The Holy Faceplant and the Communion of Saints

(photo: Register Files)

This weekend — with 21 other men with whom I was privileged to share a five-year journey of diaconal discernment and formation — I went down on my face on the marble floor of the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Newark, New Jersey.

Prostration is a confession of unworthiness. A document from the Office for the Liturgical Celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff, discussing the prostration of the sacred ministers on Good Friday, explicitly links this Good Friday gesture to the day of ordination, adding:

Thus he expresses the conviction of being nothing before the Divine Majesty, and repentance for having dared to measure himself, through sin, with the Omnipotent. As the Son who abased himself, the priest recognizes his nothingness…

Before the prostration in the ordination liturgy comes a moment when the bishop asks a designated priest, “Do you know them to be worthy?” The priest responds, “After inquiry among the Christian people and upon the recommendation of those responsible, I testify that they have been found worthy.”

In our silent canonical retreat the week before our ordination, our retreat master told us — tongue in cheek, but with a serious purpose — that this priest would be lying for us. Because of course we aren’t worthy.

In the ordination liturgy, though, something happens during that prostration that is not repeated on Good Friday: The choir and the whole congregation sing the great Litany of the Saints, a prayer to the Holy Trinity in which the whole company of Heaven — the Virgin Mary, the holy angels, the apostles, and all the saints — are called upon to lift us up with their prayers.

Pope Benedict XVI, reflecting on his own ordination in an address to priests and permanent deacons, remembered it this way:

Here I lay prostrate, enveloped by the litany of all the saints, by the intercession of all the saints.  I realized that on this path we are not alone, that the great multitude of saints walk with us, and the living saints, the faithful of today and tomorrow, sustain us and walk with us.

I love Pope Benedict’s insight that it’s not the prayers of the saints in Heaven alone that matter here, but also the prayers and support of the faithful all around us that embrace and uphold us. The Communion of Saints is not only the company of the Blessed in Heaven, but also includes the community of believers on earth — and these are not two communions, but one, since Christ is our common head.

If anything inspires me, despite my unworthiness, to go forward not only with hope but also with confidence, it’s this.

Among the saints invoked during our holy faceplant was my namesake, St. Stephen the Protomartyr, one of the first seven deacons. I’ve always admired Stephen, and as a Catholic I have always asked his prayers — but in my journey to the diaconate, particularly toward the end, I’ve come to feel dependent on his prayers in particular in a special way.

I began to pursue the permanent diaconate in part because I felt, and still feel, that I had something to offer. Very quickly, though, I became aware that this calling is as much for my good and my salvation as anything I have to offer. I’ve been called to serve, but my service benefits me at least as much as it does anyone else.

This isn’t unique to ordained ministry; it applies in various ways to every form of calling and vocation. To be a Christian — to be a human being — is to be called to service, but it is in service that we find fulfillment.

A mother’s life is one of selfless service and sacrifice, but on the natural plane I doubt that anything in the world is more profoundly rewarding and gratifying than motherhood at its best. Nothing in my life has brought me more joy and bliss than being a husband and father, but it’s most rewarding when I’m doing it right, which means putting other people’s wishes and needs ahead of my own.

I will never be as good at this as my lady Suz, but I learn from her and am inspired by her, and her service to me is the cornerstone of all my service and everything I do, from my work at Decent Films to my diaconal journey. If the prayers and support of the faithful on Earth as well as in Heaven are what keeps me going forward, I have no doubt no one on Earth even comes close.

This Sunday I assisted as deacon at my first Mass at my home parish of St. John the Evangelist in Orange, New Jersey. I didn’t mess up too badly, which was the best I was hoping for the first time out.

I read the Gospel for the first time — I actually sang it, which we do at our parish sometimes on special occasions, though it’s not a regular thing — and preached my first homily. I’ve been doing public speaking for over 20 years, and I’m pretty good at it, but this year in seminary and now in the field I’ve learned that homiletics is completely different from any other kind of public speaking. At least, it should be, though it often isn’t, which may be part of the reason bad homilies are so prevalent.

I hope have more to say about that in the future — once I have some experience under my belt. As a layman I might once have blogged my impressions about what makes for a good or bad homily, but as a brand-new deacon I better keep my mouth shut and learn how to preach to my fellow parishioners before presuming to offer advice to fellow homilists.  

It’s out of my very lack of experience that I’ve used the first-person pronoun so in this column — more than I like to. As an absolute beginner, I have virtually nothing to share yet except “Here’s what happened to me, and how it felt, and what I thought about at the time.” At some point in the future I hope to be able to speak with some authority about ordination and ministry without bringing myself into it at all.

Saint Stephen, ora pro nobis.