Christmas morning 2023 saw many Goans pause from scrolling through their facebook feeds, as an unusual picture caught their eyes.
It was that of the Christmas mass at St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, and while Pope Francis was clearly visible, standing on his right was Goa’s own, deacon, Jason Keith Fernandes, with the intriguing caption: “What an evening it has been to be given the supreme honour and privilege to sit at the right hand of the Pope at the Christmas night mass!”
A supreme honour it veritably was, but that of course led to the question of what role did Deacon Jason play in that mass.
“My job,” Deacon Jason told GT Digital from Rome, “was essentially to take the image of the Christ child from His Holiness’ hands, at the end of the mass, place it in the crib, and then incense the crib.”
While that may appear to be a simple role, Deacon Jason, who was ordained deacon at the Aldona Church by Cardinal Filipe Neri Ferrao in February this year, explained saying, “Having been ordained Deacon in February, I assisted in my role as deacon."
"There can be various kinds of diaconal services -- the Deacon of the Word proclaims the Gospel, invites the congregation to offer the sign of peace, dismisses the congregation at the end of mass; the deacon of the altar prepares the altar for the Eucharist, elevates the chalice," he continued.
"I was neither. Rather, I assisted as Deacon of the Chair, offering any personal service to the celebrant (in this case Pope Francis) as he may require,” he added.
It was, says Deacon Jason, “An incredible honour, and while it is often trite to say so, very humbling. After all, what have I done that I deserve this privilege? Nothing! It was a pure gift which I am very grateful for.”
But, a task of that sort evokes different feelings. Just being at St Peter’s Basilica on Christmas is awe inspiring, assisting the Pope at the mass is incredible.
Of the feeling during the mass, Deacon Jason says, “I could not believe that I was there, with the best seats in the house! However, the mass is always, first of all, about our encounter with Christ. I tried to focus on the liturgy.
"At one point, as we processed towards the crib, and there was the tendency to look out for familiar faces in the crowd, I remember telling myself ‘Focus always, on the Cross’. Always good advice, I would say!” says he.
The offer to assist as Deacon of the Chair did come to him as a surprise, but it was not without him having to do some paperwork or electronic mail work, which he admits went wrong, yet the offer did come.
“I was encouraged, admittedly by a Papal Master of Ceremony, to apply to serve as a deacon, and then before I knew it, I was offered the opportunity!" he shares.
"Truth be told, I made a complete mess of the application; I lost the e-mail address, eventually sent the application to the wrong address. But, I guess providence had other plans in mind. The e-mail found its way to the right office and voila!” he adds.
It was sometime in November that he received an e-mail inquiring if he would be available for the Christmas mass.
“I jumped out of my skin when I read that e-mail. I had planned to be in Lisbon at the Christmas break, but I quickly rebooted tickets,” says Deacon Jason.
While the application reaching the right office may have been provident, he had to then prepare for it, with a rehearsal on the morning of December 23, 2023, and then a shorter rehearsal before the mass.
There is, however, no knowledge of whether this is the first time a Goan has assisted the Pope at the Christmas mass.
“Goans have a five-century association with the Holy See. Bishop Matheus de Castro, also from Divar, as my ancestors were, made his way to Rome in the 16th century, and returned a bishop," he explains.
"Other Goans through the centuries have been to Rome and made a mark in the Eternal City. As a Goan in Rome today, I know that I follow in the footsteps of giants, great Goan men, who I am honoured to emulate. I’d be fooling myself if I said I was the first,” he admits.
But, he won’t be in Rome always. Deacon Jason, quite familiar to many in Goa because of his writings, should be ordained a priest in 2024.
He will complete his priestly formation at the Pontifical Beda College in Rome in the June and then return to Goa and await permission (from the Cardinal Patriarch) to be ordained.
“I look forward to that day. As you know, I am what is called 'a late vocation', I am now 46. Although I’ve always thought of the priesthood, it took me a while to get my act together. God willing, that time will be here sooner, rather than later.”
Since he has opted to work for the Archdiocese of Goa and Daman, he will soon be serving the Church in Goa. Deacon Jason concludes saying, “I’m just happy that I can continue a grand Goan tradition, and bring joy, send pride to my people.”