Today Catholic Christians celebrate the Fifth Sunday of Easter.
In the passage we have today from the Acts of the Apostles, we learn about the institution of the diaconate by the early Church leaders.
We learn that the early Church was growing. To fully understand this passage, we need to remember that the apostles, whom Catholic Christians believe were the first bishops of the Church, were Hebrew Christians and worshiped in Hebrew. But today we read that many of the new converts to the Church were Hellenists, that is, Greek-speaking people.
The Hellenists complained that the apostles were not giving adequate attention to them and their needs. And although the Scripture says they were neglecting the care of “widows,” Bible scholars believe the word “widow” here refers to all those who were in need.
Fortunately, the apostles heard the complaint and came up with a solution. They called together the community of disciples and said, “It is not right for us to neglect the word of God to serve at table. Brothers, select from among you seven reputable men, filled with the Spirit and wisdom, whom we shall appoint to this task, whereas we shall devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6: 2-4).
The disciples did choose seven men, and they became the first deacons of the Church.
Today we look at the role of deacon in the Catholic Church in our times. First, however, we look at one of the first deacons of the Church – Stephen – who is given the profound honor of being the protomartyr of the Catholic Church. “Proto” means “first.”
Interestingly, when the author of Acts lists the names of the first deacons, he starts off with Stephen. But unlike the other deacons whose names he simply lists, he describes Stephen as “a man filled with faith and the Holy Spirit” (Acts 6: 5).
Most Bible scholars believe Stephen was a Hellenist, a Greek-speaking follower of Christ.
In the next chapter of the Book of Acts, which we do not have for today, we learn how Stephen was obviously quite intelligent. Not only did he have an excellent mastery of the Scripture – which at that time was solely the books of the Old Testament – he was a marvelous speaker. But in addition to those gifts, Stephen was said to be “working great wonders and signs among the people” (Acts 6: 8).
Stephen, because of his popularity, wisdom, intelligence, and effectiveness in being a witness to Christ, made many enemies. And this led many Jewish leaders to despise him.
The enemies of Stephen challenged him to debates, and much of what Stephen argued is written in the Acts of the Apostles. Though Stephen made a great case, he probably sealed his fate when he told his enemies, “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always oppose the holy Spirit; you are just like your ancestors. Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They put to death those who foretold the betrayers and murders you have now become” (Acts 7: 51-52).
Sure enough, the enemies of Stephen surrounded Stephen and threw him out of the city. Then they began stoning him and threw their cloaks at the feet of a young anti-Christian man named Saul. As Stephen was about to die, he said, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” And then he said in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” As we know, the man named Saul, who was part of this murderous crowd, would one day become one of the greatest missionaries of all time – St. Paul.
Not only is St. Stephen honored as the first martyr of the Church, he is also one of the most famous deacons the Church has ever had.
From the Scripture, the life of Stephen, and Church teaching, we can learn many things. Here are just three.
First, a deacon is a man ordained in the first level of Holy Orders. Therefore, he part of the clergy; there is no such thing as a “lay deacon” in the Catholic Church. Today there are two types of deacons – transitional deacons and permanent deacons. Transitional deacons are men who are simply passing through the diaconate on their way to priesthood ordination. Permanent deacons are those who plan to be deacons forever.
Second, though deacons are ordained, they do not share in the sacerdotal or priestly realm of the priest or bishop. Their prime mission is to serve the community in practical ways. A good deacon works beside the laity not only in the parish, but also in the workplace and agencies serving the poor. He goes into places where the priest usually does not go and, therefore, can often be the “eyes and ears” for the priest.
Third, deacons often read the Gospel at weekend Masses and may, if their pastor permits them, give homilies. They may, of his pastor permits, serve as official Church witnesses to marriage, a sacrament that is performed by the bride and groom. And if his pastor permits, he may baptize, an action that any person can perform.
Because he is ordained, yet is always under the direction of the parish priest (pastor), being a deacon in the Catholic Church requires a tremendous amount of patience, humor, flexibility, and humility.
In our parish, we have one man who is studying to become a permanent deacon – John Walsh. Please keep him in your prayers as he goes through deacon formation.
And that is the good news I have for you on this Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time, 2017.
Story source: Anonymous, “St. Stephen,” in Butler’s Lives of the Saints: New Full
Edition – December, Revised by Kathleen Jones. Collegeville, MN: Burns & Oates/The Liturgical Press, 1999, pp. 204-206.