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The Age of Martyrs

Today we celebrate the feast of St. Stephen. Not only was he one of the first deacons in the Church (cf. Acts 6:1-6), but he’s also the first recorded post-Resurrection martyr for Christ.

Sometimes martyrdom may some far removed from our own comfortable existence. To counter such a mindset, we offer the following reflection from Servant of God John A. Hardon, the founder of the Institute on Religious Life, who tells us why the present age is truly the “age of the martyrs.” This is taken from a conference he gave on the Precious Blood of Christ.

We believe that by His death on the cross, Christ merited all the graces we need to reach heaven. He won all the graces necessary for our salvation. He gained all the graces that the human race needs to reach its eternal destiny.

But we also believe that what Christ did by dying for us on the cross requires that we die on our cross by cooperating with the graces that Jesus won for our redemption. He could not have been more clear. He told us, “If you wish to be my disciples, take up your cross and follow me.” We must cooperate with Christ’s grace if we wish to join Him in eternity. He was crucified by shedding His blood. We must be crucified by shedding our blood in witness to our love.

All of this is elementary Christian teaching. The Precious Blood of Christ does indeed provide us with the light and strength we need to reach heaven. But we have to do our part, otherwise Christ’s passion and death on Calvary would have been in vain.

The focus of our conference is on the Precious Blood of Christ in the age of martyrs. What are we saying? We are saying that the present century is the age of martyrs par excellence. Ours is THE (all three letters capitalized) age of martyrs.

No words of mine can do justice to this statement: We are inclined to think that martyrs are those ancient men and women in the first centuries of the Church whom we commemorate by name in the first Eucharistic Prayer, when we say, “We honor the apostles and martyrs,” and then name after the apostles, “Linus, Cletus, Clement, Sixtus, Carnelius, Cyprian, Lawrence, Chrysogonus, John and Paul, Cosmas and Damian.”

Unless we take stock of ourselves, martyrs are not commonly associated with the later history of the Church, and certainly not with our own times. What a miscalculation!

A conservative estimate places the total number of martyrs who died for Christ up to the liberation edict of Constantine in 313 A.D. at around 100,000. We call that period of massive persecution the age of martyrs. Yet, the number of Christians who have died for their faith since 1900 is several million. In the Sudan alone, during the 1950s, over two million Catholics were starved to death by the Muslims because they refused to deny that Mary is the Mother of God since her Son is the Ibn Allah, the Son of God. There have been more Christian martyrs since the turn of the present century than in all of the preceding centuries from Calvary to 1900 put together.

It is no wonder that the Second Vatican Council in its Constitution on the Church went out of its way to identify martyrdom as one of the marks of holiness in our day. The passage deserves to be quoted in full: Read the rest of this entry »

D Is for Deacon

Last week the Kathryn Jean Lopez reviewed a new children’s book by author Elizabeth Ficocelli entitled Where Do Deacons Come From? This is the latest of a series by Ficocelli (other titles so far include Where Do Priests Come From?; Where Do Sisters Come From?) to introduce vocations to children.

Ficocelli comments on the reason for her book:

“Deacon Greg Kandra recently blogged that his friend, Deacon William Ditewig, had made the following statement: ‘The diaconate will only become fully accepted as a vocation when young people say, “When I grow up, I want to be a deacon.”‘

“Well, Deacon Ditewig, I hope my book Where Do Deacons Come From? will help make that a reality.

“For many kids today, the vocation of deacon is being brought home–literally–as fathers, grandfathers, uncles, and other adult males they know are answering the call for this special role of service in the Church. This book sets out to clarify what a deacon is–and isn’t–through kid-friendly text and charming illustrations.”

Adults will also appreciate this book.

“As with all my books for children, Where Do Deacons Come From? is written keeping in mind the parents or teachers that may be sharing the book with young people. I, myself, learned new things about the diaconate, as I did with each book in this vocations series.”

American Deacons

The online edition of Catholic World Report published this month an interesting report on the permanent diaconate by Jeff Ziegler, fittingly entitled “Servants of the Lord.”

Vatican II (1962-65) expressed the hope that “the diaconate can in the future be restored as a proper and permanent rank of the hierarchy” in the Latin rites, especially in mission territories.

Ziegler summarizes the subsequent history:

“In 1967, Pope Paul VI issued general norms for the restoration of the permanent diaconate where requested by episcopal conferences. More than four decades later, 46 percent of the Church’s 37,203 permanent deacons serve in the United States, according to figures published in the 2011 Catholic Almanac, while an additional 5 percent serve in other parts of North America. A third of the Church’s deacons minister in Europe, 13 percent in South America, and approximately 1 percent each in Africa, Asia, and Oceania. There are more permanent deacons in the Archdiocese of Chicago than in all of Africa and Asia combined.”

