The Deacon as an Agent of Social Change

My assignment, “The Deacon as an Agent of Change in the Community,” is a daunting one, to say the least.* I tried to refuse the great honor of tackling this topic, suggesting some better qualified people to speak to the dynamics of social change, informed by Catholic Social Teaching. One of several liabilities I bring to this task is that not only am I not a deacon myself, but the theology and practice of the diaconate are simply not something I’ve studied or thought about much. I do bring an interest in questions of faith and culture and the way they interact in the Church’s pastoral ministry, especially preaching. But I don’t have a deep, on-the-ground knowledge of the ecology of the city, urban sociology, or the practicalities of social change.

Moreover, I’m very aware that I speak as an outsider to this community, a community which appears to be passing through a kind of anguish at this historical moment over events in Ferguson. But perhaps this limitation in speaking here today can also be a different kind of asset. As someone from the outside, I cannot tell you what it means to be a deacon as an agent of social change in St. Louis. That is work you alone can do. At most I can offer some thoughts that could, I hope, be modestly helpful to your task. And I can use this moment to convey that the pain and the upheaval and division of your community, made so public in the media, have not gone unnoticed. You are not alone. In the tragic events which have unfolded in Ferguson, in Baltimore, and elsewhere, many of us recognize issues and sad divisions in our society which we all face. Even in my small city of South Bend this is true. Our police chief has just stepped down, and among the likely reasons for that is a perception that the police department is aloof from people, and especially from the Black and Latino communities. The media calls it a time of tension between these communities and law enforcement. In truth, I suspect the tension has been there all along; most of us just weren’t paying attention.

So what I’m prepared to do in the next 75 minutes is offer you three meditations for your own reflection and conversation with one another. These are no more than three sets of things that I would be thinking about, if I were in your shoes. The first is the longest, and the others build on that. And then I’ll close with a brief final reflection on Pope Francis’ recent visit to our country and how some of the things he is doing and saying might help to point the way for us. My mode here will be more akin to a retreat than a classroom, so I invite you into what I hope will be a prayerful, reflective space in this short time together.

Meditation #1: Time to do some fresh listening.

I begin with a reminder that should be familiar enough, for it comes from Fulfilled in Your Hearing but has been reiterated in every major document touching on preaching, as well as numerous times by Pope Francis: “The preacher will have to be a listener before he is a speaker.”[1] You know this. The listening envisioned here is in two directions. For one, we must listen long and hard to the Scriptures, and to the liturgy from which those Scriptures are practically inseparable, and to our rich tradition of trying in every age and circumstance to hear what God has to say to us, a Word which is both old and enduring, yet fresh and new. Our Catholic homiletic tradition insists that the Word we seek is nothing less than a living Word from a living God spoken to a living people traversing history. At a moment like this, when we are in pain and confused about how to move forward, what we need is not a merely archival Word, but to hear what God has to say to us about this moment. So the listening we need means the hard and collaborative work of discernment, what Vatican II called “reading the signs of the times” (Gaudium et Spes, §4). We are not the first generation to face an environment of polarization or a social situation stressed by injustice. The Scriptures, thinking especially of the prophets, have much to teach us about how our forebears faced these challenges, or failed to face them.

But this listening is inseparable from a second listening: listening to our community. It would be easy to flinch in the face of this task, for many of the voices we hear arising from the streets of our city are angry or sullen or shrill or pained. If we decide beforehand that only those who are rational or who play fair have a right to a hearing from us, we are making a decision God himself has rejected, and consequently our God is too small. The Bible has an undeniable bias toward those who are poor, marginalized, or suffer any injustice. To the Israelites under Pharaoh’s thumb, God did not say, “Hey, you guys, first calm down, dial down your rhetoric, and cool off. After all, you could do a lot worse than Egypt, you know.” No, his response was, “I have heard the cry of my people, and I intend to do something about it.”

