Category Archives: deacon

Washing dishes and the baby Jesus

Yesterday was the birthday of Thich Nhat Hanh, Vietnamese Buddhist monk, peacemaker, poet, meditation master. Born in Vietnam on October 11, 1926, he is an example of what is often called “engaged Buddhism.” His advocacy of peace in Vietnam, his concern for the Vietnamese boat people, and other actions for peace were expressions of his Buddhism.

I came upon his writings during the Vietnam War and was struck by someone who refused to glorify violence from any side, but who sided with the suffering.

I also came across an account of an encounter he had with Jim Forest who was washing dishes, which Jim wrote about later.

Somehow Nhat Hanh picked up on my irritation. Suddenly he was standing next to me. “Jim,” he asked, “what is the best way to wash the dishes?” I knew I was facing one of those very tricky Zen questions. I tried to think what would be a good Zen answer, but all I could come up with was, “You should wash the dishes to get them clean.” “No,” said Nhat Hanh. “You should wash the dishes to wash the dishes.” … But what he said next was instantly helpful: “You should wash each dish as if it were the baby Jesus.”

This struck me to the heart. I like washing dishes, especially since living in New York City. In a cold apartment one of the ways to get warm in winter was washing dishes since the tap water was usually hot.

I still occasionally pause as I wash dishes to savor the delight of washing dishes – though I don’t often wash them as if they were the baby Jesus.

But now, as a deacon, these words have taken on a new meaning.

One of my responsibilities is to clean the sacred vessel after communion. As I move hosts from one sacred vessel to another, I often take gentle care, as if I were moving the Baby Jesus, as I would pick up a little child, holding them gently in my arms.

But there is more. One day, during the Mass to celebrate the canonization of Mother Teresa, I was cleaning the ciborium which had a lot of little particles of the hosts. As I sought out each particle, even the tiniest one, I looked up and saw a group of kids in the middle of the aisle, with the volunteers of a home for kids, Amigos de Jesús. I thought immediately. I am taking care of each tiny particle in which I encounter Jesus; so too I am called to encounter and care for the tiniest child, in whom I can also encounter Jesus.

Martha and diaconal service

And Martha served
καὶ ἡ Μάρθα διηκόνει
John 12:2

Martha all too often is seen as being less holy than her sister Martha, based mostly on an interpretation of the account of Mary and Martha in Luke’s Gospel (10: 38-42).

I, however, see that the problem is not that Martha’s serving of the Lord is less holy than Mary’s sitting as a disciple at the feet of Jesus; the problem might be that Martha was preoccupied with her tasks and failed to just sit, at times, at the feet of Jesus and listen as a disciple.

But in the Gospel of John (11: 19-27), Martha is the one who recognizes Jesus as the Messiah and professes her belief in the resurrection.

Shortly after, there is a dinner at the house of Lazarus, Martha, and Mary – just six days before the Passover, before Jesus would give His life up. Lazarus sits at the table; Mary anoints the feet of Jesus; “and Martha serves.”

Here there is no disparaging remark about Martha’s insistence on hospitality and service. It is stated as a fact.

In a sermon (103), Saint Augustine notes that Martha’s privilege can be ours:

Mary received Jesus as a guest…. But do not say. “How blest they who received Christ in their own home.” Be not saddened that you live in an age when the Lord is no longer to be seen in the flesh. He has not deprived you of Martha’s privilege: “when you did it to the least of my brothers and sisters, you did it to Me.”

We can all be deacons, servants of the Lord.

Make us great – servants and slaves

Whoever wishes to be great among you
must be your servant.
Matthew 20:26

In today’s Gospel for the feast of St. James, we hear the mother of James and John asking Jesus to give them seats of honor. Jesus explains what this would mean to her sons but the other apostles are a bit taken aback and complain.

In response, Jesus tells them:

but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20: 26-28)

I have heard many calling to “make America [really just the US] great again,” but is it the greatness of Jesus? Or is it the temptation to greatness that Jesus experienced in the desert – being acclaimed by all and having power over all? (Matthew 4: 1-11)

Many years ago I was introduced to Martin Luther King’s “Drum Major Instinct” sermon which he preached in 1968 on one of the parallel texts of today’s Gospel. It gives us an idea of what Jesus means by greatness.

… Jesus gave us a new norm of greatness. If you want to be important—wonderful. If you want to be recognized—wonderful. If you want to be great—wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant.  That’s a new definition of greatness.
And this morning, the thing that I like about it: by giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. And you can be that servant.

Greatness is not power; greatness is not having the seats of honor; greatness is not being looked up to; greatness is not being over and above others.

Greatness is service; greatness is sitting at the feet of the poor and ill, washing their feet; greatness is looking up into the eyes of those one is serving; greatness is loving, being with others, accompanying them.

The words Jesus uses in the passage cited above are significant for me as a newly ordained permanent deacon.

Whoever wishes to be great must be your servant, your deacon – διάκονος;
whoever wishes to be first must be your slave – δοῦλος.

This is who Jesus calls us to be and, pointedly, he noted that this is not the way of the rulers of this world, even those who claim the mantle of Christianity.

