The Deacon as Image of Mercy in Promoting the New Evangelization at Work
by Deacon Greg Kandra
A few years ago, Cardinal Walter Kasper wrote about leadership in the Church, and he turned his attention to permanent deacons.
“It is the deacon’s special call,” he wrote, “to be on the front line.” Webster’s defines “front line” as “a military line formed by the most advanced tactical combat unit… an area of potential or actual conflict or struggle.”
For some of us, that may sound like just another day at the parish.
But Cardinal Kasper had something else in mind: the “front line” of daily living. The front line is an office, a restaurant, a bank. It’s where we live, and where we work. And in the workplace, it can be dangerous—landmines are everywhere, made of ego and gossip and competition and stress. And often, the deacon is right there—in the foxhole, striving to bring the grace of Holy Orders to a world often lacking in either grace or order.
And that’s just where we should be, because this is what we were ordained to do.
At ordination, the deacon is literally handed the Gospel, and charged to “practice what you teach.” Well, very often it is in the work world where we truly put that teaching, put the Gospel, into practice.
This evening, I want to reflect on how this is done, and how the deacon can best approach “the front line” with a heart of mercy.
I hasten to add: I come to you not as an academic or a theologian. I’m not a scholar. I’m simply a deacon and a worker—a journalist and writer whose “frontline” has been newsrooms and TV studios. But like all of you, I am also a missionary.
The Directory for the Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons, put it this way: “The deacon’s ministry of service is linked with the missionary dimension of the Church…Mission includes witness to Christ in a secular profession or occupation.”
Reflecting on this, and the “ministry of service,” I kept thinking about one moment in the Gospels: Jesus at the Last Supper, a defining moment which beautifully illustrates “the one who came not to be served, but to serve.” In St. John’s Gospel, we encounter Christ in an apron, washing the feet of his followers, and we hear those challenging words: “I have given you a model to follow.”
Well, this moment is our model, a model of diakonia, Christ the Servant. But it is also a model of Christ the Worker: Son of God but also Son of Man—the son of Joseph, the carpenter. Here is an image of Jesus as a humble laborer.
I think it is an image to embrace during this historic moment in the life of the church, this Jubilee of Mercy—and for this simple reason: It is an image of mercy.
If a deacon wants to understand how to reflect mercy in the workplace, it begins here: We need to wash one another’s feet.
We do this in many ways in our lives and our ministry. But I’d like to suggest three ways that have special bearing in the workplace.
It all goes back to something I mentioned earlier: being a witness.
First, the deacon is called to be a witness to compassion. Last year, a young entrepreneur named David Williams wrote in Forbes magazine that he believes the least understood leadership trait in the workplace isn’t time management or budgeting or knowing how to run a spreadsheet.
No. The least understood leadership trait…is forgiveness.
He said the small company he founded flourished when all its members learned the value of forgiveness—how to give one another a second chance. He quoted Abraham Lincoln, who said, “The man who can’t make a mistake can’t make anything.”
Being able to forgive is key to practicing mercy. But there can be no forgiveness or mercy without, first, compassion.
In his ministry of charity, the deacon often reaches out to those who are hungry or poor. But we cannot forget: there are many kinds of hunger, many kinds of poverty.
There are those who hunger for hope. Or respect. Or friendship. Others suffer from poverty of the soul. These poor may be closer than we realize. You may see them every morning on the elevator, or the subway. They might work in the cubicle next to yours.
When I was in formation, a priest told us about a monk at a monastery who had gotten into some sort of trouble. He was being disciplined. The other monks wanted nothing to do with him. He ended up eating all his meals in the refectory alone. But one of his brother monks saw that he was hurting. He decided to do something a little courageous. He started to sit next to the other monk during meals. They would eat together, just the two of them, in silence. In this way, the monk was made to feel a little less alone, a little less ashamed.
With that gesture, that small act of compassion, one man did more than just keep another company. He washed his brother’s feet.
The deacon is called to do just that, to be a model of Christ—especially toward the marginalized, the troubled, the lonely, the outcast. Even in the workplace, especially the workplace, the deacon is called to be a witness to compassion.
Secondly, the deacon is called to witness to the dignity of work—and the dignity of the worker.
That means standing up for just wages and just working conditions, but that also means being an instrument for God’s grace. It means being leaven in the world.
At work, that means quieting gossip. Honoring privacy. Intercepting the rude joke or the sarcastic e-mail. Listening to grievances. Speaking up for those who may not have a voice. Those at work who know we are deacons, that we are ordained clergy, expect that—and, whether they will admit it or not, they hold us to a higher standard.
One way to try and live up to that standard is by remembering that work is not only honorable; it is, in fact, holy.
Seventy years ago, young Karol Wojtila labored long hours in a stone quarry. It was arduous, back-breaking, soul-crushing work. Yet decades later, as Pope John Paul, he wrote that labor uplifts us. It draws us closer to God. “By means of work,” he wrote, “man participates in the activity of God himself, his Creator.” Work, he explained, offers “a particular facet of man’s likeness with God.”
