Vatican Hosts Jubilee Celebration for Deacons

The Vatican recently hosted a Jubilee Year celebration for permanent deacons in Rome. Deacon Thomas Bello from St. James Parish in Falls Church was among those who attended the event. His report follows. "Dearest deacons gathered here from every part of the world, welcome to the house of our Holy Mother. How to better start the Jubilee days than with the Blessed Virgin?" So did the Great Jubilee of Permanent Deacons open with the greeting of Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, prefect of the Congregation of the Clergy, at the Patriarchal Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore. Reportedly, it was on this spot on the top of the Esquiline on Aug. 5, 356, that the Virgin Mary, by a shower of snow, showed Pope Liberius where to build the church. Pope St. Sixtus III (432-440) built the church immediately after the doctrine of the maternity of Mary as the "Theotokos," the Mother of God, had been promulgated at the Council of Ephesus in 431. Here a church full of deacons and their wives gathered with the cardinal to listen to his welcoming address, to recite the Rosary with meditations, followed by Eucharistic Adoration and Benediction, all under the splendid fifth-century mosaics lighted above us. In his address, the cardinal stressed the essential elements of what it means to be a deacon. First, the deaconship is "a specific sacramental sign of Christ the servant." The following morning, the deacons and their wives gathered in the Paul VI Audience Hall in the shadows of St. Peter's Basilica. There they joined in Mass celebrated by Bishop Zenon Grocholewski, prefect of the Congregation for Catholic Education. They listened to a talk about St. Lawrence the Deacon by Father Francesco Moraglia, prayed Mid-morning Prayer with Cardinal Pio Laghi and had a noon audience with the Holy Father. In his homily, Bishop Grocholewski urged all deacons to "intensify your efforts to achieve the purpose of the Great Jubilee: the profound conversion of your hearts and the strengthening of your Christian life and your apostolate." Faith, he asserted, was the key toward this conversion and strengthening. Father Moraglia called deacons to a life of consecrated service in imitation of St. Lawrence, Deacon and Martyr. Like Lawrence, who with three other deacons followed their Pope, Pope St. Sixtus II, to martyrdom during the persecutions of Valerian in 258, we are called in a spirit of service, a spirit of obedience. The highlight of the morning was the audience with Pope John Paul II. The Holy Father entered slowly, but under his own power. He stopped several times to wave at us during our standing ovation. Sitting down, he addressed us, saying, "I especially greet you, dear permanent deacons, your families and everyone who has accompanied you on this pilgrimage to the tombs of the Apostles. You have come to Rome to celebrate your Jubilee: I welcome you with affection! This is an excellent occasion to reflect on the meaning and value of your permanent and not transitory identity as those ordained, not for the priesthood, but for the diaconate." The pope reminded us that "as ministers of God's People," deacons are called to work in liturgical service, in teaching and catechesis, and in the service of charity in communion with the bishop and the presbyterate. "And this extraordinary year of grace, which is the Jubilee, aims at helping you grasp even more radically the beauty of life in Christ. Life in the One who is the Holy Door!" He urged the deacons to be active apostles of the new evangelization and to lead everyone to Christ. Finally, the Holy Father reiterated his solidarity with deacons, saying, "I accompany you with my prayer, strengthened by a special Apostolic Blessing, which I cordially impart to you, to your wives, to your children and to all the deacons who serve the Gospel in every part of the world." In the afternoon, we attended a Conference for Permanent Deacons attended by Cardinal Castrillon Hoyos and presented by Archbishop Roberto O. Gonz?lez Nieves, O.F.M., of San Juan de Puerto Rico. At the same time, deacons' wives and their families gathered nearby at the Church of Santo Spirito in Sassia for a presentation on "The ideal family of the Permanent Deacon," presented by Cardinal Francis Stafford, president of the Pontifical Council for the Laity. The deacons knew that the archbishop's presentation was the intellectual heart of our Great Jubilee, just as the audience with the Holy Father had been the emotional heart. We thanked Archbishop Gonzalez with a long applause. Cardinal Castrillon Hoyos also praised the archbishop for his insights, specifically mentioning the emphasis on deacons as new "Gabriels," proclaiming the Good News of Salvation, on deacons as missionaries and on the need for deacons to avoid a reduction to social action. Deacons are in ministry, not business; serving, not presiding. Five deacons from Austria, Brazil, France, Italy and the United States then gave personal testimonies to their diaconal experiences. At 6 p.m. as the sun went down and the lights of St. Peter's came on, the deacons joined their families at the obelisk in St. Peter's Square. I cannot describe how excited I felt after the cardinal's stirring words that seemed to sum up a long day of Mass and prayer and conference and audience with the Holy Father. I cannot describe how it felt to be standing there with deacons from all over the world to enter the Holy Door of St. Peter's. So please forgive this one personal aside. When I was a boy of seven or eight, I had a dream or vision of Jesus high above holding His Cross and gesturing to me to follow Him. That image left an indelible impression, but I never could figure out what it meant. How was I to follow Jesus? Was I to be a priest? I was growing up in Raleigh, N.C., where you could have fired a cannon in any direction and never hit a Catholic. I went to my mother who was not a Catholic and shared my dream, and she dismissed it, and there the matter stayed: unforgotten and unanswered. As I walked with my brother deacons and their wives and children up the central steps outside St. Peter's, I felt something or someone tell me to look up. I did and there lighted against the twilight sky above St. Peter's was exactly the vision of Jesus that I had seen as a boy. It was the great statue of Jesus holding His Cross in the center of the facade at St. Peter's. In the flickering light His free hand seemed to repeat exactly the gesture I had seen before, a gesture to follow Him, yes, with the Cross, but to follow Him to Heaven. For one of the few times in my life, I actually felt I was doing with my life what my Lord wanted me to do. That's how special the moment was. I took a photograph so that I wouldn't forget. I cried. People looked at me. I took another silly photograph. I followed my brother deacons through the Holy Door. There, in the center of St. Peter's, around the central altar, above the bones of St. Peter himself, with deacons from around the world, I renewed with such joy the commitments I had made at my ordination on May 23, 1987.

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© Arlington Catholic Herald 2000