Deacon Keith Fournier on Lawrence the Deacon and the Call of Catholic Deacons in a Missionary age
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Catholic Deacons are ordained members of the Catholic Clergy, ordained not to the priesthood but to the ministry. We are not laymen any longer after ordination. Even though we may have had effective and vital ministries as lay leaders before, something substantial has changed by the imposition of the hands of one of the successors of the Apostles, our Bishop. We are now ordained ministers of the Catholic Church, called into the world as clerical missionaries. I work closely with Christians of other confessions, churches and communities in joint efforts aimed at infusing Christian values back into a culture which has clearly lost its way. They understand my ministry as a Catholic Deacon, sometimes better than my fellow Catholics. In some respects, they often see my calling as much akin to their own ministers.
Lawrence the deacon of Rome engaged in ministry
CHESAPEAKE, VA (Catholic Online) - I often write about, speak to and contend with the multiple challenges we currently face in this missionary age of the whole Christian Church. Western culture is corroding from within, precisely because we have forgotten God.
When any culture forgets God, it inevitably loses its humanity. That is because we are created in the Image of God. We are redeemed by and in Jesus Christ so that Image can be restored and demonstrated to a world waiting to be born anew. When we turn away from our source and identity, we lose ourselves.
I find myself regularly reminding my fellow Christians that the times in which we live are not the most difficult the Church has faced. Just this week, a colleague in the communications ministry offered one more radio program bemoaning what he referred to as a "post-Christian" age. I long ago ceased using such language. I find it to be a counsel of despair.
I prefer to view this time in which we live as Pre-Christian. In doing so I want to emphasize that as Christians we are the leaven, life, light and seed needed to transform this age from within. We are the solution and cannot waste one minute wringing our hands. They need to be put to the plow, not looking back but sowing the seeds of renewal. (See, Luke 9:62)
Nor is our situation new in the history of the Church. We were born - and born again - for times such as these. However, the hostility toward the Christian faith, and the whole Christian Church, is indeed accelerating - and it will even get worse - before it gets better. That is why we need inspiring role models such as the saints of our Christian history to help us through their example and their prayers.
On August 10th in the Roman Catholic Liturgical Calendar we commemorate the Deacon of the undivided early Christian Church who is named Lawrence. The situation we face in a declining western culture is not unlike the situation Lawrence and his companions faced. In fact, in some respects, we live in a New Rome, beset with very similar signs of moral decay those early Christians face. They did not wring their hands, they fell to their knees for grace and then rose to their feet to do something about it!
Like the stories of all the heroes of the faith, the story of the Christian Deacon named Lawrence is ever fresh and ever new. I have served as an ordained Catholic Deacon for twenty three years and continue to draw great encouragement from his heroic witness in the First Millennium as I seek to be faithful to my own vocation as a Deacon who is called to serve in the Third Millennium.
Catholic Deacons have a vital role to serve in the Church, and in the world into which she is sent on mission. They are called to do so as an icon of Jesus Christ the Servant, making Him present through their ministry. They are called to give holy and heroic witness, in both word and deed, that Jesus Christ is alive, raised from the dead, and continuing His ministry through His Body, the Church. They live their lives in what is sometimes called the real world, but it is to be a life that is not of "this world" but rather a seed of the world to come. (See, e.g. Romans 12:2, 1 John 2: 15 - 17)
The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes this order of Clergy, the diaconate in Christ, in this way:
"At a lower level of the hierarchy are to be found deacons, who receive the imposition of hands 'not unto the priesthood, but unto the ministry."' At an ordination to the diaconate only the bishop lays hands on the candidate, thus signifying the deacon's special attachment to the bishop in the tasks of his "diakonia."
"Deacons share in Christ's mission and grace in a special way. The sacrament of Holy Orders marks them with an imprint ("character") which cannot be removed and which configures them to Christ, who made himself the "deacon" or servant of all.56 Among other tasks, it is the task of deacons to assist the bishop and priests in the celebration of the divine mysteries, above all the Eucharist, in the distribution of Holy Communion, in assisting at and blessing marriages, in the proclamation of the Gospel and preaching, in presiding over funerals, and in dedicating themselves to the various ministries of charity.
