Wednesday, May 30, 2007

"The Ministry of Service"

As Ordination Season winds down and the True Priesthood's new entrants revel in their "Super Sweet First Masses," often -- and unfortunately -- lost in the shuffle are a group of candidates even larger in number and just as intense in their commitment: your new permanent deacons.

It's often an undercovered story, but the restoration of the diaconate beyond a months-long prelude to priesthood, and the order's opening to married men, has been a success story of the post-conciliar church. From preaching, baptisms and sick calls, to the nuts and bolts of parish administration and community life, deacons and their wives can be found, aided by a wealth of experience in the working world that their pastors often lack.

The US has almost 17,000 deacons alone, and in just one example of the diaconate's size and impact out there, the diocese of Brooklyn -- home to 1.6 million Catholics -- ordained 52 deacons (36 English-speaking and 16 Spanish-speaking) in two ceremonies earlier this month. And as proof that they're omnipresent not just in the church, but the world, too, among the ordained was the new Reverend Mr. Greg Kandra, a 25-year veteran of CBS News who now runs its lead anchor's blog, Couric & Co. (Kandra's shown above leaving his 19 May ordination with his wife of 21 years, Siobhain.)

Hopefully Kandra's ordination will bring some grace to Katie's lackluster ratings. But in the meantime the new deacon -- who's been assigned to his home parish of Our Lady Queen of Martyrs in Forest Hills -- has penned a piece on his journey to orders for BustedHalo.
On Saturday, May the 19th, I completed a five-year odyssey and was ordained a Permanent Deacon for the Diocese of Brooklyn. Suffice it to say: this isn’t exactly what I’d planned for my life. It’s not exactly what my wife had in mind when she married me 21 years ago, either. But as John Lennon (British, not Yiddish) put it: life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.

The plans I’d made included a successful career in broadcasting, a nice home, a comfortable life, a happy marriage. To my astonishment, I achieved all that.

I’d worked with some of the giants in television—Charles Kuralt, Dan Rather, Ed Bradley—and, by chance or just dumb luck, managed to have a front row seat for some of the defining events of my generation, including the first Gulf War and 9/11. I’d amassed some attractive dust collectors— including two Peabodies, two Emmies, and four Writers Guild Awards. I was making a nice living. So why wasn’t I happier? In the middle of making a living, and making a name for myself, I discovered a yawning cavern in my life. Something was missing.

t started around the time my parents died, in the early 1990s, and I began to feel asense of my own limitedness—my own mortality. And the cavity grew in the wake of 9/11. After the towers fell, I spent two days in New York City, writing special reports for CBS News, unable to make it home because all the roads and subways were closed; in the days that followed, between the candlelight vigils and photocopied pictures taped to bus stops and the endless funerals accompanied by bagpipes playing “Amazing Grace,” I had a growing sense that there had to be something more. My cradle Catholicism had faded into indifference; mass was something I attended when I felt like it. My faith, if you can call it that, was patchy at best.

But after 9/11, I realized with a blinding clarity that the tidy life I’d established for myself could vanish at any moment. Then, one day, on the way back from picking up bagels, I passed a homeless guy on the subway, begging for money. I offered him a fresh bagel. He thanked me with so much enthusiasm, you’d have thought I’d given him a fresh cut of sirloin. When my train came, I looked over my shoulder to see where he’d gone. And there he was, at the end of the platform: he’d broken his bagel in half and was sharing it with another homeless man.

This withered old man who had next to nothing gave half of what he had to someone who had even less. Deep in the recesses of my Catholic memory, something stirred. “And they knew him in the breaking of the bread.” Something began to speak to me.

I realized: I’d been given much. What could I give back?...

While on retreat at a Trappist monastery in 2002, I found my answer. There, I stumbled on something unusual: a deacon. He was from England, but at that time was living in France. I’d never met a deacon before. I’d heard about them, and once or twice I’d seen them, but my parish back in Queens never had one, and I was intrigued. (Deacons, I discovered, are married, and they have jobs outside the church. They are part of the Catholic clergy, and receive the sacrament of Holy Orders. They preside at weddings, baptisms and funerals, and can proclaim the gospel at mass and preach.) We spent a long afternoon talking about the diaconate, and I was amazed to learn that he also worked in broadcasting, for the BBC. He’d done some freelance work for CBS, too, and we knew a lot of the same people. Was God trying to tell me something?...

When I returned home and told my wife, she understandably thought I was nuts. But time and prayer and lots of long talks around the dinner table convinced the both of us that maybe, just maybe, this is something I could do, and should do, and soon. When I joined the diaconate program in September 2002 my life as I knew it was about to end.

What followed were five years of classes, homework, workshops, and retreats. Weekends were taken up with church work—as a lector or Eucharistic Minister. Evenings were spent on schoolwork. The comfortable and uncomplicated world I’d known became less comfortable, and more complicated, as I juggled all the different demands of my job, my marriage, and my schoolwork. More than a few times, I thought: am I out of my mind? What was I thinking?

My colleagues at CBS took this development in my life in stride – Katie Couric started calling me “Father Greg”—and over time, I became the one person everyone in the newsroom went to with a question about anything even remotely Catholic.

But what I remember most of all from those years of formation was the sense of unending anticipation—of waiting, and watching, and wondering. It was a long period of extended discernment. All of it came to an end, fittingly, just a few days after Ascension Thursday—the time when the apostles had been left alone, and were waiting for the Holy Spirit. At my Mass of Thanksgiving following ordination, I spoke in my homily about feeling like the apostles during that time before Pentecost—living in an upper room, unsure of what was about to happen, prayerfully yearning for the next part of their lives to begin.

I knew how they must have felt. And on May 19th, my waiting was over. I left my upper room.

A world of congrats to Greg, and to all the new deacons springing up these days. May it be everything you hoped and expected... and then some.

SVILUPPO: Clearly, Kandra enjoys his day job -- he's started a ministry blog, The Deacon's Bench.