A Deacon’s Deacon

The Solemnity of St. Francis of Assisi is just around the corner.  I’m moved to write a few thoughts on it.  What a surprise, right?

Our Holy Father Francis was a man who walked in many shoes.  He was a family man, even though he was never married.  He had parents and siblings and was very close to all of them.  He was a patriot who went off to war to fight for Assisi ending up as a prisoner of war for one year.  Fast forward just a little and we see him living the life of a hermit and a penitent asking God to tell him what to do next.  He was a layman, religious brother and very late in his life, a deacon.  Pope Innocent III approved the order 1209.  Pope Honorius gave the final approval to the Rule in 1223.  It seems that this is when Francis was tonsured.

It’s rare that I meet a deacon who does not remind me that Francis was one of them.  In philosophy we learn that words have meaning.  For the sake of clarity, let’s establish that Francis lived 800 years ago.  Today’s deacon shares in Christ’s Diakonia as Francis did in the 13th century.

Peter said to him, “You shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, youhave no part in me,” (John 13:8).

Simply put, he’s one of their predecessors in the diaconate.  As we approach the feast day of one of the world’s most celebrated deacons, after Stephen the martyr, there are some points that deacons may want to reflect on.

Rev. Brother Francis Bernadone did not limit himself to identifying with the poor, nor did he stop at giving back his father’s name, fortune and future inheritance.  He saw the poverty of Christ at the Last Supper, at Calvary and in the Eucharist.  The God of creationsan franciscon remains with us, out of pure love, fully alive in his glorified body under the appearance of the most basic forms of food, bread and wine.   Christ chose bread and wine in order to remain with all men.  Bread and wine are found in every culture.  In the Eucharist, Francis contemplates the poverty of Christ and he has only one desire, to make Christ’s poverty his bride.  Francis’ place at the altar went beyond performing certain liturgical functions; it was about becoming a poor man as Christ was poor on the altar of Calvary.

Can today’s deacons say the same about themselves?  Can they say that they see Christ’s poverty?  Can they say that they aspire to make Christ’s poverty their own or do they gloss over it, as Francis used to say, by labeling it “spiritual poverty” or “poverty of spirit,”  terms that Francis considered a form of white washing.

Deacon Francis wanted only one thing.  He wanted to reflect perfection.  Thus he spent most of his life trying to become The Mirror of Perfection, that mirror which reflects the perfection of Christ.  He became the reflection of the perfect deacon, Jesus Christ who came to serve, not to be served, Jesus Christ who said,

“Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them,” (John 7:22).

Francis became the servant of the voiceless as was Christ.  Diakonia, in Franciscan tradition, takes its inspiration from Christ who is one with the poor and serves among them.  In Francis’ mind, being a deacon and being a Friar Minor were perfectly compatible as long as the deacon focused on union with the voiceless and in service of the voiceless.

Francis also placed his ministry at the service of his brothers, not above his brothers.  It would seem that the idea of permanent deacons became difficult to fit into the Franciscan tradition when the diaconate became a transitional step toward the priesthood and when deacons themselves assumed a clerical attitude.   Some deacons are readily available and visible for liturgical functions and missing in action among the voiceless and among those who ask for their help with the faith.  Francis was to be found more often serving the sick, teaching the crowds, listening to a young man struggling with the faith, or serving food to the hungry, than he was serving at a liturgy.  That’s probably why we Franciscans don’t remember him as a deacon, but as a brother, teacher and spiritual father.

Those who are deacons of the mysteries of Jesus Christ must please all men in all ways. For they are not deacons of meats and drinks [only] but servants of the church of God (St. Ignatius of Antioch)

It’s difficult to fit St. Francis of Assisi into this contemporary vision of the deacon when we stop to reflect on his final words as he is dying, “My brothers, my brothers.”  This was a deacon who was one with those whom he was called to serve and who refused to die before reminding them that he was their brother and servant.

And whoever shall observe these things may he be filled in heaven with the blessing of the Most High Father and may he be filled on earth with blessing of His Beloved Son together with the Holy Ghost, the Paraclete, and all the Powers of heaven and all the saints. And I, Brother Francis, your little one and servant, in so far as I am able, I confirm to you within and without, this most holy blessing. Amen. (Final Testament).

Published in: on September 25, 2014 at 2:46 AM  Comments (1)  

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. This is a beautiful reflection. My husband is studying to become a deacon, and I’m going to share this with him.

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