Homily of Bishop Kevin at Ordination of Deacon Tony Larkin
Ordination of Tony Larkin as a Permanent Deacon, Church of Saints Peter and Paul Athlone, December 8th 2017
Homily of Bishop Kevin Doran
If you sit down to watch an episode of Downton Abbey, or some other series, it will often begin with a reminder of what happened in the previous episode and it usually ends with a teaser to make sure you stay tuned in for the next episode. Faith is a bit like that. Each one of us lives his or her faith today in the circumstances of our own time and place. Each day is a new episode in that journey that we walk with God and with one another. But as Christians, our personal faith is part of a “series” that has been running for centuries. Today’s episode only makes sense against that background of the whole “series”.
“Yes” and “No”
All of our Scripture readings today are about “vocation” or, if you prefer, you could say they are all about God’s invitation to us to enter into relationship with Him and how we might respond to that invitation. St. Luke tells us in the Gospel passage that it was revealed to Mary by the Angel Gabriel that she was to have a child who would be called Jesus, a name which means Saviour. Understandably, Mary asked for clarification, but the essential message of today’s Gospel passage is that she said “Yes” to what God wanted in her life. “Behold the handmaid of the Lord. Let it be done to me as you have said”.
The first reading from the Book of Genesis tells the story of Adam and Eve, who had been richly blessed by God. This is not meant to be the history of two particular people. It is the story of faith of the Jewish people. It is a way of saying that the first people were created by God for relationship with Him.
As the story goes, however, they chose to do things their own way and said “No” to God’s plan in their lives. If you read the story carefully, there are no apples involved. Eating the “fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil”, is a symbol for lost innocence. Realising that “they were naked“ is about the experience of being exposed; having nowhere to hide. They had rejected the relationship with God and they alone were responsible. Most of us have had that experience at times, either in our relationship with one another, or in our relationship with God, and it is not a comfortable space to be in.
The Feast of the Immaculate Conception, which we celebrate today, brings these two episodes together. The Church teaches that the first sin is particularly significant, because it introduces sin into the history of humanity. You could say that it is like an infection that, once introduced, begins to spread. It is a shift in the culture of humanity. Traditionally, we call it Original Sin.
But God doesn’t give up that easily. The history of the Jewish people is full of stories of how God used people like Abraham, Moses and the prophets to draw his people back into right relationship with him. Eventually, God comes to us himself in the person of Jesus. Through Mary, he takes on our human nature, becoming one of us. But he is so filled with the Holy Spirit that his whole life is given over to the will of God.
Reflecting on the role of Mary in the mission of Jesus, the Church gradually came to understand that God must have prepared her to be the Mother of Jesus, by keeping her free from the effects of original sin, from the first moment of her existence. The Church’s faith in the Immaculate Conception was formally proclaimed as the teaching of the Church in 1854.
As a matter of interest, some of you may know the Franciscan Church on Merchant’s Quay in Dublin. It is officially known, like our own Cathedral in Sligo as the Church of the Immaculate Conception, but it is popularly known as “Adam and Eve’s”. This double name reminds us of the connection between these two episodes in the history of faith, and it holds out the hope that those who lose their way in relationship with God are not condemned forever.
Chosen Before Time Began
The Church’s faith in the Immaculate Conception sounds like good news for Mary, but it is much more than that. What God did for Mary to prepare her for her mission is exactly what he does for us through Baptism. In the waters of Baptism, the effect of Original Sin are washed away and we are drawn by the love of the Holy Spirit into the family of God. Our second reading today is taken from the Letter of St. Paul to the Ephesians. Scripture scholars tell us that this passage was originally a Hymn that was used at Baptism. That makes sense, when you listen to it carefully. It is a celebration of the “Original Blessing” which is restored through Jesus Christ. St. Paul reminds us that “Before the world was made (God) chose us in Christ, to be holy and spotless and to live through love in his presence”.
I want to invite you to spend a moment just to unpack that. This is not just about the Jews or the Ephesians or any group of people “once upon a time”. This is about you. God always had you in mind and always intended to invite you into friendship with him. If you haven’t understood this before now, it is not too late. I’m afraid too many of us think of our faith in terms of an obligation that is somehow imposed on us, rather than as an invitation to really live life to the full, by responding to the gift of the Holy Spirit.
I’m sure some of you have been wondering when I was going to mention Tony Larkin, who is to be ordained today as a Deacon. Tony’s life as a Christian is part of the script, alongside Adam and Eve, Mary and St. Paul. He was chosen before the world was made. At his Baptism, he became a disciple and he was entrusted with a mission, which continues to unfold today in our presence.
As a deacon, Tony will be called to imitate Jesus Christ who came not to be served, but to serve. Being a deacon is not like winning an Oscar; it is about being entrusted with a public responsibility in the community of the Church. There are three particular aspects to the ministry of a deacon.
• The Altar: Tony will be called to assist at the altar at Mass. You can also expect to see him celebrating Baptisms and some part of the Funeral liturgy.
• The Word: As a minister of the Word, Tony will be called upon to preach; to lead public prayer, to organise catechesis, to be involved in school chaplaincy
• Charity: A particular emphasis in the ministry of deacons is what is described as the Ministry of Charity. That includes any kind of outreach to those who are in need; the sick, the homeless, those who are in prison, to mention just a few.
Marriage and Ministry
It would be impossible to understand this particular “episode” in Tony’s life without reference to his wife Jean. She has been an integral part of his journey as he has been a part of hers. His “yes” to the Diaconate is built on their “yes” to one another. I want to take this opportunity, Jean, to thank you especially for the generosity with which you have supported Tony throughout the years of his formation and in making this gift of himself in the service of God and his people. I think it is also important for me to say that this combination of marriage and ordained ministry is an important learning curve for the Church. Tony’s ministry as a deacon has to be managed in such a way that he has the time and energy that he needs to continue being a good husband. Anything else would be a contradiction of what the Church teaches about marriage.
The presence of deacons in the Diocese of Elphin also has something to teach us about the ministry of priests. While priests are celibate and do not have the same responsibilities towards wives and children, they are not robots. They also need time and space to nourish their own humanity, both for their own well-being and for the good of their ministry. As I mentioned earlier, each one of us is called and chosen. That means that each one of us has a share of responsibility for the life of our parish. In these days when the number of priests is lower and the average age is higher, we all need to consider
• how the time and energy of the priests we have can be used to best advantage,
• how parishioners can be better resourced to take on their own responsibility
• how we can avoid unnecessary duplication of tasks and structures
These are challenges which I believe we have to face together. For today, however, I want to say a word of sincere thanks on my own behalf and on behalf of the whole Diocese to Fr. Michael Duignan who has accompanied Tony – and all our deacons – throughout their time of formation. Together with Fr. Michael, I want to acknowledge the support of Sr. Mary Kane, Sr. Patricia Tomlinson, Deacon Damien Kearns, the priests and lay people who facilitated Tony’s pastoral placement and all who have generously given of their time and expertise as lecturers, tutors and pastoral supervisors on our diaconate programme. Finally a word of thanks to you Tony for your willingness to make this very significant commitment to voluntary ministry in our Diocese. I wish you every blessing and happiness in the years ahead.