Pope Francis on Diakonia

As we continue our journey through Lent and Holy Week, now is a good time to ponder anew the 2014 Lenten message of Pope Francis, in which he focuses our attention on the nature of poverty itself and our response to it.

In the year that has passed since the pope’s election, I have been struck by the profound sense of diaconate which radiates from the Holy Father, especially, during Lent and Holy Week. Some of the first images of the new pope came from his days as archbishop of Buenos Aires as we washed the feet of people on Holy Thursday. Invariably the images showed the cardinal archbishop wearing his stole as a deacon while washing feet. This was clearly a deliberate choice he made: to remove his chasuble and to rearrange his stole diagonally as a deacon wears it. The message is clear: the focus of the act is on the diakonia of pouring oneself out for others as sacramentalized through the washing of feet. Therefore I don’t think it’s coincidental that the pope’s 2014 lenten message was actually signed on the Feast of St. Stephen, Deacon and Proto-Martyr.

The pope cites St. Paul: “He became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich”(2 Cor 8-9), and asks, “What do these words of Saint Paul mean for us Christians today? What does this invitation to poverty, a life of evangelical poverty, mean for us today?” He immediately responds that first this “shows us how God works.” He speaks of how God chose to reveal himself in poverty out of a desire to be close to us, “a love which does not hesitate to offer itself in sacrifice for the beloved.” I was reminded of the words of St. John Paul II, who wrote in his great encyclical Fides et Ratio, when he referred to kenosis as “a grand and mysterious truth for the human mind, which finds it inconceivable that suffering and death can express a love which gives itself and seeks nothing in return” (No. 93).

Pope Francis reminds us that this was a “logic of love,” and that God did not desire salvation to “drop down from heaven”; rather, Christ was among us “to comfort us, to save us, to free us.” He continues, “In imitation of our Master, we Christians are called to confront the poverty of our brothers and sisters, to touch it, to make it our own and to take practical steps to alleviate it. Destitution is not the same as poverty: destitution is poverty without faith, without support, without hope.” The pope lists three types of destitution: material, moral and spiritual; as the clergy of the Church, how might we address each of these?

Material destitution refers to those living without the essentials of human dignity, and the pope observes that “the Church offers her help, her diakonia, in meeting these needs and binding these wounds. . . .” Moral destitution is “slavery to vice and sin.” The pope speaks of those who have lost all hope of finding meaning in life, suffer from addictions, or suffer from lack of “equal access to education and health care.” Spiritual destitution is experienced when people turn away from God and reject his love. Our response as Church?

Wherever we go, we are called as Christians to proclaim the liberating news that forgiveness for sins committed is possible, that God is greater than our sinfulness, that he freely loves us at all times and that we were made for communion and eternal life. The Lord asks us to be joyous heralds of this message of mercy and hope!

As we enter these final days of Lent, may all of us be “ready to bear witness to all those who live in material, moral and spiritual destitution the Gospel message. . . . Lent is a fitting time for self-denial; we would do well to ask ourselves what we can give up in order to help and enrich others by our own poverty. Let us not forget that real poverty hurts: no self-denial is real without this dimension of penance.” We who serve in the image of Christ must ask ourselves if we are truly imitating Christ, “who became poor and enriched us by his poverty.”

Have we emptied ourselves so that others may live?

DEACON DITEWIG, Ph.D., former executive director of the Secretariat for the Diaconate at the USCCB, now teaches and ministers in the Diocese of Monterey, Calif. He writes and consults extensively on the subject of the diaconate and contemporary ministry.