"Since the Second Vatican Council the Latin Church has restored the diaconate "as a proper and permanent rank of the hierarchy," while the Churches of the East had always maintained it. This permanent diaconate, which can be conferred on married men, constitutes an important enrichment for the Church's mission. Indeed, it is appropriate and useful that men who carry out a truly diaconal ministry in the Church, whether in its liturgical and pastoral life or whether in its social and charitable works, should "be strengthened by the imposition of hands which has come down from the apostles. They would be more closely bound to the altar and their ministry would be made more fruitful through the sacramental grace of the diaconate." (Catechism of the Catholic Church, Paragraphs 1569-1571)
Catholic Deacons are ordained members of the Catholic Clergy, ordained not to the priesthood but to the ministry. We are not laymen any longer after ordination. Even though we may have had effective and vital ministries as lay leaders before, something substantial has changed by the imposition of the hands of one of the successors of the Apostles, our Bishop. We are now ordained ministers of the Catholic Church, called into the world as clerical missionaries.
I work closely with Christians of other confessions, churches and communities in joint efforts aimed at infusing Christian values back into a culture which has clearly lost its way. They understand my ministry as a Catholic Deacon, sometimes better than my fellow Catholics. In some respects, they often see my calling as much akin to their own ministers.
After all, think about it from their vantage point. A Roman Catholic Deacon proclaims the Gospel in liturgical services, preaching and teaching the word. We baptize, witness weddings, preside over prayer services, including presiding over the Liturgy of the Hours and Exposition and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. We bring viaticum (Eucharist for the journey to to and through death) to the sick and dying, and we witness funerals.
I certainly understand the magnificence, uniqueness and beauty of the ordained priesthood. I embrace and honor the centrality of the ministerial priesthood in sacramental economy and life of the Catholic Church. I am a Catholic Christian by choice - and by deep conviction. I love my Church. I also know that I am not a priest. I honor and esteem those members of the Body who have been called and ordained to that sacramental office of priesthood.
I am simply saying that our protestant Christian friends often do not have the theological, sacramental, ecclesial or experiential reference point to comprehend the wide difference between priests and deacons in the sacramental theology and ecclesiology of the Catholic Church. I have had the honor of helping those who do come to this understanding, in many instances helping them come into the full communion of the Catholic Church.
However, my own ministry has placed me in a unique position which has also led to my appreciation of the unique role which Catholic Deacons can serve in the work of Christian unity. I work with a lot of Protestant Christian leaders and ministers. I do so as a convinced Catholic Christian, comfortable in my "catholic skin", respectful of their gifts and calling, and honored to stand with them in the one Lord Jesus Christ who joins us together.
In my Diocese, Deacons wear the clerical collar when engaged in ministry. After all, we are clerics of the Catholic Church. It certainly helps in this ecumenical apostolate in which I engage. I know that Deacons wearing the clerical collar is not the practice in every Catholic Diocese. I have heard all of the reasons. I understand them, even if I do not agree with them. Catholics are a Christian people of sign and symbol. The collar is a symbol.
In my national ministry work I see that the trend is tending toward embracing the symbol of the collar for Deacons. We also wear the diaconal cross with the collar in order to show the order of our service. The symbol of the clerical collar and the cross helps immensely in my service with other Christian ministers. Finally, it reminds me, at all times, of the Church which I represent - as I walk, pray and work with other Christians in the broader Body of Jesus Christ.
In their own traditions, their ordained ministers are often on the front line of what would be considered major social action rooted in the Gospel. For example, in defending the Right to Life of our youngest neighbors in the womb and standing in public witness in defense of marriage as solely between one man and one woman. In the Catholic tradition, Bishops and priests certainly embrace both of these truths as revealed by the Natural moral law, confirmed by revelation and essential to the right ordering of a just civil order. However, they do not take the public role which Deacons can - and increasingly do.
