Service in the Church

Rev Brian Fitzpatrick is a native of the parish of Donaghmore in the diocese of Dromore. This is also the parish in which the African Missions, Dromantine is situated. Fr Mossie Kelleher SMA invited Brian to speak on the theme of ‘Service in the Church’ during the 2013 Novena in honour of St Thérèse of the Child Jesus, the Little Flower and Patroness of the Missions. The following is an edited version of his homily.

It’s very humbling and a great honour to be asked to speak to you at this novena in my home parish. I’ve been studying for the priesthood for five years now, and by the grace of God I was ordained a deacon at Easter, and am preparing in this final year for ordination to the priesthood next summer. Fr Mossie asked me some time ago if I would speak here at the novena on the topic of service, and in extending his invitation to me, he made the link between service and deacon, for the job of the deacon lies in the name of his ministry. ‘Deacon’ comes from the Greek word διακονος, meaning ‘servant’, for that is what he is called to be. The first we hear of deacons in the Church is in the Acts of the Apostles, when the apostles appointed seven men to take care of the charitable works of the Christians, in order to allow the apostles to concentrate on preaching and handing on the faith. And until today, that role of assisting is the deacon’s primary task, whether it be at the celebration of Mass and the other sacraments; in the formation and education of people, young and old, in the faith; and in the pastoral outreach of the Church’s mission to the sick, prisoners, bereaved, poor and homeless. It is an ideal ministry for a man to have while he prepares for ordination to the priesthood, for it is a ministry he will never lose. Every priest also continues as a deacon, at the service of his people, for life.

Of course, the role of service is highlighted in the deacon, but does not belong exclusively to him. All Christians take their lead and example from Christ, the Lord of creation who, in the strangest revolution we can imagine, came to us not in awesome power, but as a crying baby, as a lad growing up in a carpenter’s workshop, learning like every one of us from his parents how to be of service to others. St Paul puts it like this:

Though he was in the form of God, Jesus did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,

but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant… (Ph 2:6-7)

When we are christened, we become part of the Body of Christ, and the sacrament of baptism gives us three powers as new Christians: power to witness, to worship and to serve. To be a Christian, then, means putting ourselves at the service of others to the point of giving ourselves and forgetting ourselves. We are familiar with the words of St Paul again, who pointed out how everyone is blessed with different gifts and talents and urges us to play to our strengths to build up the Kingdom of God on earth and support our brothers and sisters in difficulty.

The gospel for today shows us the power of the story in Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus. Primarily it is a parable about the rich man’s blindness to the poverty of his neighbour under his nose. We don’t know whether the rich man ever left his house to know that Lazarus was at his gate, or whether he chose to ignore him as he went in and out, but the point is the rich man’s conscience was mistakenly comfortable that he was doing no wrong to anyone. But put it in terms of service, and being the servant of anyone, not to mention poor Lazarus, never even crossed the rich man’s mind. So we are called not to rest in our service to others, and never to consider anyone beneath our attention.

Pope Francis in his own way gives us good example in this regard: just a fortnight into his ministry he was in a Roman prison on Holy Thursday washing the feet of young men and women, Christian and non-Christian, left behind and forgotten by society. But we can look closer to home than Rome to see model Christian service played out. We can all call to mind neighbours and people in our communities who are selfless, giving of their time and effort in coaching young people, comforting the bereaved, visiting the sick and elderly, providing opportunities for the unemployed. I imagine many of us have women in particular in mind in these roles, and women deserve particular recognition and heartfelt thanks for their service of Christ in the Church. Personally, I can speak of just one instance from my experience as a recipient of assistance from the St Joseph’s Young Priests Society, where many, if not all of the local members who have helped me in so many ways through seminary, are women. So it was marvellous to hear Pope Francis in his recent interview speak of the “feminine genius, needed wherever we make important decisions,” and the “specific place of women where the authority of the Church is exercised for various areas of the Church.” (Interview with Antonio Spadara SJ, August 2013, published online at www.thinkfaith.org

But finally there may be areas of service we don’t consider much that imitate the service of Christ most closely in its humility and self-giving. There are many people immobilised by sickness, old age, poverty, disability who it might seem to us at first can only be served due to their circumstances. What service could they possibly offer us? We need only look to the Little Flower, St Thérèse. She was immobilised by the walls of her convent and by tuberculosis, and yearned to be a warrior, a priest, an apostle, a doctor of the Church, even a martyr for God, but could not find among these the role she should fulfil…until she hit upon the role of simply being love. She decided she would be the heart of the Church, turning every little annoyance and trial into a prayer for the offender and offering every suffering as a sacrifice she would unite to those of Christ. Without anyone knowing it, she was in constant service, and Thérèse is a wonderful reminder to us that the so-called lowest in society are in fact the closest to Christ in service. Like him, they have been emptied and like him, they serve in the purest way, without any thought for themselves. So for a masterclass in service, we look to our dear sick and powerless brothers and sisters, because in those terms the deacon is still very much the apprentice.