‘Today This Scripture Has Been Fulfilled in Your Hearing’
A deacon’s call is to live the Gospel that he proclaims
There are times when a Scripture is unmistakably meant for you. In the second year of my diaconal ministry, I came to understand this in a new and profound way. The occasion was a Mass for Catholic school principals in the Archdiocese of Chicago. As a deacon who also happened to be a principal, I was often asked to serve as deacon of the Word at these Masses. It was a special gift and honor, and I was always happy to do so.
This particular time would be different, however. In the weeks leading up to the Mass, I was discerning whether or not to return for a third year as principal. I did not take this decision lightly. There were many stakeholders at my school for whom I felt a special responsibility. I risked letting down many people. I feared my decision would be second-guessed and misunderstood. Yet after prayerful discernment over several months, I could sense that the Holy Spirit had other plans for me.
The last time I faced a decision like this, I was in my late 30s. At the time, I was enjoying a successful teaching career. A new opportunity to go into curriculum work would mean leaving the classroom. I knew how difficult it would be to leave a job I loved. I would especially miss the special bonds with students and their families. I still remember the sound of one student’s voice calling out to me across the school parking lot, “Don’t leave!” I did leave the classroom, not knowing at the time if I had made the right decision. At the same time, I felt that part of me was dying.
I reflected on that decision a decade later in a chapter I wrote for my doctoral dissertation that studied factors influencing student career trajectories. I introduced one chapter with a verse from the Gospel of John: “… unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit” (12:24).
Indeed, as I reflected in that autobiographical chapter, my new career trajectory had allowed me to work for the good of schools in ways I could not have previously imagined as a classroom teacher.
A Call to Something Else
In the winter of 2020, I found myself in a similar quandary. This time, however, as the leader of a school, the stakes seemed higher. I had invested myself completely in the success of the school and much had been accomplished. Yet there seemed much more yet to be done. Still, I sensed that God was calling me to let go of my principalship for something else he had in store for me. Just one week before the Mass with archdiocesan school leaders, I had tendered my letter of resignation. I would not return for a third year as principal. The Holy Spirit was calling me to something else. Like the grain of wheat, it was time to die once more.
When the day we would gather for Mass had arrived, I felt more than a little anxious. I knew I would be proclaiming the Gospel before my school leadership peers. Among them would be those who had learned of my decision to leave my position as principal. What might they be thinking? In what ways will they misunderstand? Those thoughts notwithstanding, I had faithfully prepared the Gospel of the day as I would for any Mass. Shortly before the beginning of Mass, one of the liturgy planners rushed over to give me a copy of the Gospel reading. It wasn’t what I had prepared or expected.
In the fourth chapter of the Gospel of Luke, Jesus similarly takes the sacred text handed to him. Those in Nazareth gathered in the synagogue that day knew him only as Jesus, son of Joseph, the carpenter. Reading from the prophet Isaiah, he proclaims these words: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, / because he has anointed me / to bring glad tidings to the poor. / He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives / and recovery of sight to the blind, / to let the oppressed go free, / and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord” (Lk 4:18-19; cf. Is 61:1-2). All eyes fixed on him, Jesus then delivers the shortest “homily” of his public ministry: “Today this scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing” (Lk 4:21). A Scripture made to order for the moment at hand.
The Gospel given to me to proclaim that day was not the Gospel of the day. Rather, the liturgy planners had preselected a different passage for this special Mass: John 12:24-26. At that moment, I thanked the Holy Spirit for the special grace given to me to proclaim boldly those same words: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit.”
I came to realize that the Gospel I had just proclaimed to my peers was the very Gospel I was being called to live before my peers. This Gospel was being fulfilled in their hearing.
In his Letter to the Philippians, St. Paul reminds us that Christ “humbled himself / becoming obedient to death, / even death on a cross” (2:8). In his humility, Our Lord also became the servant of sacred Scripture so that he might also bring it to fulfillment: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” (Mt 5:17).
From the moment of his ordination, a deacon is configured to Christ, the servant. He is, therefore, uniquely called to bring to fulfillment the Gospel he proclaims at every Mass. In my second year as a deacon, I became more deeply aware of the grace given to me to live the Gospel I was called to proclaim. It is how I am continually called into being a servant of the Word.
Deacon Anthony Clishem serves as a permanent deacon at Christ the King Church in Lombard, Illinois.
Pope St. John Paul II’s call for a life of holiness
Pope St. John Paul II spoke of the deacon’s role to function in a Gospel perspective:
“Here is the source of diaconal spirituality, which is rooted in what the Second Vatican Council calls the ‘sacramental grace of the diaconate’ (Ad gentes, No. 16). In addition to being a valuable help in carrying out various tasks, it deeply affects the deacon’s heart, spurring him to offer, to give his whole self to serving the kingdom of God in the Church. As the very word ‘diaconate’ indicates, what characterizes the interior mind and will of the one who receives the sacrament is the spirit of service. In the diaconate an effort is made to carry out what Jesus stated about his mission: ‘The Son of Man has not come to be served but to serve — to give his life in ransom for many’ (Mk 10:45; Mt 20:28).
“Doubtless Jesus addressed these words to the Twelve whom he chose for the priesthood, to make them understand that, although endowed with authority conferred by him, they should act as he did, as servants. The advice applies, then, to all ministers of Christ; however, it has particular meaning for deacons, for whom the stress is placed explicitly on this service by virtue of their ordination. Although they do not exercise the pastoral authority of priests, in carrying out all their functions their particular aim is to show an intention to serve. If their ministry is consistent with this spirit, they shed greater light on that identifying feature of Christ’s face: service. They are not only ‘servants of God,’ but also of their brothers and sisters.” — General Audience, Oct. 22, 1993