Who Will Guide?
Homily for the Ordination of Mike Palmieri to the Order of Deacon for the Diocese of Yakima
December 16th 2022, at the Saint Joseph Catholic Church, Kennewick, Washington, USA
Jeremiah 1:4-9; Acts 8: 26-40; John 15:9-17
Most Reverend Joseph J. Tyson, Bishop of Yakima
“Do you understand what you are reading?” That is the question Philip asks the Ethiopian court official in our second reading from the eight chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. “How can I?” answers the Ethiopian court official. “How can I unless someone guides me?”
Permit me to note the context of this famous missionary exchange between the Ethiopian official and Philip. The very first words of this eight chapter from the Acts of the Apostles are these: “And Saul approved of their killing him.” Who is this person Saul approved of killing? None other than Stephen the Martyr, one of the first seven deacons of the Church.
Note well! Placing the Feast of St. Stephen, the Martyr on December 26th, the Church deliberately suggests that this event is tied to Christmas. Jesus is born on December 25th. But we see the premonition of Jesus’ death on December 26th. As a result of the persecutions, Philip listens to the angel. He becomes much more missionary after the death of Stephen. He first goes to preaches in Samaria. These were Jews left behind at the time of the exile and only held the first five books of the bible as sacred. They knew little of the prophets, the kings or the psalter.
Then, again at the prompting of an angel, Philip leaves the Samaritans and goes down to Gaza and its highway connecting great cities like Alexandria in Egypt with other coastal Mediterranean seaports like Sidon and Tyre in Lebanon. It is on the road that he meets this Ethiopian court official. This official was reading the prophet Isaiah. Thus, he was not simply traveling geographically between the great cities of the southeast Mediterranean world. No. He was traveling interiorly. He was traveling spiritually. He was traveling into the words of Isaiah. But he does not understand what he is reading. “How can I understand unless someone guides me?” That is the precise English rendering.
The original Greek text here is quite revealing. The word behind “guide” in English is ὁδηγήσει and it literally means to lead, to guide and to teach. It is all wrapped together. The verb could be used to speak about guiding geographically. But it also means to guide through a text, or more simply put, to teach. This is precisely what the Ethiopian is seeking from Philip. “How can I, if there is no one who can explain it.”
This is precisely how I met you, Mike and you, Marcie. I recall you coming to Magnificat classes in English. While attendance could be high in Spanish, often few people came to our English Magnificat. We actually grew Magnificat in English after COVID because more people chose to jump into an on-line presentation than come to a live class. But both of you wanted to be guided. You both wanted to learn more about the faith. The two of you were among the few in the English-speaking community to drive long distances up to Yakima for classes. And you attended here in Kennewick as well.
Now, Michael, you are about to return the favor! With ordination, you become a herald of the Gospel. Liturgically you not only explain the Gospel, but you respond to the question given by the Ethiopian to Philip. As a deacon, you explain, and you teach the Gospel. And let me suggest because you are working in English, you will be most imitating the patient, one-on-one approach that Philip takes with the Ethiopian official.
Permit me to note in this context that Saint Joseph in Kennewick is the largest parish operation in the Diocese of Yakima. Its mass attendance is second only to Holy Apostles in East Wenatchee but unlike Holy Apostles, Saint Joseph also has a school. The parish leans highly Hispanic with numerous immigrant families with roots in Mexico. Indeed, both your priests are from Mexico and most of your brother deacons in the parish are from Mexico as well.
Mexico is the largest Catholic country in the world. We have just come off the festivities tied to the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe and are now moving into the devotion of the “Posadas.” I am struck by how many young people, high school-aged, spontaneously jump into the processions, the prayers, the hot chocolate, and the pan dulce. Catechesis is very communal.
Catechesis in English, especially adult catechesis, needs to be more individual. Individuals like to raise questions, even debate, and argue. Unlike Mexican culture, which is highly Catholic, white English-speaking culture tends to be very Protestant and even secular. Philip speaks to this reality in his personal and invitational work with the Ethiopian court official who takes the initiative to study Isaiah even though he knows he cannot fully understand without guidance.
And why Isaiah? Why the attraction to study Isaiah? Because the ending message of Isaiah might best be summarized as “Y’all come.” In the second half of his book, Isaiah begins his message to the exiled Jews in Babylon. After seventy years, he tries to convince them to leave the opulence of Babylon and return back to Mount Zion. Seventy years is a long time. It is like Father Pulido or Father Izquierdo saying to his youngest nieces and nephews, “We are going back! We are going to go home to Mexico and work on the little farms our families once had.” Some of them would quickly respond, “America is my home, and I do not speak Spanish.”
Crucially, when Isaiah makes his invitation he not only invites “the exiles” and their descendants, but he also actually invites anyone who holds faith in the God who dwells on Mount Zion. Isaiah makes an expansive and generous invitation that includes everyone, Jews, and Gentiles alike. No wonder this Ethiopian eunuch is studying Isaiah. He wants to be guided back to God.
Mike, this is your mission too. Everyone is invited. Everyone. Regardless of language, race, culture, or lifestyle. Everyone receives the invitation to find life with God. Yes, not everyone will accept and not everyone will engage the rigors of the spiritual life. But as a permanent deacon and a herald of the Gospel you are the one who stands and proclaims on behalf of the Church, “Y’all come.”
What is the motivator? Love. This is the key word from tonight’s Gospel from St. John. I already know Marcie is the love of your life. Your marriage to her has solidified your capacity to love as a deacon. She has tutored you in love so that you, out of love, like Philip can better guide and teach this Gospel of love.
In a few short moments, I will hand you the Gospel and speak these words: Receive the Gospel of Christ, whose herald you have become. Believe what you read, teach what you believe, and practice what you teach.
I want to thank you for assimilating those words as your own. I am grateful for your willingness to serve as a permanent deacon here at St. Joseph in Kennewick and for the Diocese of Yakima. I am grateful for your promise to engage the steep challenges I have laid out as I ordain you a deacon.
“Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asks the Ethiopian. “How can I unless someone guides me?” Today, you are ὁδηγέω. You are to guide. You are to show the way. You are to teach. As a deacon and herald of the Gospel you are to show the way to Christ.
Peace be with you!
Image: “Baptism of the Eunuch,” Rembrandt, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons