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Permanent Deacons Convention

Basilica of the Assumption, Baltimore

Welcome to the most historic place of worship in the United States! In 1806 the first bishop of the United States, John Carroll, laid the cornerstone for this first Cathedral in our land. The only master architect in the infant United States, Benjamin Henry Latrobe, was then working for President Thomas Jefferson in supervising the design and construction of the first Capitol building in Washington. He heard that Bishop Carroll had in mind the building of a cathedral and he volunteered his services pro bono.

Because the United States had completed the Louisiana Purchase two years earlier and Bishop John Carroll had been named Apostolic Administrator of New Orleans, the cathedral was to serve the Catholics then living in what are today 36 States of the Union! Incidentally, the Diocese of Baltimore, as established in 1789, comprised the thirteen original states and the Northwest Territory, our present Middle West. In 1810 it was divided, and the first bishops of Philadelphia, Boston and Bardstown, Kentucky were ordained here in Baltimore. The first bishop of New York was ordained a bishop in Rome, but never reached his diocese; he fell ill and died in Naples, and the new Bishop of Boston was assigned to shepherd Catholics in New York until another bishop could be sent.

Another bit of history is worth remembering this evening: Maryland was the first place in the English-speaking world to have religious freedom. In 1634, King Charles I of England granted to Lord Baltimore the possibility of such freedom in the new colony, and the colonists enacted in 1639 and in 1649 laws spelling out their freedom, making sure that government would not involve itself in matters of worship or conscience. With the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688, when William of Orange came to the throne, this freedom was to end. The new king dedicated his government to enforcing the anti-Catholic penal laws. He sent a royal governor to Maryland to carry out his orders, and by 1700 every Catholic Church in Maryland was razed to the ground.

The first U. S. Capitol, designed by Benjamin Henry Latrobe, became architecturally the worldwide symbol of political freedom, and this Basilica has been described by Pope John Paul II as, architecturally, the "worldwide symbol of religious freedom." Here were held the famous Councils of Baltimore, which guided the development of the Church in the Nineteenth Century United States. This included the Third Plenary Council, which prescribed Catholic schools for every parish and set in motion the writing of the Baltimore Catechism and the establishment of the Catholic University in Washington.

The readings from the word of God this evening strike me as ideal for a gathering of deacons and their wives. As usual, there is a close link between the first reading, today from the Prophet Isaiah, and the Gospel passage, today from St. Luke. (Is. 66:10-14c) The prophet speaks of a joyous, consoling blessing of God upon his people and upon the city, Jerusalem. For us today this sense of consolation is conditioned and spiritualized in the Gospel reading, as Jesus gives the disciples a specific task. When they return to boast of their success, Jesus tells them of his pleasure — he has seen "Satan fall like lightning from the sky" — but, even more, he urges them to rejoice "because your names are written in heaven."

The task that Jesus gave them was not an easy one. In preparation for this evening I recalled the interventions or speeches given by the bishops at the Second Vatican Council, preparing the way for their vote on the restoration of the permanent diaconate.

The most telling intervention was that of Cardinal Leon Joseph Suenens of Malines-Brussels, Belgium, on October 8, 1963, in the 43rd General Congregation. A great grace in my life was that of participating in the Council, at the direction of my bishop, Bishop George L. Leech of Harrisburg. He asked me to try to be useful to the bishops, especially those from the United States. Then Archbishop, later Cardinal, Krol of Philadelphia, an assistant secretary of the Council, recruited me for a small committee to record and summarize in English the talks given in the Council hall, which was St. Peter’s Basilica. I recall vividly Cardinal Suenens’ speaking on that day. He insisted that the Church ought to use the gifts of the Holy Spirit given to her by the Lord, and that one of these was the sacred order of the diaconate, so intimately related in history to service to the bishop, especially at the altar in the proclamation of the Gospel and in the distribution of the Eucharist, as well as in service to the poor.

Cardinal Suenens contended that, with a decision on the diaconate put in place, the Church can show that she wants to act in a fully missionary way, by varying her application of the sacramental restoration according to the needs of the various regions, always keeping in mind the limits shown us by the Acts of the Apostles in the light of Tradition.

In fact, Cardinal Suenens said, the Council should not make a general rule on the necessity of restoring the permanent diaconate. Rather, the matter should be left up to the judgment of local bishops. Where they would see a need for this sacrament, let it be re-established. Such a need would come, he foresaw, where Christians live in small communities, isolated and scattered over great areas, or in minority situations among other faiths, or in the midst of political oppression, or in the case where people feel lost in the crush of great and exploding populations, as in the large cities. In this way, the sacramental ministry of the Church could touch the lives of many more people.

Cardinal Suenens recalled the New Testament writings on deacons, what the Apostolic Fathers had said, and the constant tradition in both East and West, demonstrating that the diaconate was a Holy Order standing by itself, and not merely a step along the way to the Priesthood. He described the specific functions of deacons as particular helpers to the Bishop, providing assistance to the poor and preparing the community for the Eucharist. He showed how this helped the community to become "Church." Thus the function was essentially a holy one and it should be established through the graces conferred by a sacrament.

When the decisive final vote came, it was in the context of support for the Conciliar Constitution entitled Lumen gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Nature of the Church. This was adopted by the Council on November 21, 1964, by 2,151 votes to five.

In the gospel passage Jesus sends the disciples on a diaconal mission, not an easy one. They are to go in poverty and simplicity, bestowing their peace only upon those who would accept it. The reading from the Letter to the Galatians, in which the Apostle Paul reflects upon the indispensable role of the cross in his life, is also instructive. When we find the cross — disappointments, frustrations, misunderstandings — we must see Jesus suffering for us and with us in the situation. This relationship to him will be a source of strength and a dimension of prayer in difficult moments and will help us to find his unfailing gift of peace.

Now we meet the Lord in the holy Eucharist, grateful for the Sacrament which now means so much for so many. In my judgment, the restoration of the permanent diaconate is one of the great gifts the Second Vatican Council has given to the life of the Church. Together we now give thanks for that enormous gift and grace. We affirm our gratitude in this Eucharist, uniting ourselves with the great High Priest, in his suffering, death and rising under signs of bread and wine.