Ziegler then gives interesting statistics on “deacon rich” and “deacon poor” dioceses in the United States. Interesting, one of the “deacon poor” dioceses Ziegler cites in his article is my own Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas. However, the most recent figures Ziegler had at his disposal did not include the 17 deacons ordained in the Archdiocese’s first class six months ago.

Ziegler also notes that the Church’s theological understanding of the diaconate is beginning to deepen in recent decades:

“Catholic teaching on the diaconate, while not as fully developed as magisterial teaching on the episcopate or the priesthood, has not been lacking over the past 50 years. The Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI’s 1967 apostolic letter on the restoration of the permanent diaconate, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church all briefly summarize the ministry of the deacon; Blessed John Paul devoted three general audiences to the diaconate in 1993, and Pope Benedict delivered an important address on the diaconate in 2006. In 1998, two Vatican congregations issued documents on the life, ministry, and formation of permanent deacons, and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a national directory devoted to the same topics six years later.”

Most recently, Bishop Alexander Sample published for the Diocese of Marquette, Michigan this past June “The Deacon: Icon of Jesus Christ the Servant,” a 19-page pastoral letter—perhaps the lengthiest and most thoughtful examination of the diaconate by an individual bishop in the deacon-rich United States.

While the information in the article is excellent, it remains for chancery offices around the country to make sound pastoral decisions as to how to best implement the ongoing restoration of the permanent diaconate. Ziegler’s statistics dispel the still-prevalent notion that the promotion of the diaconate somehow undercuts the promotion of vocations to the priesthood.

At the same time, the Church is already benefiting from the advances in diaconate formation that have been put into place in recent years. She will further benefit from an enhanced understanding of the deacon’s three-fold munera of word, liturgy, and charity, which are summed up in the call to serve the people after the manner of Jesus Christ, who came not to be served, but to serve and to give His life for others.

The Church’s Treasures

Today is the feast of St. Lawrence of Rome, one of the most famous deacons in Church history. With the restoration of the permanent diaconate over the past forty years, St. Lawrence has come to serve as an important model and patron saint for the thousands of men now serving the Church as deacons.

Butler’s Lives of the Saints tells a beautiful story about Saint Lawrence that captures the essence of what it truly means to be a deacon. In the year 258, Lawrence was serving Pope Sixtus II as a deacon in Rome. The Holy Father was led out to martyrdom, and St. Lawrence stood by, weeping that he could not share his fate. “I was your minister,” he said, “when you consecrated the blood of Our Lord; why do you leave me behind now that you are about to shed your own?”

The holy Pope comforted him with the words, “Do not weep, my son; in three days you will follow me.” This prophecy came true.

The political ruler of the city knew the rich offerings which the Christians put into the hands of the clergy, and he demanded the treasures of the Roman Church from Lawrence, their guardian. The Saint promised, at the end of three days, to show him riches exceeding all the wealth of the empire, and set about collecting the poor, the infirm, and the religious who lived by the alms of the faithful. He then invited the official to “see the treasures of the Church.” 

Shortly after that, on August 10, 258, St. Lawrence was burned alive as a martyr for the Christian faith.

Deacons are members of the clergy, but they are not priests. Rather, they are ordained for service (diakonia), as living icons of Christ, who came not to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many (Mk. 10:45).

This episode from St. Lawrence’s life exemplifies the deacon’s call to look out for the needs of the poor and needy, not out of mere duty, but because they are the treasures of the Church.  May all of us learn to love and serve Christ by seeing Him in those around us who are most in need of His compassion right now.

Icons of Christ the Servant

Earlier this month, fittingly on June 9th, the feast of the holy deacon St. Ephrem of Syria, Bishop Alexander Sample of Marquette, Michigan issued a pastoral letter entitled, “The Deacon: Icon of Jesus Christ the Servant.”  This pastoral letter is a welcome contribution to the body of teaching on the permanent diaconate, which has been restored in the West since the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).

Even the title of the pastoral letter is instructive. Deacons receive the Sacrament of Holy Orders, and thus are clerics. There is no such thing as a “lay deacon.” Yet deacons do not share in the priesthood of bishops and priests. Rather, they are ordained for diakonia, or service. They sacramentalize the Church’s call to imitate Christ, who came not to be served, but to serve (Mark 10:45). The deacon exercises this sacred ministry through the Word, the liturgy, and especially acts of charity. So, as the pastoral letter’s title suggests, the deacon should be a living image, or icon, of Jesus Christ the Servant.

It’s disappointing that the good of this pastoral letter has been dampened Read the rest of this entry »