John McGarry’s Reflection on the Diaconate

John’s Reflection on the Diaconate

As many of you may know I am to be ordained to the Permanent Diaconate on 1st September here in St Bride’s. I have been asked to speak with you first of all to tell you who I am, and also a bit about my vocation and calling to the Permanent Diaconate and what it is that a Deacon’s does – what his role is in the Church Community.

I have been a member of this parish with my family for the past twenty years or so.  My connections with St Bride’s however goes back to my childhood as I made my first communion and was confirmed in this parish.  Rosaline my wife, and I joined St Bride’s parish in 1990. I am now semi retired from a career in Social Work having worked in and around the City of Glasgow for about 35 years. Rosaline is also a Social Work Team Leader, here in East Kilbride.  I have a daughter Claire who lives in Bishopriggs with her partner and our two lovely grand- daughters Olivia and Meghan.

Rosaline and I from the beginning have found St Bride’s to be a welcoming community where we quickly felt at home. We both became involved in various ministries over the years, myself as a member of the charismatic prayer group, as a cantor in the choir and as a reader at Mass. I have also been a member of the RCIA team for over ten years and undertook other roles, such as coordinator for child and adult protection. Rosaline ran the coffee morning after 12.00 noon Mass for a number of years and was also a reader at Vigil Mass for a period. All of these ministries I felt called to and was attracted to and feel really blessed by my experience.

I have always received so much more than I felt I gave. I have been privileged to share and accompany people on their faith journey through the RCIA and have made I hope deep and lasting friendships both with members of the team, and with those newly baptised and confirmed adults, many of whom have gone on to offer their service to this community in different ways.

The vocation to the diaconate I realise has come out of this experience, but also just as importantly out of the vocation of my marriage where both Rosaline and I like many families, have had to extend ourselves, in looking after other members of our family. Rosaline is for me a true example of service and vocation when it comes to showing practical love.

When   the diaconate first came up and was spoken about by Canon Ryan in 2004 on vocations Sunday there was a spark in me, something connected, but I put it out of my mind and thought ‘not for me’ I had meanwhile witnessed other deacons giving service in different churches and felt drawn to that role.  I always remembered the Ignatian spirit in discerning with the question that God might pose to me at the end of my life - What did you do with this calling I gave you? Or the realisation that I had regrets about not following this call at the end of my life.  The following year Fr Despard spoke about the Permanent Diaconate and again the connection and attraction, and I realised this was not going to go away or rather God was not going to leave me alone till I checked this out.   I spoke with Fr Despard and afterwards Canon Ryan and before I knew it, I had started on a formation journey that has brought me this far over the past 6 years.

I use the word ‘formation’ because that is really what it has been. Like all of us training for a job or profession, I was trained to be a social worker.  I am however being formed as a deacon. This has been a spiritual formation where the learning about my faith has not only been on an intellectual level, but also at a deeper level where I have felt challenged and feel that I have grown. Many people have helped me, the most cherished being Rosaline and my colleagues on the course.  Many people in this parish have offered me support and encouragement including their prayers. I have had help form Fr Devlin lending me books and also from Margaret Farrell and Lynn Toner who proof read some of my essays.

The history of the Diaconate goes back to the early Church with the appointment of the seven in the Acts of the Apostles (6: 2). . The widows and orphans of the [Hellenist] Greek Jewish community living in Jerusalem appear to have been missed out in relation to the distribution of food and financial support [alms]. To resolve this, the Apostles asked the community to elect 7 men “of good reputation and filled with the Spirit” (Acts 6:3). This is important as the assistance of the poorer members of the community was not seen or experienced as separate from the spiritual life of the community. The Apostles themselves had clearly been engaged in serving tables and it was not seen as beneath them, but theirs was a ministry first of all of preaching, evangelisation and leading the community in prayer.  The aspect of the community electing and sending these men is important to keep in mind. The Apostles laid their hands on these men, which further emphasises the spiritual dimension of their service (Acts 6:6).

This aspect of service has its roots in the Old Testament and specifically with the role of the men of the tribe of Levi who were appointed by God through Moses to set themselves aside for the special ministry of ‘serving’ the tabernacle (Numbers 1:50-51). Vatican II highlights this where it states ‘…at the lower level of the hierarchy are to be found deacons who receive the imposition of hands not unto the Priesthood but unto the ministry’  (LG n29).

