Deacon: Serving “Hellenists” and “Hebrews” Today
Homily for the Ordination of Edgar Quiroga to the Transitional Diaconate
St. Paul Cathedral, Yakima, Washington
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Sirach 2:1-11; Acts 6:1-7; John 15: 9-17
Most Reverend Joseph J. Tyson, Bishop of Yakima
Peace be with you! What does it mean to be a deacon? Our second reading from the Acts of the Apostles provides the strongest scriptural basis for understanding the role of the deacon in the early Church. It seems that there were tensions in the early Church between the Hellenists and the Hebrews. The Greek-speaking Hellenist widows were being neglected in the daily charitable distribution. As a result – and note this well – the first deacons listed in this passage from the Acts of the Apostles all had Greek names: Stephen, Phillip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicholas of Antioch.
Indeed, while visiting Mundelein Seminary this last spring I had a brief exchange with Fr. Gus Belauskas. He mentioned in passing that one of the striking features of this passage from the Acts of the Apostles is that the division was solely linguistic between the Aramaic-speaking community that was Jewish in origin and the Greek-speaking community that was Jewish in origin. All these people were of the Jewish faith following the “Way” as the early Christians were called.
Today we are painfully aware that our country’s social tensions can be more than merely linguistic: they are cultural and racial. Serving in a diocese that is nearly three-fourths Hispanic and a diocese where most Catholics attend Mass in Spanish, these tensions can become magnified even among our parishioners. Yet the Acts of the Apostles suggests that it is precisely these kinds of tensions that gave rise for the need for the Order of Deacons in the early Church.
So, if being a deacon necessitates service in times of tension how do we prepare ourselves? A clue can be found in the opening reading we just heard proclaimed by Edgar Quiroga’s mother in his native Spanish language: “My child, when you come to serve the Lord, prepare yourselves for trials. Be sincere of heart and steadfast and do not be impetuous in time of adversity. Cling to him, do not leave him, that you may prosper in your last days. Accept whatever happens to you.”
Permit me to begin with the words “my child.” I recall many years ago when I first went to Mexico as a seminarian for Spanish language studies how parents addressed their children “mi hijito” or “mi hijita.” It roughly translates in both masculine and feminine forms as “my child” or “my little one” not unlike the tenderness captured in the opening two words we just heard from Sirach. Yet being new to Spanish, I heard those phrases “mi hijito” and “mi hijita” as one single word because native Spanish speakers slide the possessive adjective “mi” in with the noun for child “hijo” y “hija” (the “h” is silent).
“Mi hijito.” “Mi hijita.” This is what Sirach does scripturally. Sirach deliberately starts with the parental tenderness of God in order to deliver the hard and direct warning that follows. “Prepare yourself for trials.” “Be of sincere heart and steadfast.” Facing trials, accompanying our people in their fears – be that of deportation or be that of being a white minority in a small Central Washington town that has undergone dramatic change – means we must remain, in the words of Sacred Scripture, “sincere of heart” and “steadfast” in our love – even if those we try love reject us as “Hellenists” because of our language or our heritage. We must bring to mind and heart that opening phrase from Sirach: “my child.” “Mi hijo.”
How do we prepare ourselves spiritually to be a deacon? Permit me to suggest a second phrase from Sirach: “Cling to him.” Like a child clings to his mother so in times of division we must cling to God. Indeed, this is the promise of Jesus in today’s Gospel from St. John: “As the Father loves me so I have loved you.” The spirituality of the deacon requires us to remain in God’s love as we serve even in the most difficult of circumstances. In this regard I cannot help but recall how I – as bishop – when I wash the feet of parishioners on Holy Thursday – always wear a deacon dalmatic under my chasuble. I remove my chasuble and in a deacon dalmatic – the liturgical vestment you will see on Edgar today – I wash the feet of parishioners as a symbol of my love for them and – more importantly God’s love for them regardless of whether they are modern day “Hellenists” or “Hebrews.” The wearing of the diaconal dalmatic by the bishop in the Holy Thursday washing of the feet is a regular reminder that I must – in the words of Sirach – “cling to him.”
“Cling to him” and “Stay close to him.” While the painful tensions surrounding language and cultural sometimes seep into the life of our Church, I would note that most of the time we live a deeper and very opposite truth here in Yakima. Because we focus on Jesus – as Spanish and English – or “Hebrews” and “Hellenists” – we live a solution to the political and social tensions of our country that powerbrokers of media and politics can only dream about. We do so because of Jesus. Because of Jesus, we come together as a single Catholic family of faith. Because of Jesus, Mexico sends us their best. That’s not fake news! That’s Good News! That’s the Good News worth trumpeting from the pulpits across the Diocese of Yakima.
Cling to him! Stay close to him! Those words of Sirach are my words to you too, Edgar. Cling to him and stay close to him in those you serve as deacon. In doing so know the gentle joy of the Gospel always present and always real in all those you serve be they “Hellenists” or “Hebrews,” and become the deacon God ordains you to be this day. Peace be with you!