Bishop Anthony B. Taylor delivered this homily Aug. 3 during a lector installation Mass for diaconate candidates.
Perhaps you remember the beautiful preface we pray at the ordination Mass for priests and deacons. This preface is very rich theologically, but the last sentence always speaks to me with special power because it makes very concrete what faithfulness to our vocation requires.
It goes like this, referring to the newly ordained; “As they give up their lives for you and for the salvation of their brothers and sisters, they strive to be conformed to the image of Christ himself and offer you a constant witness of faith and love.”
And what is the Greek word for witness — “constant witness of faith and love”? Martyr! And how do they give that witness? By laying down their lives, striving “to be conformed to the image of Christ himself!” In other words, ordained ministry is a life lived for others.
Do you know what was on Father Rother’s ordination card? It read: “For my own sake I am a Christian; for the sake of others I am a priest.” Ordained ministry is a life lived for others, and that’s not easy. That is why the Church holds up for us so many examples of courage, faithfulness and love.
In today’s Gospel we have the story of the martyrdom of John the Baptist, a saint who was called from his mother’s womb to give witness to Christ, and he did so a) first with his words — “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” … “he must increase and I must decrease” and b) by his example of a life completely committed to doing God’s will, calling people to repentance and denouncing the evils of his day — in particular the corrupt rulers, which is what led to his imprisonment, and c) finally by the shedding of his blood.
The biblical account of his death is lurid and it is possible that he didn’t know anything about the dance of Herodias and Herod’s oath that was the cause of his beheading. But he had long known that speaking the truth was what faithfulness required and that the forces of evil can inflict a great deal of suffering, even if in faith we know that evil will not prevail in the end.
The same was true in the life and death of Father Rother, whose ordination card I just quoted. He strived “to be conformed to the image of Christ and offer a constant witness of faith and love” and it cost him his life as well. Like John the Baptist, he too gave witness to Christ by his words and deeds long before he gave witness to him by the shedding of his blood. But unlike John the Baptist, he had a congregation of thousands of souls to take care of, so he had to be very careful about what he said in public so as not to put their lives in danger, but his deeds spoke volumes.
He accompanied his people — Pope Francis speaks a great deal about this type of witness. He stayed with his flock. He searched for the missing, buried the dead, helped widows and orphans, all the while knowing that in the twisted logic of the army, that was a form of helping the enemy. But this was necessary if he was going to be “conformed to the image of Christ himself and offer a constant witness of faith and love.”
My brothers, who are being installed as lectors in this Mass, if you want to be a faithful deacon, you will have to find in yourself the generosity to “give up your life” for the Lord and “for the salvation of your brothers and sisters.” Certainly, in your words and deeds, and maybe even with your blood.
After all, isn’t that how it was with 10 of Jesus’ 12 apostles and St. Paul and many others? John was the only one to die of old age, and even he died in exile, which was another kind of martyrdom.
Ordained ministry is a great adventure. Like with Jesus’ original followers, you have no idea where it’s going to take you. But one thing is for sure, if you conform your life to the image of Christ himself, there will be no lack of opportunities for you to “offer a constant witness of faith and love.”
As we saw on Father Rother’s ordination card, we can say regarding you who will be installed as lectors today, “For your own sake you are a Christian; for the sake of others you will be ordained a deacon.”
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