A few days ago I was leading a Rosary after daily mass for a small group of parishioners, mostly older. They were sitting in the pews on the far side, near the tabernacle, and as I stood in front in my alb and stole, joining in the back-and-forth of the Hail Mary’s, I began to feel a love rising up in me for those people. An admiration.
And I was grateful for this feeling–it was a gift–because I haven’t always felt this way.
I think that as deacons we are all tempted by what Pope Francis, in the second chapter of Gaudete et Exsultate: Rejoice and Be Glad, callsthe “two subtle enemies of holiness”: Gnosticism and Pelagianism.
Particularly when we are first ordained we are often so excited by the intellectual beauty of Catholic theology that all we want to do is talk about it, and that’s fine, except when we begin to promote certain ideas over others or become so abstract that we lose track of the real world of our parish. We get caught up in ecological theology or the theology of the body, the primacy of the pope or the faith of the people, the idea of Biblical forms or the fact of the historical Jesus. And not just caught up but convinced. We have the answers and other people need to be educated.
This is what Pope Francis calls “Gnosticism,” a faith of pure ideas. “Gnostics think that their explanation can make the entirety of the faith and the Gospel perfectly comprehensible,” he says, and more, “they absolutize their own theories and force others to submit to their way of thinking.” Reason is necessary and reason is good but it can only go so far. “God infinitely transcends us,” the Pope says, “he is full of surprises,” and those surprises aren’t reserved for the smart and the educated. The Rosary may seem too simple, but it isn’t. The people may seem too pious, but they aren’t. Beneath these simple, pious acts there is often a genuine and abiding faith, a real experience of God, too deep for words.
Particularly when we’re first ordained we can be so excited about wearing an alb and a stole we begin to think we’re pretty special. We’re pretty advanced. This is the second evil, of Pelagianism, and for deacons it often comes in the form of clericalism. We’re servants, but we want people to see us being servants. We preach that all depends on the mercy of God but deep down we don’t believe it at first. And “ultimately,” as the Pope puts it, this “lack of a heartfelt and prayerful acknowledgement of our limitations prevents grace from working more effectively within us.”
Time of course usually takes care of this. We fail too often. We’re humbled by some quiet act of self-sacrifice on the part of someone we looked down on. But pride always lurks. Without quite knowing it, for example, we let ourselves be politicized, becoming the “conservative” deacon or the “liberal” deacon, proud of the purity of our convictions. We become attached to a particular form of liturgy, or offended by a particular form of liturgy, and that justifies our righteousness. We criticize our pastor, behind his back. We criticize our bishop. We criticize whatever group we don’t like, in or out of the parish.
No. The grace of this small moment after daily mass, in the give-and-take of the Rosary, is the grace of so many small moments in our ministries as deacons, when the eyes of the people are not on us, when the words we speak are not our own. It’s a grace—we don’t earn this either, this temporary reprieve from our egos–but it keeps coming to us, and it changes us over time, or can, so that now and then for just a moment Mary truly is our model.
And she doesn’t ask us to look at her. She asks us to look at her son.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.