The kind of listening I’m suggesting here will be long, hard, and difficult. It will require discipline and courage. Much of it, unfortunately, will come in and through an atmosphere of conflict. Each August when I face a new crop of preaching students, one of the things I say to them is, “I know next to nothing about you as a group. What I do know is that if there are divisions or tensions among you, those are likely to show themselves in a class like this one. Don’t ignore those: find ways to work on those issues as a group. We can expect and welcome diversity of opinion and even conflict. Remember, conflict is our friend.” It’s interesting to watch their reactions. Some will look puzzled or even put off at the thought of conflict. Up to this point, through their first year together in the program, most of them have gotten along reasonably well, and the thought of breaking their supposed harmony shocks or grieves them. A few others will shoot knowing glances to other classmates. This tells me either that they have talked about such tension among them with someone else, or that they have some unspoken resentments already and they want to be sure that other person is listening. Most will shift uncomfortably in their chair momentarily, but try to remain open and begin to rise to the challenge.

If we decide beforehand that only those who are rational or who play fair have a right to a hearing from us, we are making a decision God himself has rejected, and consequently our God is too small.

Now I happen to believe this—conflict is our friend—though I struggle to put this faith into practice. Why? I’m conflict averse. I don’t like it. I have met a few people in my life who actually seem to thrive on conflict, but I’m not one of them, and frankly, not many of those kinds of people find their way into ministry. Most people drawn into ministry are sensitive and nice; they are polite, basically unselfish and agreeable, and they value teamwork. Well and good, but often we have a blind spot when it comes to divergences of experience and perspective, and we can become paralyzed when things turn conflictual.

Conflict is our friend. It may be a rude, unpleasant friend, but it does us an important service. It presents us with an opportunity for personal and communal growth. It tells us that something of value is on the table, something worth caring about. Groups and communities, as we know, must go through conflicts to break through to new levels of intimacy and trust. The further good news is that good skills for facing conflict and resolving it can be learned. And the goals of reconciliation and real community are urged on us by Jesus himself, our model of faithfulness both to God and to us amid horrible conflict.

If we are going to be disciplined and unselfish listeners, we are going to have to enter conflictual situations and listen carefully to all sides. And more: we are going to have to listen for what is not being said directly. Behind the angry voices, the screaming, the accusations, the apparent unwillingness to budge or compromise or work together, are things we need to hear: pent-up grievances, experiences of being ignored or put down or mistreated, and most of all, distrust. The immediate issues at hand are not always the deeper and real issues. Careful listening can be one of the most unselfish acts we perform; indeed it can be an act of a kind of martyrdom. But that means it is bloody work, it hurts, it’s inconvenient, and it’s unfair. In other words, it should be the kind of work that Christians specialize in.

A couple of concrete examples may help. The annual Marten Lecture in Preaching was given at Notre Dame this past February by Rev. Frank A. Thomas, one of the foremost Black Christian preachers and homileticians in our country today. Frank teaches at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis. I commend his work to you as one of the sources deserving of a hearing. Frank’s lecture on that evening was entitled “Keepin’ It Real: Preaching, Jay-Z, and Hip Hop Poetics.”[2] It was a fantastic talk, in my opinion, and for the most part, it was very warmly received by the overwhelmingly White audience of students and faculty. But there were uncomfortable moments. “Keepin’ It Real” included Frank giving anguished voice to what it means in our society to be a Black man, including the fund of negative experience lying behind the cry, “Black lives matter.” Frank urged us to listen to the searing and provocative lyrics of Jay-Z, a hip hop artist whose work can, at first hearing (and maybe second and third hearing), sound like angry, f-bomb studded rantings. But something is being said here. It is uncomfortable to listen to this. But it is a voice from the depths of human despair, and such voices have a claim on us, no matter how ill-mannered. Jay-Z’s lyrics remind me of a haunting line from my youth, from Simon and Garfunkel:

The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls
And tenement halls
And whispered in the sounds of silence.

