requires a different attitude towards a creation which is not ours; it requires detachment from the things which would make our ministry inward looking; it requires putting ourselves aside rather than being self-referential.
When we remain trapped in a world of self-reference and self-certainty, we remain just there. Preoccupation with ourselves alone enslaves. Service involves giving. Through his self-giving love unto death Jesus reveals to us the real depth of God’s love, the love which is the essence of the Blessed Trinity, which reaches out and enters into our hearts so that that we in turn can experience the divine life within us.