St. Nicholas, Boldmere
What led me to the formation programme for the Permanent Diaconate?
Gary John O’Brien
What follows is a reflection on my journey in faith since my reception into the Church at the age of 18.
My wife and I have always regarded it as essential that we contribute to parish life over and above attending Mass each Sunday. So as newly-weds in our first parish, I served as the parish representative on the Deanery Pastoral Council and in the Justice and Peace Group and was an altar server and eventually MC. Our expectation was that we would stay in London, raise a family and that I would serve as best I could as a layman but very definitely as a husband and father first.
In 1996, we moved to Birmingham and after a period in Holy Trinity, Sutton Coldfield, we settled in 1998 in our current parish. I served as the parish’s first ever Child Protection Officer and as the leader of the Children’s Liturgy group. It was in that role that I took decisive steps towards preparing for the ministry of the Word. I was not content just to send the rota round and deliver the liturgies in the resources book. I wanted to be better informed about Sacred Scripture to give authentic guidance to my fellow liturgists about the way the Lectionary is structured and the manner in which key themes are developed within seasons and from week to week. I was also curious about the nature of lay ministry as an ecclesial phenomenon. To that end, I purchased numerous additional resources for my own use. With the benefit of that instruction, I would send round explanatory notes with the rotas to contextualise the selected readings.
Around the year 2000, I had two conversations with my then parish priest, which are relevant to this reflection. The first concerned my prayer life. Under the pressure of being a partner in a major corporate law firm, I had struggled to maintain a meaningful habit of prayer. He proposed that I take up the Divine Office. I have a natural affinity with structure and routine and this form of prayer has been an integral part of my life ever since. Not the whole of the Office every day: Compline rarely gets a look-in, but the Office of Readings, Morning and Evening Prayer certainly do and Prayer through the Day more often than not. Secondly, I had even then a sense that there was a task awaiting me after my planned early retirement from the legal profession. We therefore had an initial outline discussion about the diaconate. It was obvious from that conversation that the study requirements for the ministry were incompatible with my duties as husband, parent and partner in a law firm and so the topic was placed on the back burner.
In any case, at that stage my impression of the diaconate was not very positive. Moreover, I was struggling to see how clerical vocation and marriage were compatible. Consequently, I took the proposal no further. Despite periodic prompts from various priests, I remained resistant to the suggestion that I had a vocation to this ministry. In fact, on leaving the legal profession I genuinely thought that teaching was the vocation I was trying to discern, especially since I ended up teaching both at Oscott College and at Hagley Catholic High School.
So, after a Jonah-like resistance to any possible call to the diaconal ministry, what changed? The answer is: I did- as a result of a “Life in the Spirit” seminar at Oscott. I came to this because I needed to fulfil my requirement of a renewal day prior to being recommissioned as an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion. I was not totally convinced that such a seminar was even properly Catholic, if I am honest, but it ticked a box. After being prayed over, I was quietly at prayer in the Chapel when I suddenly felt an unambiguous command to prostrate myself before the altar. As I did so I kept saying to myself “Behold the handmaid of the Lord. Be it unto me according to thy word.” I had an unmistakeable sense of being overshadowed and in conversation with God. When I arose, I knew I had to offer myself to the diaconate. I then asked about my reservation over the oath. I had a clear word in reply: “Don’t worry. I’ll take care of that.” Fearing that I was in danger of misreading the experience, I had meetings with various wise and experienced priests. They were all very understanding and encouraging. Hence, I approached Fr. Harry Curtis and began the conversation which led to my being accepted onto the formation programme.
Although the diaconate is often described as an icon of Christ the Servant, this does not fully capture the distinctiveness of the vocation which I believe I have been given. After all, Christ himself is recorded in Mark 10:45 as defining his own ministry using two infinitives derived from the noun “diakonia”and we would only ever describe Christ as our High Priest. If one of the ancient titles of the Holy Father is “Servant of the Servants of God”, “servant” clearly does not provide all the guidance we need. For me, the concept of “medius ordo” in Ad Pascendumis a better starting point. When the Church is hierarchically gathered around the Eucharistic table, the sacred ministers, I would suggest, are the icons of Christ the Head organically united to his Mystical Body, the People of God. Each of the sacred ministers is a distinctive channel of grace. The deacon is an ambassador from the people to the table of the Word and to the altar and back again. That is why the deacon proclaims the Gospel, presides at the Prayer of the Faithful and puts a little drop of water in the chalice. He brings the “joy and hope, the grief and anguish of the [men] in our time” for them to be redeemed by the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and he takes Christ back out into the world. That is why the deacon dismisses the Church for mission and will take a lead in bringing Holy Communion to the sick and housebound. More than that, he is an ambassador from the Church as the sacrament of salvation to the world outside it because he is active in the world outside. In that way, the deacon exercises a ministry of presence because he is empowered to bless: something a layman, however active and holy, can never do.