Before I leave this subject of listening, let me offer one simple fact for your consideration as a kind of first listening, and a reason to listen further. It is, I believe, one of the most salient bits of reality concerning our society today. It is simply this: one out of three Black men in this country is either incarcerated, or has been, or will be in their lifetime.[4] One out of every three. The comparable figure for White men? One out of seventeen. Lay aside for the moment, if you will, the important question of whether the justice system is itself biased against Blacks, Latinos, other minorities. Try to simply wrap your head around what that figure means for a community, the phenomenal social dislocations it indicates. And ask yourself this: if that fact characterized my community, what would happen? If that were true in my parish, my part of town, my suburb or neighborhood, what do you think people would do? I don’t know the precise answer, but I think I’m safe in saying that people would be up in arms. I think there would be such pain and such fear in the community that people would cast off civility and be beating down the doors of political, civic, and church leaders demanding answers and pleading for help. Put that figure together with what we know about chronic unemployment and the scourge of the drug trade preying on those same neighborhoods. There are no simple answers here, I know. But, friends, no community can endure this level of disruption without complaint and protest. We have to listen and see what is going on, seek real understanding of a situation so foreign to most of us, and begin to ask questions about what to do about it.

In short, we need some new conversation partners. The voices of social stress are there, if we are willing to hear them. If we don’t know where to find them, there are some intermediaries who can help us. Some of them are in this room, I’m sure. I’m also thinking especially of the legions of overworked, under-appreciated, underpaid people who serve as social workers, mental health professionals, parole officers, medical personnel, and teachers. Some of the most idealistic and selfless people in the workforce today populate their ranks, and a good many of them toil almost unnoticed on our behalf in Catholic agencies and schools in our cities. What might they have to tell us? I think they can help us understand what is going on, and help us build the mutual relationships where real listening can take place.

Catholic Christians could lead the way here. You deacons are uniquely situated to help the Church be a listening ear to the pain, frustration, and confusion in some of our communities. But that is a segue into my next section.

Meditation #2: We all speak from someplace (and it’s a good thing, too).

We all know the story in Acts from which the diaconate takes its original inspiration. The job of tending to those in need was felt to be so important that Stephen and others were deputized just for that purpose. This also allowed others to specialize in the preaching and evangelizing mission. But the assumption remained that these go together like the right hand and the left hand in the community’s mission to be the Body of Christ in the world. As deacons, it seems to me, you are the Church’s most public and visible signs of its response to the call to charity, especially toward the poor, the sick or disabled, and those whom society zooms past forgetfully on the roadside. The contemporary diaconate seems to function in somewhat different ways in different places and among different communities. But my impression is that here in St. Louis this is exactly the sort of thing that many of you do. If I’m right, then it puts you in a rather unique position to be the Church’s listening ear to the social troubles around us.

[caption id="attachment_1835" align="alignright" width="441"] Photo: Catholic Diocese of Saginaw; CC BY-ND 2.0.[/caption]

A word about charity before I go further. Sadly, many of us still labor under an unfortunate misconception about the Bible. The popular notion is that the Old Testament is about law and justice, while Jesus is about love. But the popular notion is impoverished on both counts. It’s true that the Mosaic Law, expressing a Covenant between God and Israel, is absolutely central to the Hebrew Bible. But that Covenant was seen as a relationship of great intimacy and tender care. Again and again the prophets called the people to much more than mere external obedience to the Law’s precepts. The Covenant community was to mirror God’s compassionate ear and concern for justice in every aspect of its social life. But the deeper aim was always formation of the heart. The goal of the Law was always love. Standing squarely in that tradition, Jesus saw this connection with great clarity and expressed it more than once in succinct and memorable ways, but he was not saying something radically new; he was saying something the prophets before him had reiterated time and again. The unfortunate Christian caricature of the Jewish faith limits our vision at moments like the one we share. But that constricted vision also truncates our understanding of the New Testament and reduces the scope of Christian mission. So passionate is the Bible’s interest in justice, both external and internal, that it can be fulfilled only in love. The work you do, leading the community’s ministries of charity, thus necessarily includes concern for social justice. If we see people in dire straits, we help them, and we ask why this sort of thing happens. Asking the difficult why questions is the further loving thing to do.