And so today I meditate on my calling to be servant – and God keeps giving me opportunities to be a servant.

As I was writing this blog, a neighbor came to the door and asked me to take communion to her sister who just came back from the hospital after a stroke. With great joy I have been given a little way to serve.

The full text of Martin Luther King’s “Drum Major Instinct Sermon” can be found here.







Surrounded by saints

We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses…
Hebrews 12:1

I have since my youth been fascinated by the saints. I remember having these little books with a story of a saint and a colored picture on the opposite page.

As I grew older I began reading more and more of the saints, running across some obscure saints who became very important for me, including Saint Benedict the Black and Saint Benedict Joseph Labré. Saint Francis of Assisi was one saint who began to enchant me from my grade school days and still moves me.

Later I began to encounter other holy men and women, only some of whom were canonized. The commitment to the poor and the spirituality of Monseñor Oscar Romero and Brother Charles de Foucauld challenged me and still sustain me.

And so, as I lay prostrate before the altar last Friday in the Mass of ordination, I felt myself surrounded by so many witnesses – saints in heaven and saints around me. I felt myself sustained and challenged by them.


The Litany has a healthy number of saints but in special events, such as ordinations, the Church encourages us to add special saints.

I added these:

  • Saint Raphael the Archangel, who guided Tobias on his journey, and was the patron of the church where I was baptized as well as the Archdioceses of Dubuque where I served for 24 years.
  • Saint Thomas Aquinas, the patron of the church and student center in Ames, Iowa, where I served and which is the sister parish of the parish of Dulce Nombre de María.
  • Saint Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, who run two universities where I studied: the University of Scranton and Boston College.
  • Saint Bonaventure, a great Franciscan leader and writer, whose feast was that day.
  • Saint Scholastica, whose brother Benedict is already in the litany, but whom I added to recall the Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration who made my dalmatic.
  • Saint Clare, the founder of the women Franciscans, who should be joined with Saint Francis in the litany, recalling the Franciscan Sisters who sustain me here.
  • Blessed Oscar Romero was already added to the litany but I added Blessed Charles de Foucauld immediately after him.

As I lay on the ground before the altar, I found myself feeling the presence of all these great witnesses. But then Romero was called upon to pray for us, followed by Charles de Foucauld.

I had dedicated my ordination to Romero when I visited his tomb a few weeks ago.


His deep faith, profound spirituality, and courageous accompaniment of the poor have inspired me for years.

At the ordination of a transitional deacon, Jorge Benavides, on August 15, 1977, he said:

Beloved deacon, we are going to impose our hands on you and we are going to see in you an image of the Church that serves, the deacon. Would that you understand that all your theology, all your studies, the beauty of your vocation mean bringing to the world the face of that Church which serves, loves, and hopes.

Charles de Foucauld, the little brother who lived among the poor in Algeria and was killed there, inspired me by his commitment to live with and for the poor – being there with them. My white diaconal stole bears the image of the cross and the heart that he wore on his simple white habit.


As Monseñor Romero and Brother Charles de Foucauld were asked to pray for us, my body was rocked with deep sobs – not of sorrow but of an experience I cannot define. It was partly joy, but as I look back it might have been a feeling of the mercy of God and the challenge of these holy men to live as a servant of God and the poor.


Yesterday I came upon this quote of Brother Charles, which expresses that challenge so beautifully:

Jesus came to Nazareth, the place of the hidden life, of the ordinary life, of family life, of prayer, work, obscurity, silent virtues, practiced with no witnesses other than God, his friends and neighbors. Nazareth, the place where most people lead their lives. We must infinitely respect the least of our brothers… let us mingle with them. Let us be one of them to the extent that God wishes… and treat them fraternally in order to have the honor and joy of being accepted by them.

I pray that I may live my calling as a deacon, in the image of Christ the Servant, might be lived as Romero and Foucauld did – giving one’s life very day with the poor.


The quote from Charles de Foucauld is taken from Charles de Foucauld: Writings Selected by Robert Ellbserg, p. 28.

A late diaconal vocation

Ordained a deacon late in life, St. Ephrem the Syrian declined the priesthood and escaped being ordained a bishop by feigning madness.

I like him. God willing, on July 15, I will be ordained a deacon late in life – 69 years old. And I will resist any efforts to being more than a diakonos, a servant.

13434782_1175030119187411_8094246067143087954_nI like Saint Ephrem for other reasons.

He instructed the people in the faith with words but also with songs. He knew the value of music and how it forms us. So he composed a number of hymns that are still used in the Syriac liturgy.

A month before his death he left his cave and went to help the victims of a terrible famine.

He was a diakonos, a servant of the Word, the Altar, and charity. What all deacons should be.

But what I most treasure from Saint Ephrem are his prayers, especially this one which I encountered in 1975.