The Icon so to speak, of the Deacon’s spirituality is Jesus the Servant and specifically Jesus washing the feet of Peter. The role of the deacon is seen as one of ‘… humble service …to facilitate, enable, animate, encourage and empower the service of the whole Church Community’ (Evans).

In practical terms then, you might ask what does a deacon do? In answer the Deacon has a threefold ministry of Liturgy, Word and Charity. Specifically, a deacon may baptize, celebrate marriages, bring communion to the dying and assist at funerals. A deacon may give the homily at Mass, and is the "ordinary" minister of the Eucharist, meaning that he is the ‘normal’ assistant for distributing communion, both at Mass and when visiting the sick of the parish.

He assists at Mass and other sacraments in specific ways such as proclaiming the Gospel, assisting with prayers or serving at the altar. Deacons often specialise in other forms of ministry, for example in this diocese, chaplaincy in prisons, hospitals, residential and nursing homes or schools. What is important to say is that a deacon does not substitute for the Priest . The deacon’s ministry is different but complimentary to that of the Priest and the Bishop. The deacon should not, and does not detract from the ministry of the laity where we all share through or Baptism, the common priesthood of Christ, and in the ministry of service to one another. 

Pope Benedict XV1 in his very first encyclical Deus Caritas Est (God is love) clearly pointed to charity and service as a responsibility of the whole Church today, rooted in the apostolic succession and example of the early church. This is embedded in “love of neighbour, grounded in the love of God…an ordered service to the community” (DCE n20). The Pope cites the institution of the diaconal office with the choice of the seven in Acts, as carrying out in an ordered way the ‘fundamental … principle’ of love of neighbour (DCE n21).

There is much more to say about the history and role of the deacon which begs for something to be written for the parish website which when I have time…I will be happy to do.

In pulling all these threads together I realise that my vocation has its roots in my family and in the community of St Bride’s. The calling has come from within this community and it is in this community that my vocation has grown and has been fostered. In my year of discernment and preparation before study, Rosaline in the company of other aspirants and their wives stated clearly in her own words, that the calling was being given to the community, it may or may not be given specifically to John, but it is for the community to listen and respond.  For the past 3 years I have been on placement at St Joseph’s in Blantyre who have also been a nurturing community. I may be sent there or somewhere else after Ordination or indeed I may be here in St Bride’s.

I am however being sent from this community and like John the Baptist, my patron saint, being asked to lead a prophetic life of service for the benefit of the whole Church community.

Christ is our bridge to heaven - the only Way across the gulf between earthly life and eternal glory.

Illustration by Elizabeth Wang, T-00081-OL, ‘Christ is Our Bridge to Heaven’, copyright © Radiant Light 2006,

The Parish will shortly begin a period of spiritual preparation for the Ordination of John McGarry as a Deacon of the Church, which he will celebrate on First September. There follows here a transcript of the talk which John gave to the community of St. Bride at each of the weekend masses. His sense of being persistently called by God into a sacred ministry in the Church can be a beacon to others to examine their lives to see if they have a sense of being called by God to a special way of living out their faith or giving a dynamic or even a silent witness to their faith. In our web page we describe ourselves as a vibrant parish and there are signs that this is an appropriate description. More members of the Parish are voluntarily serving the needs of the community through altar service, proclamation of the Scriptures and Prayers of Intercession at weekday and weekend masses, cleaning of the Church and acting as pass-keepers. This week we welcome Natalie as an altar server. Last week we welcomed Stephanie and Melanie and we will soon welcome Rory to the list of children and young adults who through the support of their parents serve our community so well as altar servers.

Our parish can be a beacon which, in its way of living, will shed light on the way all Catholic Christian Communities/ Parishes can support and serve one another in a Church where the decline in the number of active priests will continue in our Diocese.  A community which is vibrant – such as we in St. Bride’s  claim to be  -  need not fear that new situation because more and more people, women as well as men -  will, like John  - respond to their individual sense of being called to serve God. Don’t dismiss the proposition as preposterous. Rather examine your own sense of who and what you are to identify the calling  -  the way of living your life - which God has planted in you and then ask yourself this follow up question   -  how have I responded?