But if your placement at the forefront of tending to the needy positions you uniquely to listen, it also positions you uniquely to speak. And speak you must, and not only in the worshipping assembly, of course, but to raise your voice in love at community meetings, in the media, on street corners, if need be. Every preacher or social agent speaks from someplace, consciously or not. And that someplace is at least partly a matter of choice. We choose where and with whom to stand, whose concerns and life realities we embrace and speak to. The limitations of our own backgrounds and life experience—and we all have them—are not destiny. We can and must be more conscious and intentional about where we stand, our angle of vision and what it brings into view. The Bible itself, Church documents, and now very powerfully Pope Francis, urge us strongly to privilege the viewpoint of the anawim, the “little ones,” all the poor and needy and voiceless of our community. Our lives are interconnected with theirs, interwoven in a bond we dare not ignore, at the risk of ignoring the presence of Christ himself. This, I believe, is the deepest message of last Sunday’s[5] shocking Gospel text (Mk 9:38–43, 45, 47–48), in which Jesus rebukes his disciples for being too territorial, as it were, and follows with a series of vividly expressed comments about our effects on one another. Our lives our connected with all others, and especially with the “little ones.”

People are desperately hungry for a glimpse of the bigger picture of what God is doing . . . We need preachers who will raise people’s sights from the daily grind and the troubles of the moment to a horizon filled with possibility precisely because God is that big and that faithful.

We have a lot of problems today in Catholic preaching—nearly everyone agrees on that. But I’m more and more convinced that one of them is this: clergy take the ecclesiastical license to preach from their ordination, but do not actively seek to earn the right to be heard, or they fail to use that earned authority when given. Effective preaching always rests on a volatile fusion of formal or institutional authority and informal or personal authority. Your work of charity—if done well and unselfishly and in a way that invites others to join, and if it flows from those qualities of character that people instantly recognize as authentic, deep, and wise—earns you credibility in people’s eyes and the right to a kind of hearing that is unique to you. That authority, that credibility, is not greater nor lesser than that of a priest or bishop, nor better nor worse than the credibility of any ordinary layperson, but different and distinctive to you. Too many preachers do not claim and use the authority the community wants to invest in us. We remain timid or merely officious, either out of a misplaced kind of personal humility, or out of ignorance of the complex dynamics that go on between a community of faith and its various leaders, including its preachers. You know the problems we are facing firsthand. What do you have to say to us about the people you work with? What do you hear God saying through their pain and suffering? What can we do? What does love require of us, individually and collectively? Speak to us, deacons, from your distinctive vantage point.

What might this mean, practically? I will hazard just one small, introductory thought on that for the moment. It springs from a simple discovery I made rather by accident early on in my preaching career. It is this: people want, and even need, to hear their concerns and sufferings, and the concerns and sufferings of those around them named from the pulpit. It goes without saying that one can never do this in a way that breaks confidence, of course. And it goes without saying that this is not all we do as preachers—more on that later. But people do find it powerful to hear someone who knows them name what they are going through, and a minister immersed in the lives of people can do this, uniquely. It opens them up to receive the touch of love in the places that hurt or confound. When you think about it, the Bible itself does a good bit of this. Think of Lamentations. Or think of the Psalms, especially the largest category of psalms, the psalms of lament. This is a badly neglected tradition for us Christians, I’m afraid. We seem to look askance at that tradition as if it’s somehow an embarrassing lack of faith. But not so. Lament is a cry of faith, as it was for Jesus himself when he cried out from the Cross in the words of Psalm 22, and it can be a necessary prelude to action. It rests on a history giving rise to the conviction that God hears the cry of the poor, the sinner, the lost, the frightened, the forgotten.

