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home : opinion : perspectives

8/25/2011 8:36:00 AM
Learning about diaconate from the poor in Bolivia
Deacon Daniel Quinn

Two months ago, I was ordained a deacon with two other men, James O'Rourke and Steven Lape.

I am the only one of us, however, who is going to continue toward priesthood. In a way, I only have a year to enjoy being a deacon and to carry out this particular role in the Church, while it is Jim and Steve's permanent call.

On the other hand, diaconal service continues through priesthood; the things that characterize the deacon are also a part of the identity of the priest.

A deacon is characterized by a couple of traits. First, a deacon does "diaconia," or service - described by St. Luke in the Acts of the Apostles (6:2) as "waiting on tables."

Deacons recognize, assess and care for the material needs of the Church - especially for the most disadvantaged among us. For this reason, the Prayers of the Faithful during Mass fall to the deacon. He is to be in touch with the needs of the people, so he presents them to the Lord during Mass.

Second, it is also the responsibility of the deacon to proclaim the Gospel message and to preach, as is also portrayed in the Acts of the Apostles. St. Stephen, one of the first deacons and the first martyr, preaches for the entirety of chapter seven of that biblical book.

That he was a deacon and a martyr are not unrelated: Stephen's preaching leads to his martyrdom. I'm confident that my homilies won't cause someone to kill me, but that shouldn't even be a consideration when I preach.

Regardless of the effects, the message needs to be proclaimed. We can't help but do what the Gospel message requires of us (see Matthew 28:19-20) and what the Church asks of us.

This summer, I was sent to Cochabamba, Bolivia, again with a couple other seminarians to study Spanish in order to better serve the Spanish-speaking community in the Albany Diocese. As a result, I have ministered more as a deacon in Bolivia than in the U.S.

I had a variety of opportunities there to fulfill my new role. Though I didn't preach there, I did serve at some Masses. More importantly, I had the opportunity to see the needs of the people, to see in what ways they were poor and to serve them.

Their poverty wasn't merely material. We visited a community in the outskirts of the city near the dump named K'ara K'ara, which, in addition to not having much money or property, had hardly any hope, faith or even much of their own culture.

They are part of the city, but the people there are very different from both the city residents and the rural farmers. They were poorer than both. They were materially poor, living in one-room houses with dirt floors. They had some food, electricity, water, shelter, public transportation, public baths, and even employment, but all their hopes and dreams were material.

They wanted the luxuries that the rest of the city had: televisions, cars, cell phones and such. They wanted them so much that, in some cases, the television and its antenna were acquired before floors or bathrooms.

These people do not have much of a spiritual life. They view Christianity in a superstitious way, and even what they retain of their indigenous religion is reduced to superstition, despite the fact that it has an articulated theology.

Their spiritual life is reduced to economic formulae: If I give Pacha Mama (Mother Earth) some of my food, she'll give me a good crop this season or my sheep won't go hungry. If the priest does his Mass-thing, these spirits which bother me will leave me alone. If I put a representation of what I need at the feet of the statue of Mary - a car, house or business - she'll get it for me.

They feel desperate, so they hedge their bets and pray to whichever god will work for them.

There was a priest, a gringo, in this community who was trying to form them into a community and to teach them the faith, but they did not trust him and had even kicked out his predecessor (who was a Bolivian).

Nevertheless, his purpose there is to preach the gospel and to introduce them to Christ. He works to form them into a community, to pray with them and for them, and to try to relieve them of their spiritual and material poverty.

This and other experiences we had in Bolivia have made me think about the diaconate in a different way. Their impression on me will continue to form me throughout this last year of seminary and into my priesthood.

(Deacon Daniel Quinn is a seminarian for the Diocese of Albany, studying for the priesthood at St. Mary's Seminary in Baltimore. A native of Holy Trinity parish in Johnstown, he will be ordained a priest next June.)

This is part of The Evangelist's ongoing series of reports from diocesan seminarians on their studies, work and development. To read previous installments, go to www.evangelist.org and search for "seminarian diary."

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