Recently, a Franciscan priest, Fr. Brian Jordan, celebrated a special Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York for construction workers. And he said something beautiful. “Our hands,” he said, “are sacred. Not just my hands as a priest, or as a piano player, as a violin player…Everyone here who works, you have sacred hands.”
Think of that. Think of the hands that lay the bricks, or answer the phone, or seal the envelope, or wash the dishes. The hands that dry the tears, or change the bandages. They all reflect “a facet of man’s likeness with God.”
In honoring the hands that work, the deacon extends to others the work of his own hands—those hands of his that carry God’s Word, hands that bring people the Eucharist, hands that raise the chalice containing the Precious Blood.
This, too, is part of who we are: in the humblest sense, we are men ordained to be vessels, conveying Christ to others.
How fitting that we gather this weekend just hours after Pope Francis made that idea manifest, with the Corpus Christi procession through the streets of Rome. The Deacon is ordained to do that in a unique and grace-filled way where he lives and where he works. The deacon can never forget that night of the Last Supper, when the hands that blessed and broke the bread also washed the feet.
Sometimes, in the workplace culture, people may see the deacon as counter-cultural, living in two worlds, “different.” But that very difference can be illuminating and helpful. He’s the one they go to with questions about the pope, or the saints, or that mysterious grey smudge you have on your forehead on a Wednesday in February.
He might also be the one they go to when a teenager is in trouble, or a marriage is strained, or someone just needs a strong shoulder and a sympathetic ear. The front line is a place where many people suffer from battle fatigue or shell shock.
Simply by his presence, the deacon is there to serve them. And in that service, he may become a foot soldier of the New Evangelization.
Do not underestimate the impact this can have—or the boundless creativity of the Holy Spirit. Some of the most important missionary activity in the world today may begin in unlikely places: not in a jungle or a desert or a far off country, but around the water cooler, or on a bus, or over coffee in the company cafeteria.
And it may happen because a deacon was on the job.
Finally, the deacon stands as a witness to God’s continuing presence in the world. Looked at another way: What began at the altar on Sunday continues in the workplace on Monday. Because we are never not deacons. The ministry never ends. And neither does the mission.
That may take us where we never expected.
In the summer of 2014, Liberia was facing the worst Ebola outbreak in history. Thousands were dying. Thousands more were critically ill. The country found itself cut off from the rest of the world, as people became terrified that an international pandemic was about to break lose. Dr. Timothy Flanigan, an infectious disease specialist from Providence, Rhode Island, felt the need to do something.
But Timothy Flanigan isn’t just a doctor. He’s also a deacon. And it was Deacon Timothy Flanigan who responded to the need at that moment as much as Doctor Timothy Flanigan.
After talking it over with his wife, his family and his pastor, he did something exceptional. Deacon Flanigan boarded a plane and flew to Liberia on one of the last flights available, before air traffic was suspended. He spent two months there, helping to contain the outbreak and re-open a closed hospital. He did this at great personal risk, knowing that he could possibly become infected himself.
For countless suffering people, Deacon Tim Flanigan became not just a healing presence, not just a doctor. He became the face of Christ.
In interviews after his return, Deacon Flanigan spoke of the power of prayer, but he also spoke of how the faith of the people sustained him. It was profound. They regularly attended Mass and Adoration. They never gave in to despair. He felt blessed to participate with them and absorbed this lesson from his experience: “God,” he said, “does not abandon us. God is always present.”
God is always present.
That, in four words, summarizes the deacon’s great mission in the missionary field of work. To a world that is weary, or frightened, or grieving, or overworked, or underappreciated, the deacon carries that simple message of hope. God is always present.
We can’t all fly to Liberia to fight Ebola. But I’m reminded of what Mother Teresa used to tell people who would show up at her door in Calcutta, volunteering to help. She would tell them: “You don’t need to be here. Find your own Calcutta.”
So it is with all of us. Calcutta is Brooklyn. It is Beverly Hills. It is where all of us live and struggle and suffer and hope. It could be in the cubicle next door, or the office down the hall.
Who are the poor, the hungry, the lepers in our own lives?
In his prayer for the Jubilee of Mercy, Pope Francis wrote: “Lord Jesus Christ, let the Church be Your visible face in the world, its Lord risen and glorified.”
In other words, let the Church — let us— be the face of mercy.
As deacons, are called to do that, and in places where it is needed the most—on “the front line” of the world. Let us, then, make this our prayer:
Lord, put us to work.
Lead us to the front line.
Lead us to those whose backs are weary, whose hands are worn, whose hearts are heavy from the work they do—and help us stand with them and work with them.
Help us remind the world of the dignity of work—and may we never tire of bending to wash the feet of your children.
Put the hands that serve at your altar to work serving the world.
Lord, help us to see the entire world as Your cathedral, and every desk an ambo, every table an altar, every sidewalk a sanctuary, every face in the crowd another person hungry to receive Christ.
Help us to help You to uplift the world with Your grace.
Help us, Father, to be witnesses of mercy.
Your servants are waiting.
Lord, put us to work.