We too often think of preaching as one-directional, as us speaking on behalf of God. But our preaching documents actually picture us as standing precariously in the middle of a two-way street, as mediators in an intimate conversation between God and his people.[6] If you share with us what you are hearing and seeing, it not only gives the community a voice it otherwise would not have, it also disposes people to hear the Good News in a way that says God wants to speak to actual, flesh-and-blood people in this moment, a word that has depth and urgency and concreteness.

Reflect on the giftedness and the challenge of the place where you stand. Claim the authority that is unique to your role as deacons, servant-leaders of charity, and speak from that authority. Name what you see, and help us discern what God is saying to our community at this historical moment.

Meditation #3: “For lack of a vision, the people perish.” (Prv 29:18)

As far back as Alexis de Tocqueville, the famous French visitor who wrote about his observations of America during an extended visit in the 1830s, it’s been said that American democracy suffers from myopia. Our vision only extends as far as the next election cycle. Even today our collective ability to solve the really chronic, intractable problems of society remains very much in doubt. Whether it is the challenge of care for the earth, or the challenge of chronic poverty and marginalization, we seem paralyzed and unable to think through the long-term plans that will be necessary to make a difference.

I fear that our preaching, too, suffers from a similar kind of near-sightedness. We settle on our preaching themes too quickly. We seek an immediate lesson from the text before us. Instead of daring a “scriptural interpretation of human existence,”[7] we dish up small helpings of Bible study and ethical conclusions. Often these lessons come out as a kind of moralism: we should do this or that, or, mostly, we should avoid something. I’ve heard moralisms of the left and right, of personal morality and of social justice. But they all have in common a disconnect between the really Good News—i.e., our relationship with Jesus Christ and all that it means as the source of life and the source of power for change, be it personal or social—and our response in faith. Moralism is challenge without the incentive or power to meet the challenge. It’s like telling someone to drive a car with no gas in the tank. It doesn’t work, and may even turn people off to our faith.

[caption id="attachment_1836" align="alignleft" width="441"] Photo: Megan Ross; CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.[/caption]

In a sense we sometimes stand, you might say, too close to the scriptural text, insisting on wringing from it an insight that can be justified solely on that text, no matter how small or contorted or generic that lesson may actually be. The result is that much preaching ends up sounding pious and vague: “We should be more loving.” Indeed we should, but few people actually become more loving or just because of such a message. People become more loving because they fall in love with someone, and fall on their knees before an experience of Love, i.e., the living God, a God who is decidedly beyond our control, a God who enters history, a God who sears our imaginations with promise, invitation, and a vision of a new and better world. We preach Christ, and him crucified. Only he can provide the energy needed for real change for the good.

Sometimes we preachers need to stand back from the text just a little, read and reread the passage in its full literary context, and against the background of all we know and hope. People are desperately hungry for a glimpse of the bigger picture of what God is doing, and what God is hoping for from us by way of participation in what he is doing. Some of the truth claims and most of the moral claims urged on us by the scriptural texts only make sense when seen in the light of the eschatological horizon, if you will, the bigger picture, the long story of God’s love affair with creation. We need preachers who will raise people’s sights from the daily grind and the troubles of the moment to a horizon filled with possibility precisely because God is that big and that faithful. We need visionaries as preachers. This does not mean those special kinds of mystics who hear locutions or see apparitions of Mary. It means people who try to see the whole picture as God sees, and who can call us to look up from our work and our worry to the future that God has in mind for us.