I often explain, when asked about the service of a Catholic Deacon, that we go from the altar and the ambo (pulpit) into the world - in order to bring the world into the "new world" of the Church. Deacons are called to be witnesses of this "new world" - to use a term used by the early fathers for the Church - the world being recreated in and through Jesus Christ. They were also fond of referring to the Church as the world in the course of transfiguration. The Church is a seed of the kingdom to come. Deacons are invited to live as leaven in the loaf of human culture, elevating it from within by lives lived in the heart of the Church for the sake of the world.
As a result of their lived experiences, Catholic Deacons are often good homilists, or preachers as other Christians more often refer to this service to the Body of Christ. Church history recounts the great homilies or sermons of Deacons during the early centuries of the undivided Christian Church, such as St. Ephrem, called the "harp of the Holy Spirit" and others. Then, there are the deacon martyrs, including Stephen and Lawrence and so many others. Their lives of sacrificial love continue to inspire the whole church as a perpetual homily!
In 1996, on the Feast of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ (Corpus Christi), I was ordained to the Order of Deacon in the Catholic Church. When I lay prostrate on the floor that day in preparation for the imposition of the hands of my Bishop and the reception of the Book of the Gospels, I knew my life would never be the same. My ordination did indeed create a mark on my soul as our Catholic theology teaches.
In fact, it radically altered my life and my service. I use the word "radically" deliberately. In its etymology it means going back to the root. That is what being ordained to the Diaconate in Christ did in my life. It rooted me in a new way in the order of the clergy of the Catholic Church, called to live in the heart of the Church for the sake of the world.
I love to tell the story of this Deacon/Martyr named Lawrence who helped to bring the entire pagan Roman Empire to Jesus Christ. It is particularly relevant because we are living in what could be viewed as a modern Rome - the evidence of moral decline in the western culture in which we live and serve grows daily.
Deacon Lawrences' heroic life and death commend him to all who see the Third Christian Millennium as a new missionary age. We are called to sacrifice all for the love of Jesus Christ and His Church. However, the witness of Lawrence is of particular importance for contemporary Catholic Deacons. I ask our readers to pray for all Deacons of the Catholic Church, that we all may cultivate, by cooperating with grace, the courage, character and holiness of Deacon Lawrence.
The Catholic Church is facing growing hostility from those who grow weary of our insistence upon a respect for all human life, our defense of true marriage and our insistence upon restoring the moral foundations of a free society. They seek to silence us and engage in a soft persecution, at least so far in the West.
They especially focus their animosity on the Catholic Church, because she will not compromise the truth. It is in just such times that we need for the Lord to raise up Deacons like Lawrence to stand strong in their uncompromising fidelity to the ancient yet ever new Catholic Christian faith in this new missionary age.
The same God Deacon Lawrence loved and served is pouring out his Holy Spirit in this hour upon His Church. History will record the story of when this Rome of the West returned to Jesus Christ! We are called to hasten that change. Let me share with you the story of the Deacon Martyr Lawrence, through whom all of Rome became Christian.
The year was 258. It was a difficult beginning for what would become the First Christian Millennium. Hostility against these early followers of Jesus Christ was growing. The barbarism and severity of pagan Rome had begun to reach a fever pitch. It would soon lead to a blood lust. The newborn Christian Church, faithful to the One who had given Himself for the life of the world, continued the work of His redemption.
Roman authorities charged Christians of that era with "odium humani generis" [hatred of the human race]. The Romans claimed to be citizens of a great empire, yet they practiced primitive forms of abortion as well as "exposure", the killing of unwanted newborns.
First and Second century Rome was a challenging mission field for these early Christians. Rome proclaimed itself the shining example to the world of its age while it violated the Natural Moral Law and embraced debauchery. Sound familiar?
