Ordination to the Diaconate of John Paul Escarlan
Homily of Most Rev Anthony Fisher OP - Ordination to the Diaconate of John Paul Escarlan St Michael’s Parish, South Blacktown, Friday 23 November 2012
I welcome you to St Michael’s Church for the Ordination to the Diaconate of John Paul Escarlan.
I know his proud parents, Paul and Paloma Escarlan, his siblings including Sheryl and Paul Jude and their families would love to be here. Fortunately, his youngest sister, Maria, with her husband Alvin and son Paul, came all the way from Christchurch, NZ. Other relatives have I believe come from Canberra and Melbourne and we thank them for joining us.
Other significant people here tonight for John Paul include many who have encouraged him in his vocation, including priests and parishioners of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary Parish at St Marys, St John the Evangelist Parish at Riverstone, the Ephpheta Centre for Deaf and Hearing Impaired People, St Nicholas of Myra Parish at Penrith, and the parishes of St Patrick’s at Blacktown and St Michael’s at South Blacktown in which in turn John Paul has worked over the past several years. I thank you for the part you have played in his formation.
Likewise, we thank the Rector, Fr John Hogan, and faculty of Holy Spirit Seminary, the teachers of the Catholic Institute of Sydney, and John Paul’s fellow seminarians for helping preparing John for this day.
Conscious of the call to each of us to service, we repent of our failures and ask God for pardon and peace.
“So, what do you do?” It’s the great conversation starter between strangers, as they navigate the delicacies of communication with someone whose temperament and history is unknown, indeed when you’re not even sure if you are sitting beside a terrorist. Once we know what a person does, you’ve got some sense of who they are: Jane writes, she’s a journalist; Nguyen flies planes so he’s a pilot; Jemima cares for her children, she’s a mother.
So people ask, naturally enough: what is it deacons do? The same things as altar boys, seminarians and acolytes, just in fancier gear? Are they mostly seminarians having a brief stopover in the Singapore of Diaconate on the way to the Rome of Presbyterate? Or are they mostly older men, married with grown-up kids, with a bit of time on their hands to help out? What do they do that lay people don’t? What can’t they do that priests can? We know they do baptisms, marriages and funerals, so are they specialists in sacred hatch, match and dispatch? They preach sometimes, but they’re not supposed to outshine the priest.
These are reasonable questions, but they have things back-to-front. Function revolves around nature, not vice versa – as John Paul knows from his studies of metaphysics. If you want to know what an animal is, you look at what it does, sure enough; but in the end what it does depends on what it is.
Of course it’s by our activities that people most easily get to know us. If you ask a girl you’ve just met to articulate her deepest ontology you might get a slap across the face; I’m told by those more expert in these things it’s best to ask her what she does. But that’s only as an entrée to getting to know someone and we are more than our jobs.
There are things that run deeper like our natural humanity and baptismal divinity, our personality and relationships, our core values and beliefs. Function revolves around nature, activity comes from ontology: we only do the things we do because we are the sorts of beings we are.
So what, deep down, are deacons? Recently, we have been celebrating the golden jubilee of the Second Vatican Council. It was that Council that decided to reinvigorate the ancient order of deacons, reinstituting the Permanent Diaconate and giving a fuller theology to those like John Paul who are deacons on the way to priesthood. Even so-called ‘transitional’ deacons are deacons for ever, as are all priests and bishops, and so we need to understand what they are.
The Council reminded us that there are three degrees of Holy Orders, three sharings in the priesthood of Christ, that go back to apostolic times: deacons, priests and bishops. Other offices and titles like acolyte, sub-deacon, monsignor and cardinal come and go: they may be useful but are not essential to the nature of the Church. But deacons are a permanent feature of the Church and the Church is not fully herself wherever deacons, priests or bishop are lacking.
The Greek root of the word deacon is a way into what a deacon is. Διάκονος means servant, waiter, minister or messenger. Again, you might say, these are jobs, but the core concept is service and as every newbie employee at McDonalds can tell you, this is an attitude, a commitment, not just a task.
In tonight’s Gospel Jesus says we must avoid any kind of clericalism or misuse of sacred power by lording it over others; greatness comes through service, through self-giving, just as He came not to be served but to serve and to give up His very life for others (Mt 20:25-28).
So whatever it is that a deacon is called to do – to preach at Mass, take Viaticum to the dying in a hospital, assist the bishop in the chancery, organise charitable works, or even hatch, match and dispatch sacramentally – whatever he is doing, he is first and foremost about service.
Recent popes have called deacons “the Church’s service sacramentalised”, “a driving force for the Church’s diakonia” and “living signs of the servanthood of Christ’s Church”. The gift and calling of the deacon, then, is not for his own sake but for building up the Church in particular ways.
Even more clearly than other Christian ministers, deacons must demonstrate Christ’s exitus and reditus, His descent from heaven to become the servant of all, especially of sick and suffering humanity, before His return to the Father in glory.
In their active involvement in the community, their outreach to the poor and marginalised, and their fostering of Eucharistic communion, deacons sacramentalise the Church’s service. By calling and ordaining deacons the Church is saying something fundamental: that service is at the heart of the human and divine mystery. And that is the spiritual gift to which Paul refers when he exhorts Timothy not to waste what he received when the bishop laid hands on him (I Tim 4:12-16).
Despite all the talk of customer service today, the fact is that putting yourself at the disposal of others is rather counter-cultural. But perhaps because they are so Catholic, Filipinos seem quite comfortable with the idea and we see Filipinos all around the world engaged in service of various kinds. Their culture understands that autonomy is not the highest value, that getting your own way is not happiness, that there are things that matter more than being big in this world’s estimation. John Paul tells me his family is devoted to public service, so he has had that example from childhood.
Again, when St Paul tells us today that young Christian ministers must be examples of Christlike love, faith and purity, it might elicit a snigger in our cynical Western culture. But Filipinos know exactly what this means. So I am pleased today to introduce another Filipino-Australian to the Order of Deacons in this Catholic Diocese of Parramatta.
My son, these are hard times to start down the path of ordained ministry in Australia. Some shepherds have let down their flocks, especially the lambs, abandoning them in their need or even preying upon them. We are ashamed, we are chastened, we are determined to do better in future. What we need right now are new examples of Christlike diakonia, of active faith, love and purity, of pouring out self in service of God and His people. We need you to identify yourself completely with Christ, the greatest servant of humanity, and to imitate the best in the clergy who have gone before you, whether in the Philippines or Australia, whether in your childhood or your formation years in our seminary and diocese, and in turn give the rest of us the example of your youthful idealism. Now, more than ever, the People of God need to be reassured that their clergy are totally devoted to the service of God and His people.
You are about to be ordained deacon. From tonight you will be a servant of the altar, assisting at Mass, distributing the Blessed Sacrament, and presiding at various Sacred Liturgies. You will be a servant of the Word, proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ, preaching, instructing and forming His people. And you will be a minister of charity, facilitating and being involved in outreach to the most needy. Be those things for us now, when the Church in Australia is on her knees and needs new inspiration, new example. Be a ‘sign of contradiction’ that tells our age of Christlike purity, fidelity and love.
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