To preach in this way is to bring our people the gift I think they most need at this moment in our history: the gift of hope. Hope, you know, has been called the most distinctively Judeo-Christian virtue. We all know St. Paul’s saying in 1 Corinthians 13: “These three endure: faith, hope and love. And the greatest of these is love” (v. 13). It is said, though, that other religions counsel love and faith in some way. But only Christians and Jews preach hope as a virtue. Hope springs from a long history of relationship with a God who has seen us through many a tight spot, giving rise to the surprising conviction that God is not done with us yet. There will be a future, thanks be to God. It is not foreordained that the future will be another sad rendition of the past. To see the horizon is to see possibility, not fatalism. Søren Kierkegaard called hope “a passion for what is possible,” or a passion for what has been made possible by the Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

We need to rediscover the eschatological dimension of our faith. We’ve tended to relegate eschatology to a narrow vision of the Second Coming or the Final Judgment at the end of life. Yet these are but two themes within a much larger movement of God’s plan for the future of the world. We tend to shy away from eschatology, regarding it as weird or scary or too hard to make into a concrete message for our lives. We would do well, I think, to recover the early Church’s sense of this. For the earliest Christians, and for persecuted Christians ever since, eschatology has not functioned as something scary or threatening, but as a source of hope, a promise they expect God to keep: God is coming to make things right.

Pope Francis is giving us a fantastic and refreshing example of visionary, hopeful preaching, an example of preaching that is really Good News, of moral convictions firmly rooted in something much bigger, a reality that actually empowers what it calls us into. As he said in Evangelii Gaudium, “each word of Scripture is a gift before it is a demand” (§142). In my homily last Sunday[8] I started out this way:

Pope Francis performed his first miracle the other day: he stilled the partisan bickering in Washington for one hour. Of course, I don’t think his motorcade had pulled away from the Capitol before it resumed. Sometimes it seems to me our democracy is degenerating into a trench warfare of sound bites slung back and forth at opposing camps. But, as Congress sat quietly and listened attentively to a plea for mercy from the Pope of the poor, I wanted to believe we could still be better.

That is the gift of hope: we can still be better. Our world can still be better. God has not withdrawn from history. It is said that every newborn child comes with the message that God has not yet given up on us.

Being a social visionary is tiresome work, and it has been known to get people killed. It will routinely get you dismissed as an unrealistic dreamer. My response to that accusation would be the remark of Jürgen Moltmann in his famous book, Theology of Hope: “Hope alone is to be called ‘realistic,’ because it alone takes seriously the possibilities with which all reality is fraught.”[9] It seems to me that you deacons are, again, uniquely poised to bring us this vision because of your very immersion in the underside of human life. You can be our practical dreamers and visionaries. You don’t have to be a Scripture scholar, you don’t have to be especially articulate, and you don’t have to always have it right. You just have to dare to do two things: 1) ask, in all charity, why things are as they are; and 2) set the Word loose in your imagination. After all, all personal and social transformation begins in the imagination.

Conclusion: The Pope of Mercy

I could almost have been convinced to set aside these reflections I’d been working on, and just spend this time reflecting with you about those remarkable days when the Pope was here. Every day was electrifying: his speeches, his homilies, the gestures, the infectious joy of it all—all of these are so very rich for our reflection. All kinds of people are asking what I find myself asking: what is it about this Pope? What is it he seems to touch in so many people? The astounding attention generated by the visit is itself worth pondering. Among other things, it says to me, we as a people are desperate for good news, for hope, for a way forward.

Hope springs from a long history of relationship with a God who has seen us through many a tight spot, giving rise to the surprising conviction that God is not done with us yet.

I notice that in the media it has become almost commonplace now to refer to Francis as “the Pope of the poor.” In one sense, it’s not hard to understand why. Francis never misses an opportunity to remind us of the poor, their needs, the ways their lives are intertwined with ours. Moreover, he seems actually to prefer their company to the company of the rich and powerful. Instead of lunching with members of Congress, he goes to a homeless shelter and shares a meal with the powerless.

