By NICHOLE GOLDEN, Staff Writer | Published May 1, 2014
ATLANTA—Speaking to a national convention of permanent diaconate directors in Atlanta, Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory said that priests and deacons may think it’s a modern problem to feel “utterly overwhelmed” in the ministry and all it entails.
“Haven’t we read Paul?” asked the archbishop, reflecting upon the apostle’s struggles in preaching the word of God in faraway places to diverse people.
Archbishop Gregory was a keynote speaker at the April 23-25 convention of the National Association of Diaconate Directors. The convention theme was “Preaching the Word of God.” Two hundred deacons and their wives celebrated the first days of Easter in Atlanta at the convention.
In keeping with the theme of preaching God’s word, Archbishop Gregory spoke about how daunting it can be to put one’s heart onto paper.
“Our words are always limited,” said the archbishop. “We who dare to preach must always attempt to be poets, artists, and mystics.”
Catholics, noted the archbishop, are “increasingly demanding better homilies.”
Archbishop Gregory told the deacons that a homily should not simply be information, can be clever, may at times make the listeners uncomfortable, but should never bore the listener.
“Preaching is an indispensable component of the church’s worship,” said the archbishop.
The homily is not a “commercial pause” between parts of the Mass, but a bridge, he said.
Deacons and priests should begin the process of a homily with prayer.
“Every good homily always begins on your knees,” said Archbishop Gregory. “Then you should return to the word of God.”
It is then that the homilist should reflect on what the Lord is saying to them and to others, said Archbishop Gregory. What is God saying to the young mother whose husband is terminally ill or the elderly couple facing the aches and pains of aging? The word must be “superimposed onto the lives of our people” so that it may liberate them.
“The homilist is not playing to the crowd,” emphasized the archbishop. He added that the preacher must bridge the “vast chasm” between what is now and what will be. The worst thing a homilist can do is to make the homily about himself instead of God.
The archbishop drew upon the words of Pope Francis in his 2013 apostolic exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel” (“Evangelii Gaudium”), where the pope said more time must be devoted to creating homilies.
“Trust in the Holy Spirit who is at work during the homily is not merely passive but active and creative. It demands that we offer ourselves and all our abilities as instruments which God can use,” wrote Pope Francis.
“There is a conspicuous hunger for the word of God,” said the archbishop.
‘Know nothing except Jesus Christ’
Sometimes one is preaching to groups whose makeup is culturally or ethnically different. Archbishop Gregory spoke extensively about considering what’s universal among humans including work, family life, alienation, reconciliation and death.
Having a different ethnic background doesn’t make one automatically exotic, and Archbishop Gregory said it’s incorrect to assume that the yearnings of others are not as complex or nuanced as one’s own.
He used his own personal example of speaking to Vietnamese parishes and being unable to “grasp in full measure” the parishioners’ sense of displacement, the French Catholic influence in their worship, or what it was like to live as minority Christians in a largely Buddhist homeland.
“There is more to this encounter,” said the archbishop as he turned to Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians: “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. I came to you in weakness and fear and much trembling, and my message and my proclamation were not with persuasive (words of) wisdom,but with a demonstration of spirit and power,so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.”
In conclusion, Archbishop Gregory said, “None of us preachers can fail to learn what Paul learned.”
For Deacon Steve Miller and Deacon Bill Reid of the Diocese of Lafayette, Ind., it was their first chance to hear Archbishop Gregory in person, and they hope to share his call with their fellow deacons.
“He’s a powerful speaker,” said Deacon Reid.
“His spirituality comes through. That’s why the charge is so moving,” said Deacon Miller, director of permanent deacons’ formation for the diocese.
With 63 parishes and 100,000 registered Catholics, the Lafayette Diocese currently has 21 deacons and seven in formation, said Deacon Miller.
“The diaconate is fairly new there,” added Deacon Reid, coordinator of vocations and pastoral field education for the permanent diaconate.
The diaconate directors’ conference, held at the Hyatt Regency hotel, opened with Mass and morning prayer at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in Atlanta.
Archbishop Gregory and Bishop Michael F. Burbidge of Raleigh, N.C., chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations, concelebrated the Mass.
Other conference presentations included “A Church for the Poor: Preaching and the Ministry of Deacon” by Father David Garcia of Catholic Relief Services and the Archdiocese of San Antonio, Texas, and “Fans or Followers: How Your Preaching Can Make the Difference” by Catholic apologist and Scripture teacher, Jeff Cavins. Marian Monahan, the wife of Atlanta Deacon Bill Monahan, spoke to deacons’ wives on how marriage enriches a deacon’s ministry. She is a retreat leader in the Atlanta Archdiocese, which has approximately 245 active permanent deacons.
Deacon Gerald DuPont, the outgoing chairman of the National Association of Diaconate Directors, gave a report on his perspective over the last 15 years citing key accomplishments, including the creation of the National Directory Institute.
The institute “has helped many of our dioceses to train (permanent diaconate) directors, associate directors and teams in the vision of the National Directory, even though it may not yet have been possible to implement that vision in its entirety,” said Deacon DuPont.
The National Directory, approved by the U.S. bishops in 2003, outlines recommended practices for the formation, ministry and life of permanent deacons in the United States.
Deacon DuPont noted the significant growth of the diaconate in America. As of 2013, there were 18,121 permanent deacons in the United States, and he said “by 2025 the number of deacons will approximately equal the number of priests in this country.”
The National Association of Diaconate Directors, created 43 years ago, supports member Roman Catholic dioceses and Eastern Catholic eparchies in the U.S. and Canada with forming and sustaining men as ordained deacons in the threefold ministerial service of “word, liturgy and charity.”
A special celebration is being planned for 2018, the 50th anniversary of the restoration of the diaconate in the United States.