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Serving the Suffering Church: Disconnection from Those We Serve

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Deacon Dominic CerratoI don’t know about you, but the effects of the novel coronavirus have got me feeling a bit disconnected from those I serve in my diaconate. The measures taken by many dioceses around the country and, indeed, around the world, have suspended all Masses, along with the traditional Lenten devotions and even the upcoming Triduum celebration. They have reduced ministry to the homebound, hospitals, nursing homes and prisons. Likewise, we’ve had to rethink the ways in which we exercise social ministry while, at the same time, maintaining social distancing. It feels as though the world, as we knew it, has radically changed in the period of a few short weeks.

This is true for all, but it’s particularly true for deacons who exercise our ministry through sacred ecclesial service. We’re used to doing something, and that something, for many, is not possible under the current limitations. Assisting at Mass is out of the question, as well as visiting the sick. The programs and ministry that we minister are all shut down, and the people we serve are, for lack of a better term, spiritually stranded. This morning, I checked in with my pastor to see if I could do something, anything. While grateful for my offer, he informed me just to enjoy the time off.

If you’re anything like me, it’s hard to relax, especially when the world and my community is in crisis. It’s a crisis of epic proportions with both physical and spiritual needs, and here I am, a deacon of the Church, just sitting at my desk and pecking at my keyboard. Yet, it’s times like these that God reminds me that, what seems to be nothing, is actually something. Being helpless in difficult situations means letting go and letting God. It means recognizing our utter dependence on him and discovering new and creative ways of serving through the Holy Spirit.

As St. Paul learned, no doubt the hard way, “I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12:10).

Beyond the temporary limitations imposed on us from the government and our dioceses, if we are to exercise ministry in this crisis, we must source our diaconate in Christ the Servant. We must seek him above all else, and be assured that this moment, as difficult as it is, possesses a unique grace. God has provided, from the very foundations of time, all that we need to be effective deacons — even now — especially now.

Really grasping this fundamental truth means that we shouldn’t simply focus on what we can’t do, on the ministry we can’t provide, but instead on what we can do, on what we can provide. We need to reject the kind of complacency that can result from our inactivity and, with grace, bring Christ anew to the people we serve. Now is our time. Now is our moment. Let us, as an order devoted to Christ the Servant, witness to him by serving those most in need of his love.

It’s impossible for me to list the many ways in which we can exercise our diaconate during this crisis. Individual deacons with individual situations can best discern what and how to serve within their parishes and dioceses. However, common to all deacons, and to all situations, is prayer, deep prayer, lots of prayer. If, as I said above, we must source our ministry in Christ the Servant, the one to whom we were configured on the day of our ordination, then we must turn to him in a way that reflects our helplessness and the gravity of our circumstances.

It is precisely in prayer, and the thoughtful meditation that follows, that we hear God’s voice, know his will and exercise his diaconal ministry through our eyes, our ears, our hands. For many, perhaps even most, this will mean following the example of Mary, sitting at the foot of the cross prayerfully awaiting the Resurrection. She too was, by all outward appearances, helpless. Yet, appearances can be deceiving. Her tears, her soft voice, her sweet gaze gave to our Savior what he needed at a time he needed it. By apparently doing nothing, she was doing everything she could at great personal sacrifice, a sacrifice she deemed as nothing compared to the sacrifice she witnessed in her Son’s agony.

My brothers, in this time of crisis, let us rise to the dignity of our sacred office. Let us turn to our Lord following the example of the Blessed Virgin Mary and, in doing so, exercise our diaconate effectively to those in great need. Now is our time. Now is our moment.

DEACON DOMINIC CERRATO, Ph.D., is editor of The Deacon and the director of diaconal formation for the Diocese of Joliet, Illinois. He is the founder of Diaconal Ministries, where he gives national presentations and retreats to deacons and diaconal candidates. Follow him on Facebook to continue the conversation.

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