Yet it seems to me that there is another theme which is even more constant in Francis’ public ministry—a theme which includes his concern for the poor, but goes beyond it. That theme is mercy. It appears all over the place, in virtually every speech and homily, and in all of his travels. I wonder to myself, why is it that the media has picked up on his concern for the poor, but given less prominence to mercy? I want to suggest a couple of possible reasons. One reason, I think, is that “the poor” is a socio-economic term which the media is much more comfortable with than mercy, which is a theological term. It’s something they can understand, something even completely secular people can begin to grasp. This Pope favors and speaks for those left out of the social and economic systems that govern society.

But I think there is at least one more reason, and it has to do with our own use of the term mercy. I’m afraid that mercy has largely been reduced in the popular Christian imagination to forgiveness of sins. The biblical notion of mercy includes the remission of sin, but goes far beyond that. Mercy in our tradition is a rich and resonant term describing God’s fundamental stance toward us, and challenging us to a similar life stance toward others. It connotes judicial clemency, of course, but it is also a disposition and a proactive plan of action. The dispositional aspect is captured if we add to the discussion our word compassion, which speaks of an unselfish habit of solidarity with others, noticing their difficulties, sympathizing, a special kind of love reserved for the suffering. Yet compassion is not able to bear the full freight of biblical mercy. It misses the active component of the term, the behavior that seeks to accompany, alleviate or prevent suffering. We know this if we take a moment to consider a phrase common in our Catholic lexicon, namely, the Works of Mercy, whether corporal or spiritual. Here is a quick review:

The Corporal Works of Mercy

  • Feed the hungry.

  • Give drink to the thirsty.

  • Clothe the naked.

  • Shelter the homeless.

  • Visit the sick.

  • Visit the imprisoned.

  • Bury the dead.

The Spiritual Works of Mercy

  • Admonish the sinner.

  • Instruct the ignorant.

  • Counsel the doubtful.

  • Comfort the sorrowful.

  • Bear wrongs patiently.

  • Forgive all injuries.

  • Pray for the living and the dead.

When taken together, the Works of Mercy paint a picture that goes well beyond forgiveness. Some of the Works of Mercy, after all, routinely take place where there is no request for forgiveness, no offense given at all, no consciousness of sin whatsoever. I believe that is what Francis is aiming at with his incessant preaching and demonstration of mercy. For me, he is only the Pope of the poor because he is, above all, the Pope of mercy. He is inviting us into a new, but deeply traditional, way of life before God.

The mercy Francis is calling us to is gripping, urgent. It turns the world upside down. Given a chance, it is a game-changer for both Church and society. And I believe this theme has special valence for you deacons, our deputized, sacramentalized agents of divine mercy. If you want to respond to a call to be agents of change, I suggest you live more and more fully into this mercy, and preach it from your lived experience. Nothing has ever more profoundly changed the course of human history, hearts, social structures, power arrangements, than that singular virtue. The deacon as an agent of mercy, in words firmly welded to deeds, would indeed be a leaven in Church and society, an agent of change in the community.

*Editors’ Note: This text was originally given as an address to the Assembly of Deacons of the Archdiocese of St. Louis in October of 2015.

Featured Photo: Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston; CC BY-ND 2.0.

[1] United States Conference of Catholic Bishops [USCCB], Fulfilled in Your Hearing (Washington, D.C.: USCCB, 1982), 10.

[2] See the video of this talk here.

[3] Paul Simon, The Sounds of Silence (1964).

[4] See The Sentencing Project.

[5] Twenty-Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B.

[6] See, e.g., Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, §§139–141.

[7] Fulfilled in Your Hearing, 29.

[8] See n. 5.

[9] Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope (Harper & Row, 1967), 25.


Michael Connors, C.S.C.

Michael Connors, C.S.C. is director of the John S. Marten Program in Homiletics at the University of Notre Dame. He is an Associate Professional Specialist in the Department of Theology at Notre Dame, teaching in the area of preaching and pastoral ministry.

Read more by Michael Connors, C.S.C.