I come to you from the centre of Australia, the home of the Paakantji people. And I acknowledge the ancestors, the traditional custodians of this land. I also acknowledge our ancestors in faith, those who passed on our tradition, one generation after another.
One of those ancestors was Australia’s only canonised saint, our Aussie battler, St Mary MacKillop. In my school, St Mary MacKillop Memorial School, there was a red sign stuck up on the office door: Never see a need without doing something about it. We were told that they were her words, and whether they were or not, they inspired us. And those words came back to me as I reflected on our reading from Acts 6.
It takes place in the early days of the Church and it’s a story of the Church seeing a need and doing something about it. It’s a story of delegating ministers. Now, in your bibles, the chapter heading might be something like ‘The Seven Chosen to Serve’. The community heard the complaint that some were being overlooked. And the Twelve called Seven others to respond and then they prayed, laid their hands on them, and sent them off for their ministry.
So let’s start with seeing the need. In this story, the Hellenist, or Greek-speaking widows, were being neglected. Though it may say in your bible that it was about food, it’s not there in the original Greek text. Recent scholars claim they were being neglected in ministry, in ministry in their own language and culture. So let’s be creative, said the Church. Let’s respond to the need. So the Seven were called to ministry of the word at the widows’ own tables; they were to reach out to them where they were.
And who were these Seven? We know about two of them: St Stephen was a great preacher and the first Christian martyr, and St Philip baptised the first African Christian. Although the word ‘deacon’ isn’t mentioned, the story of these Seven has inspired and motivated permanent deacons since their order was partially restored at Vatican II.
In seeing a need and responding, the whole Church has been blessed by these men in ministry. It matters that they’ve been publicly authorised, just like those Seven who were prayed over and sent. As deacons in times past, this commissioned office of service, becomes the eyes and ears of the bishop, able to respond to needs in creative ways. As some churches put it today, deacons reach out to the scattered community, beyond church structures.
So what are the needs around us today? Who are the Hellenist widows who cry out for ministry at their own tables? The young, the old, those in prison or hospital, those who crave the nourishment of the sacraments though they might not fit into our traditional structures.
How will each of us respond? How will we reach out? Our personal efforts can be strengthened by the response of the whole Church to delegate and to send. Why not complete the restoration of permanent deacons by authorising ministry from the other half of the population, and recognise women and men called to contribute by God, the community and needs around them? We can also be inspired and motivated by St Phoebe, the only person in the bible given the title of Deacon as an authorised leader.
Today let us hear the call to see the need and do something about it both personally and as a Church. Imagine how we could witness that we all are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a consecrated nation, a people set apart to sing the praises of God”. And in delegating and sending ministers like St Stephen and St Phoebe, we could better share the comfort of “many rooms in my father’s house”. Inspired by St Mary MacKillop, let’s respond to needs for ministry in creative ways, to better proclaim Jesus as the way, the truth and the life.
Elizabeth Young, RSM
Elizabeth Young, RSM
Elizabeth comes from a farm in rural South Australia, Boandik country. She attended St Mary MacKillop’s first school, and from her first sacraments in the Catholic Church at the age of seven, felt called to a vocation in religious and liturgical leadership. After a degree in Circus Arts, she entered the Sisters of Mercy, professing her first vows in 2010. Elizabeth studied a Bachelor of Theology, Graduate Diploma of Teaching and Learning, and Master of Theology (Coursework). Her ministries have been with youth, immigration detention centres, prisons, parish, school and ecumenical/interfaith relations. She is currently a Parish Life Coordinator in a remote town of New South Wales, where she is instituted as a Catechist to lead regular community liturgy in the absence of a priest, including baptisms and funerals. Elizabeth finds life in exploring the scriptures and the Church’s liturgical/sacramental tradition together with those in marginal situations. She hopes that other women in future might be recognised and authorised in such vocational calls as well. In 2021, she started the blog Liturgy on the Margins, along with the group Australian Catholics Exploring the Diaconate, which celebrates and promotes the ministry of permanent deacons, both present and potential. This includes the diaconal ministry of women who respond to needs that exist. Elizabeth is inspired by St Phoebe and the many women and men who have shared and brought alive the Good News of Jesus for our times today.
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