I had sent a donation to the Catholic Worker and received a thank you card back. On it is written this prayer of St. Ephrem, taken from Helen Waddell’s Desert Fathers:

   Sorrow on me, beloved! that I unapt and reluctant in my will abide, and behold winter hath come upon me and the infinite tempest hath found me naked and spoiled and with no perfecting of good in me. I marvel at myself, O my beloved, how I daily default and daily do repent; I build up for an hour and an hour overthrows what I have builded.
At evening I say, tomorrow, I will repent, but when morning comes, joyous I water the day. Again at evening I say, I shall keep vigil all night and I shall entreat the Lord to have mercy on my sins. But when night is come I am full of sleep.
Behold, those who received their talent along with me, strive by day and night to trade with it, that they may win the word of praise and rule ten cities. But I in my sloth hid mine in the earth and my Lord makes haste to come, and behold my heart trembles and I weep the day of my negligence and know not what excuse to bring. Have mercy upon me, thou who alone are without sin, and save me, who alone art merciful and kind.

I still have that card and occasionally pray this prayer. I keep the card in a book of the Grail translation of the psalter, at Psalm 51, the psalm of repentance.

As I prepare for ordination as a permanent deacon, I think I need to pray this prayer even more. For even though some will say at the ordination day that “He is worthy,” I know that I am in continual need of the mercy of God who alone makes us worthy.

Another blog post on Saint Ephrem, with his Lenten prayer, can be found here.

Image taken from a Facebook post of the Catholic Peace Fellowship.




Deacon and martyr Lawrence

Lawrence, as you know, was a deacon at Rome.
There he distributed the sacred Blood of Christ;
there he shed his own blood for the sake of Christ.
Saint Augustine, Sermon 304

Today the Church celebrates the deacon Lawrence who was martyred in August 258.

As deacon he was in charge of the church’s treasury and the distribution of alms to the poor. According to one story, seeing that the persecution was worsening, Lawrence distributed what he had on hand to the poor and, when more money was needed, he sold some of the church’s goods.

After killing II Pope Sixtus and six other deacons of Rome, the prefect of Rome told him to hand over the church’s goods. Three days later Lawrence assembled the poor, the widows, and the orphans and presented them to the prefect. “”Here is the wealth of the church – the poor.”

The prefect was not happy with this and had Lawrence killed.

Lawrence is for me an example of the deacon who lived out his commitment at the altar by sharing with the poor and by shedding his blood in witness to the Christ who became poor for our sake.

As I contemplate the possibility of being ordained a permanent deacon, I need to keep this in mind.

Am I committed to Christ Jesus who shed his blood for all?

Am I committed to the poor, the suffering face of Christ in this world?

Am I willing to die to myself and, if called upon, give my life for Christ?

For this I pray.

But what helps me to see what this might mean for me today in Central America, I recall the words of Blessed Monseñor Oscar Romero in a reflection on April 1, 1979, on the Gospel which is also used for today’s feast, John 12: 24-26:

“Those who, in the biblical phrase, would save their lives —
that is, those who want to get along,
who don’t want commitments,
who want to stay outside what demands the involvement of all of us —
they will lose their lives.
What a terrible thing to have lived quite comfortably,
with no suffering, not getting involved in problems,
quite tranquil, quite settled,
with good connections — politically, economically, socially —
lacking nothing, having everything.
To what good?
They will lose their lives.
But those who for love of Me uproot themselves
and accompany the poor in their suffering
and become incarnated and feel as their own the pain and the abuse —
they will secure their lives,
because my Father will reward them.”
Brothers and sisters, God’s word calls us to this today.
Let me tell you with all the conviction I can muster:
it is worthwhile to be a Christian.
To each of us Christ is saying:
If you want your life and mission to be fruitful like mine, do as I do.
Be converted into a seed that lets itself be buried.
Let yourself be killed. Do not be afraid.
Those who shun suffering will remain alone.
No one is more alone than the selfish.
But if you give your life out of love for others, as I give mine for all,
you will reap a great harvest.
You will have the deepest satisfaction.
Do not fear death threats; the Lord goes with you.

Ephrem, the mad deacon

[Ephrem] remained a deacon all his life,
and to escape episcopal consecration
he is supposed to have feigned madness.
Joseph N. Tylenda, S.J.

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the Syrian deacon and doctor of the Church, Ephrem.

Ephrem is noted for his many hymns in which he used to teach the faith and to combat heretics, some of whom had written hymns for their cause.

He wrote commentaries on much of scripture and was renowned for his preaching – so much so that he was called the Harp of the Holy Spirit.

Though he lived in a cave outside Edessa, he did not separate himself completely from the world. In fact a few months before he died he organized a major relief effort for famine victims.

In many ways, his service of the Altar with his hymns, his service of the Word with his preaching and commentaries, and his service of Charity with his care for famine victims and others exemplify what a deacon is and what a deacon does.

He did not seek higher “rank” within the Church, finding his service as a deacon – as a servant – was his calling, his vocation.

He wrote a prayer which is used during Lent among the Orthodox and which expresses the spirituality of a servant of God:

O Lord and Master of my Life,
give me not a spirit of sloth, lust for power,
and idle talk.
But give me, your servant,
a spirit of charity, humility, patience, and love.
O Lord and King,
grant me to see my own faults
and not judge another,
for blessed are you forever.

There is not madness in such a prayer – but much wisdom.