The day that Deacon Lawrence experienced his birth from death to life was an ominous and frightful day in ancient Rome. Four days earlier, the great Bishop of Rome, Sixtus, was arrested by soldiers of the emperor Valerian, along with his beloved deacons, and beheaded.
Valerian had issued an edict to the Roman Senate that all the Christian clergy-bishops, priests and deacons-were to be arrested and executed. There were so many holy people among the martyrs of early Rome. That makes it even more remarkable that the life and death of this one humble Deacon-Lawrence-is attributed with all of Rome becoming Christian.
Sentenced to death in the Emperor Valerian's sweeping condemnation of all Christian clergy, Lawrence offended the Emperor - and endeared himself to all Christians since then - by assembling before Valerian the real gold and silver of the Church, the poor.
According to the tradition, Deacon Lawrence, knowing that the fervor of Valerians' hatred was extending to all Christians who owned property, began to give it all away. He distributed the money and treasures of the Church to the city's poor-believing the clear admonition of the Savior that they were blessed and especially loved by Him.
Valerian heard the news and wanted the treasure to satisfy his unbridled lust for worldly power. So, he offered Deacon Lawrence a way out of sure death. If he would show him where the Church's great gold and silver were located, he would issue an order of clemency, sparing his life so that he could continue his work.
Valerian was delighted when the deacon asked for three days to gather all the gold and silver of the Church together in one central place! His pride and greed filled blinded him from seeing the truth.
For three days, Deacon Lawrence went throughout the city and invited all the beloved poor, handicapped, and misfortunate to come together. They were being supported by a thriving early Christian community who understood the Gospel imperative to recognize Jesus in the poor.
When Valerian arrived, Deacon Lawrence presented him with the true gold and silver of the Church, the poor! The emperor was filled with rage! Beheading was not enough for this Christian Deacon. He ordered Deacon Lawrence to be burned alive, in public, on a griddle. Witnesses recorded the public martyrdom. The deacon cheerfully offered himself to the Lord Jesus and even joked with his executioners!
The Christian tradition records massive conversions to the Christian faith as a result of the holy life and death of one Deacon who understood the true heart of his vocation. He was poured out, like his Master, Jesus Christ the Servant, in redemptive love, on behalf of others. It is still said to this day that all of Rome became Christian as a result of the faithful life, and the death, of this one humble deacon. He was buried in a cemetery on the Via Tiburtina. On that spot, Constantine would later build a Basilica.
A special devotion to Lawrence, deacon and martyr, spread throughout the entire Christian community. Early Christians had no doubt that those who had gone to be with the Lord continued to pray for those who still struggled in this earthly life. They saw in Lawrence a great example of how to live, and how to die, faithful to the Gospel. Years later,
St Augustine reflected on the heroism of this great deacon in a sermon preached on his feast day, emphasizing that his life and death were an example for all Christians to emulate: "I tell you again and again my brethren, that in the Lord's garden are to be found not only the roses of His martyrs. In it there are also the lilies of the virgins, the ivy of wedded couples, and the violets of widows. On no account may any class of people despair, thinking that God has not called them."
The life and death of Deacon Lawrence speaks the timeless message of the Gospel to all who will listen. Whether we are ever called to shed our blood in what has traditionally been called red martyrdom or simply called to offer our sacrifices daily in a continuous life of poured-out love, traditionally called white martyrdom, we continue the redemptive work of the Lord.
The Deacon and martyr Lawrence offered himself fully to Jesus Christ, for the sake of the world. His heroic life and death witness is a challenge and an invitation to all Catholic Deacons in a missionary age. May the Lord give all Catholic Deacons the courage needed to respond.
Deacon Keith Fournier is Founder and Chairman of Common Good Foundation and Common Good Alliance. A married Roman Catholic Deacon of the Diocese of Richmond, Virginia, he and his wife Laurine have five grown children and seven grandchildren. Fournier is a constitutional lawyer. He is also the Editor in Chief of Catholic Online, and a columnist for the Catholic News Agency
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