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Deacons, the Church in America and the New Evangelization
By: Deacon Keith A Fournier
© Third Millennium, LLC
Throughout his service to the Lord, the Church and the world into which it is called, the Vicar of Christ, Pope John Paul II, has called for a "New Evangelization." This clarion call has gone out to the whole Church - which desperately needs a new evangelization - and to the contemporary culture, which has been deeply de-christianized. The two aspects of the one call are profoundly connected.
The Church, reeling under a season of purification, desperately needs conversion at every level. The contemporary culture has also clearly lost its way. Throughout all of his writings, in his homilies, catechetical instructions and addresses, the Pope has made it clear that cultures, formerly infused with a Christian culture, are now "post-Christian" and need to be "re-evangelized." Only a holy, vibrant faith filled Church can bring a culture of death and darkness to transformation.
Given the strong influence of Christian faith in the past in the whole region known as "the Americas" and the current state of moral decline in our nation and indeed in all of North and South America, it is not hard to identify the entirety of the American continent now as "missionary territory". As a Catholic deacon, I have come to believe that deacons can play a pivotal role in this new evangelization of culture, serving as we do with one foot in the sanctuary and the other in the street.
Deacons are not priests. Yet, we are no longer laymen either. We are an order of clergy called into the world to represent and "incarnate" the presence of Christ the Servant on behalf of His Church. Most of us are very close to the daily realities of the lay faithful, living and working in "secular" professions. Most of us are married with children and we understand the unique vocation of Christian family. We can serve as a "bridge" between the Church and the culture in this new evangelization.
When the Pope last visited the Americas just before the turn of the millennium he addressed this challenge to the entire Church in America: "The new Evangelization calls for a clearly conceived, serious and well organized effort to evangelize culture. The Son of God, by taking upon Himself our human nature, became incarnate within a particular people, even though His redemptive death brought redemption to all people, of every culture, race and condition. The gift of His Spirit and His love are meant for each and every people and culture, in order to bring them all into unity after the perfect unity existing in the Triune God" (Pope John Paul II, Ecclesia in America, 70).
This was the last time we hosted the Holy Father on the shores of America. During this historic visit to Mexico, Pope John Paul II, continued this clarion call to all of the faithful to engage in this "New Evangelization" of the culture. On 22 January 1999, the very day that he arrived in Mexico, he signed this apostolic exhortation, Ecclesia in America (The Church in America). This exhortation has laid out a missionary challenge to all of the faithful throughout the entire American continent.
This Exhortation and the issues that it addressed flowed out of a series of meetings held in Rome in 1998 from 16 November to 12 December, by the "Special Assembly for America of the Synod of Bishops." "To the Church in America" was the Pope's response to the assembly and directions to the faithful in America.
The document is a serious, detailed, specific missionary blueprint. It speaks to "America" as one continent, including North, Central, and South America--and the Caribbean islands. He writes to "the Bishops, priests and deacons, men and women religious, and all the lay faithful on the encounter with the living Jesus Christ: the way to conversion, communion and solidarity in America".
His message is clear; we are all called to live out our baptismal vocation in lives of sacrificial service on behalf of the world. He asks all of the faithful, men, and women, lay, clergy and religious, ALL of the faithful to view ourselves as missionaries and to understand that the mission of the Church is OUR mission. It is not reserved for a group of "professionals" but is the task incumbent on all of the faithful. We are first sons and daughters of the Church, which is a seed of the Kingdom, in the midst of this world.
Since the Second Vatican Council, the consistent emphasis of the Catholic Church has been on the fundamental truth that the Church is by nature missionary and that every baptized Christian participates in that missionary activity. Our task, no matter what our state in life or vocation, is to be missionaries, in every nation and to every culture. That understanding lies at the heart of what it means to be Christians - we carry on the redemptive mission of Jesus Christ in time.
In the ancient Christian manuscript entitled the ''Epistle of Diognetus", written to a pagan who inquired into the Christian faith, the anonymous writer succinctly stated the role of the Christian in culture:
"Christians are not distinguished from the rest of mankind by either country, speech or customs. ... They reside in their respective countries, but only as aliens. They take part in everything as citizens and put up with everything as foreigners. ... What the soul is in the body that the Christians are in the world. The soul is spread through all the members of the body, and the Christians throughout all the cities of the world."
The culture into which this early Christian writer wrote these insightful words to an early inquirer into the faith was not unlike the culture we face today. It was also a "Culture of Death." We forget that ancient Romans, Greeks and many of their neighbors, were not only engaged in practicing a primitive form of abortion but regularly practiced "exposure", the leaving of "unwanted" children on the rocks to be killed by birds of prey or captured by merchants to be sold into slavery as "products".
We must remember that this is not the first time in our 2000-year history as a Christian people that we have faced this kind of darkness and confusion concerning the inviolable dignity of every human life. This is not the first time that Christians have lived in a culture that has lost its way and substituted license for liberty, losing sight of freedom's essential connection to truth.
The message of the Holy Father resounds throughout this letter, "Ecclesia in America", and it is clear: "Get to work!" These may be difficult times, but they are our times. We were born for times such as these!
I have spent much of my adult life and service in ecumenical circles. I have served alongside of other Christians, people of faith and other people of good will. Many of them speak of an America that was once "more Christian." Perhaps the Christian influence was once more prominent. However, sometimes I think we might all be better off, particularly we who live in the United States, if we pretended that we just awakened in a strange land filled with idols and drunk on its own debauchery.
Perhaps, then, we would spend less time bemoaning how bad things have gotten and spend more time in focused prayer and in missionary activity.
