Bishop Frank, brother Deacons and our wives, brothers-in-formation and your wives, brothers and sisters. I am honored to have been asked to preach at this Mass.
Peter denied the Lord three times, as Jesus said he would, on Holy Thursday night, as he stood by a charcoal fire. On Easter Sunday, standing by another charcoal fire, Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” three times. This time, Peter replies “yes Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus replies, “Feed my sheep…follow me.”
St. Augustine, preaching on this gospel, said, “Here is the Lord, again appearing to the disciples after the Resurrection, and questioning the Apostle Peter, and he obliges him three times to confess his love because three times he had denied him through fear. Christ rose again in the flesh, and Peter in the spirit; because when Christ died in his Passion, Peter died by his denial. Christ the Lord was raised from the dead; out of his love he raised Peter…If Christ loves you, it’s to your advantage, not Christ’s; and if you love Christ, it’s to your advantage, not Christ’s.”
As baptized Christians, Jesus calls each of us to follow him in missionary discipleship. St. Augustine continues, “So let us love him, let there be nothing dearer to us than He. So do you imagine that the Lord is not questioning us? Was Peter the only one who qualified to be questioned, and didn’t we? When that reading is read, every single Christian is being questioned in his heart. So when you hear the Lord saying, “Peter, do you love me?” think of it as a mirror, and observe yourself there.”
Each of us who have discerned a call to Holy Orders as Permanent Deacons have been asked by the Lord to love Him in an even greater way, to become configured to Him as a servant of all. Our journeys to discerning and accepting a call are all unique. I’d like to share a bit of my own journey.
From the time I learned to talk, I had a pretty severe stammer. I was very shy. In grammar school and high school, my speech impediment was mocked by my classmates. As a result, I was especially terrified to have to read aloud in class. As an example, in my sophomore year, I had an English teacher who would go around the room, having each of us read aloud one paragraph from the day’s lesson. I was in the last row and I would pray silently, begging the Lord to have the lesson be completed before it got to me.
In college, and during my early career as an engineer, I still stammered, but not as much, primarily because I had learned how to breathe when approaching words beginning with certain letters, how to add conjunctions to preface certain words and how to inject humor to feel more relaxed in my speech.
I was raised as a Congregationalist. I met a good Catholic girl, named Marianne, in 1970. We were married a year later at St. Edward the Confessor in New Fairfield. Sixteen years after that, I was received into the Catholic Church. The story of those intervening years will have to wait for another homily.
As for my stammering, I was able to manage it well enough to be able to take on increasing responsibility in my career, including speaking to large groups of employees. As long as I knew my subject matter cold, I was OK. It’s important to note that I was managing this all on my own. I had virtually no prayer-life at that point. I had not yet had an encounter with the person of Jesus Christ.
That all changed in 1993 when I made a Cursillo. I had a powerful encounter with the Lord that weekend. I came to believe that Jesus really did love me, warts and all. Marianne had made a Cursillo that year as well and we both began a new and beautiful phase of our life together, along with our daughters, working to live-out our faith each day.
But even with all of that, my deep-seated fear of stammering in certain situations remained an obstacle. I hid that fear, even from my spiritual director. As I became more actively involved in my parish and the Cursillo Movement, some people would tell me that I’d make a good deacon. I would respond by saying thank-you, but I’m not feeling called, or I’m too old. I also had a few interior promptings, but I rejected them as well. In the context of a call, I denied the Lord in those moments, like Peter, out of fear. The thought of stammering in proclaiming the Gospel, preaching or serving at the altar was a powerful deterrent for me.
On May 16, 2005, Marianne and I attended a Cursillo Day of Reflection and gave a talk together. After the talk, one of the facilitators, Deacon Tom Masaryk’s sister, Annette, came up to me and said, “You’re going to think I’m nuts, but every time I’ve seen or heard you today, I’ve heard the word deacon.” When she said deacon, I felt this very strong sensation in my heart, like it was being tightly held in someone’s hand. In that moment, I absolutely knew that I had to say yes to the Lord, not because I wanted it, but because He did. I knew in that moment that I had to trust him. In that moment, He lifted from me my fear of stammering, and I felt free. And because He knows my heart, He didn’t completely heal my stammering itself, which remains the “thorn in my side”, lest I become prideful. But that’s OK because I know that His grace is sufficient.
Before that fateful day, I had been holding back from completely surrendering to the Truth, the Truth that is Jesus Christ.
I’ll close with an excerpt from Deacon James Keating’s book, The Heart of the Diaconate:
He states, “The kind of deacon needed today is not a “back-slapping buddy” but a man who has suffered the coming of Christ and lived to tell about it. The deacon needed today is one who reaches out to other husbands, dads, or single men to lead them into the spiritual life – a life of freedom from the current, the new, and the now. As the Church lovingly and dangerously teaches, we are only free when we are in communion with the Truth, and the Truth is a Person. Truth has been revealed; it is Jesus…”
Deacon Keating then quotes Pope Benedict XVI, who said during a visit to Dunwoodie in 2008:
“Truth is not an imposition. Nor is it simply a set of rules. It is the discovery of the One who never fails us; the One whom we can always trust. In seeking truth we come to live by belief because ultimately truth is a person: Jesus Christ. That is why authentic freedom is not an opting out. It is an opting in; nothing less than letting go of self and allowing oneself to be drawn into Christ’s very being for others.”
Brothers, may we continue to “opt in” to the Truth that is Jesus Christ, trusting that His grace is sufficient, as we live out our call, serving Him and His people.
Deacon Brad Smythe of St. Joseph Parish in Shelton gave this homily on the Third Sunday of Easter Year C May 5, 2019 (given on Sat. May 4 at Diaconate Convocation, Fairfield Univ.)