The sickness of our contemporary American culture will not be cured by a "moral rearmament" or even well-intended political participation efforts alone--though both have an important role to play. What is truly needed is a "New Evangelization." The only hope for the America's is the hope of all the Ages, Jesus Christ. The only way that this culture will be converted is by the conversion of hearts, minds, families, neighborhoods and cities, flowing out in concentric circles of conversion.
The deep penetration of the contemporary Culture of Death and self centeredness in the American culture reflects a sickness of soul that can only be healed by the Savior. That is why Christians must be missionary minded, becoming once again the "soul" of all of these nations which together constitute the "Church of America." We must proclaim once again, in word and life, the "Gospel," the "Good News," of the Savior.
It is sometimes unusual to think of this land as "missionary" territory, but it is, and we are the missionaries! We must become the salt, the leaven, and the light referred to in the kingdom parables, told by Jesus Christ. We must give ourselves away in love to Him who is Love so that He can spread us as seed in the barren lands of the Americas and knead us into this loaf called culture in order to transform it from within. We must understand that the redemptive mission continues.
Having now lived out my diaconal vocation for a number of years, I have come to believe that those ordained for this kind of clerical service may play a unique role in this mission of the new evangelization. We are members of the clergy, in the midst of the world; builders of the new "Culture of Life" and "Civilization of Love."
In a special way, deacons can serve as a "bridge" from the Hierarchy of the Church into the "world" of this age. Many of us are married and called to model the wonderful truth of family life renewed in Jesus Christ. Many of us are engaged in secular pursuits, and are called, in and through those pursuits, to build a model of holiness that is a response to the call of the Council. Many of us are engaged in "works of charity" or "social justice" in which we are building an "incarnational" model of Christian service in response to the Christian call to solidarity.
Many of us work very closely with the "movements" of energized lay faithful who are what the Holy Father has called the "signs of spring and hope" for the Church in this age. Our presence, often in the midst of these lay movements --as members of the clergy--is perhaps one of the prophetic purposes for the restoration of the diaconate as a "permanent" rank of orders in our day. We can serve a unique role of service to the new evangelization.
Certainly, there are vast obstacles to this missionary task to the Americas. What's new about that? We've "been this way" before as a Christian people. No Caesar or opposition from a hostile culture has ever withstood the power of Crucified Love. God's Word, which we have been ordained to proclaim and incarnate, will not "return void" (Isaiah 55:11).
Our task is to "stay faithful, in season and out of season" (2 Timothy 4:2). God's power is at work in each of us. To my brother deacons I say this: remember whose hands were laid upon you when you were ordained! Those hands were the Lords hands, working through the hands of His Bishop.
Sometimes, I think the greatest obstacle we face as deacons is discouragement, particularly, by those of us "blazing the trail" in the West where this model of ordained service has only been "recently" (in Church years) restored. Remember, in the East, it has continued as an unbroken office of service. We have much to learn from our brothers who serve in the Eastern Church.
We deacons in the West face what Blessed Jose Maria Escriva often called "opposition from the good!" Sometimes we are often not welcomed by our brothers in the priesthood and we seem to threaten some lay leaders. Nor are we understood by the people we serve in our parishes; the continued use of the oxymoron "lay deacon" is an example of the confusion!
In some areas where the diaconate is not being well pastored, some deacons feel like they are involved in the "Rodney Dangerfield" model of clerical service-they "don't get any respect." I have heard that complaint from many deacons. But we must all remember that the One by whom we were called and in whom we model "kenosis," emptied love, (Philippians 2:5-11), is the One we must please.
To my brothers in diaconal service, offer up to God even the indignation you may feel at times because of those that should welcome you in ministry but do not. Then, get to work! Persevere, pray, suffer and most of all--love! From the altar into the trenches of the world, we are ordained to serve. Whether we get respect, or even recognition, from others means little in the greater scheme of things. We are deacons by God's plan, and by the laying on of hands. That mark is a gift given to the ones for whom the "Servant of all" gave His life.
Those of us who are fraternally joined in the apostolate of the Diaconate have a unique opportunity to build the kind of solidarity among ourselves that can only strengthen our call and vocation to the Church, and in the Church--to the world. We can help one another become more effective in the mission of to proclaim the Gospel of Life, rebuild a culture of life, and serve the family as a domestic church. There are new associations like "Deacons in the Service of Life" where we can serve together and build one another up in faith.
As the months and years unfold into the horizon of this new "springtime" of the Church, our vocation as deacons will become clearer and our place in the Church and her unique new missionary age will become obvious. Our task now is to live it prophetically and sacrificially, and take our place in the new evangelization of culture.
Rev. Mr. Keith A Fournier, a Catholic deacon of the Diocese of Richmond, Virginia is the founder and president of "Common Good", a way, work, and movement dedicated to the conversion of culture. A constitutional lawyer, he founded "Lentz, Stepanovich and Fournier, P.L.C.", a law firm in Virginia Beach, Virginia. Long active in social, cultural and political participation, Fournier has served as a pro-life and pro-family lobbyist, the first Executive Director of the ACLJ (American Center for Law and Justice), an advisor to the presidential campaign of Steve Forbes and has recently launched "Common Good Legal Defense Fund", an outreach of "Common Good". Fournier holds a Bachelors degree (B.A.) from Franciscan University of Steubenville in Philosophy and Theology, a Masters Degree (M.T.S.) in Sacred Theology from the John Paul II Institute of the Lateran University, a Juris Doctor (J.D.) from the University of Pittsburgh and an Honorary Doctor of Laws (L.L.D.) from St. Thomas University. Fournier is the author of seven books on issues concerning life, faith, evangelization, ecumenism, family, political participation, public policy and cultural issues. Along with Michael and Sandy Galloway, he is a founder of "Your Catholic Voice" and serves as a features editor for Catholic Online.
http://www.commongoodonline.com VA, US
Deacon Keith Fournier - Founder, President, 757 546-9580
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