On an otherwise unremarkable Sunday in July 2007, I found myself face-to-face with a bewitching young Irish lass, Margaret Flanagan, who would forever change my life.
I remember gazing down at her pink cheeks and laughing eyes. I recall fondly that gaping toothless grin and her scream that could shatter stained glass.
How could I forget her? Margaret Flanagan was the first baby I baptized.
My brief encounter with her marked one more milestone in my journey as a newly ordained deacon.
What a journey it’s been. From the moment it began in May 2007, my life as a deacon has been marked by moments of unexpected grace. I have been renewed. I’ve been inspired. I’ve been challenged. I’ve been awed.
One of my favorite hymns from my childhood is “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty,” with its thundering verse: “Ponder anew what the Almighty can do!” I’ve been doing a lot of pondering over the last six years.
And I’ve been doing a lot … of everything.
To be a deacon in today’s Church is to be busy. Very busy. A parishioner once described a deacon to me as “the priest’s helper.” That about sums it up. And priests need more help today than ever. Besides babies to baptize, there are couples to marry and houses to bless and homilies to preach. My calendar fills up quickly. On any given week, a deacon may find himself teaching RCIA, attending a parish council meeting, training altar servers, taking Communion to the homebound and spending a night or two poring over a biblical commentary to find the seeds of that Sunday’s homily. All that, in addition to helping his own kids with their homework and attending a parent-teacher conference and finding time to clean out the gutters and figure out why the car is leaking oil and explaining to his daughter why having her nose pierced — despite what her friends are saying — may not be the coolest thing she’s ever done.
|Deacon Greg Kandra processes with his wife at his Mass of Thanksgiving, the day after he was ordained in 2007. Photo courtesy of Greg Kandra
Yes, it’s a busy life.
And it’s a wonderful life, too — a life of unexpected blessings and surprises and lessons.
Ah, lessons. Before ordination, deacon candidates spend up to five years attending classes, retreats, workshops and seminars, often with their wives. For a lot of us, it’s a shock. I remember sliding into a desk for the first time in 30 years, staring at a blackboard and getting a whiff of the inescapable aroma of chalk. “What,” I wondered, “am I doing here?”
I would find myself asking that question a lot in the years that followed — feeling unworthy of the job God was asking me to do and feeling, also, inadequate. Who am I, I kept wondering, to be doing any of this? Like a priest, the deacon can find himself entering peoples’ lives at pivotal moments — celebrating birth and marriage, walking someone through an annulment, counseling a parishioner in crisis, offering a word of consolation at a wake or funeral. He sometimes meets people when they are most frightened and vulnerable; it might be in line at a soup kitchen or behind bars in a prison or in a funeral parlor moments before the casket is closed over a husband or a father or a child. More than a few times, it can bring the deacon to his knees — or to tears.
Ask a deacon, and he will tell you: there is no way to explain how he gets through those moments, how he finds the will and the energy week after week, year after year, to keep the spark burning.
I credit much of it to something elusive and sacred — that certain something that makes what is seemingly impossible possible and transforms the mundane into the mysterious.
Call it simply: the grace of orders. It is the Holy Spirit, hard at work.
And it is a gift. Everything the deacon is ordained to do is an astonishment, a wonder, a gift of sublime service. It is a gift to serve at the altar, to serve the people of God in charity, and to serve the Word of God from the ambo. And the deacon does all this while witnessing to the Gospel in a unique way.
He fulfills a distinct role in the modern Church; as I like to tell people, he keeps one foot in the sanctuary and the other on the sidewalk. Most deacons hold down secular jobs. We are lawyers, bankers, accountants, retired cops, journalists, office managers. We balance budgets, change diapers, coach soccer — and bless marriages, proclaim the Gospel and offer Benediction. A deacon reads his children to sleep Saturday night and tries to keep his congregation awake on Sunday morning. The hand that held his son’s baseball mitt at Little League practice also holds the chalice during Mass. And then, the deacon brings all that life experience with him into the pulpit when he preaches.
Yes, it is all a gift. And it is all grace.
Guided by love
The deacon doesn’t do it alone, of course. His two great collaborators are God and God’s most valued assistant, the deacon’s wife. My wife is an endless source of encouragement — an honest critic of my homilies (“I sort of dozed off there,” she once told me after Mass) and a trusted helper who doesn’t mind assisting at baptisms (as someone I call the “Minister of the Towel”). She’s gotten used to hearing me deliver the same homily to groups of young parents with squealing babies again and again and again. After nearly 30 years of marriage, she’s used to my droning. She loves me anyway.
Love, of course, lies at the heart of all a deacon does. It is love of God, and the Church, and the people he is able to serve. Love was surely there on that July afternoon six years ago when I baptized little Margaret Flanagan and my wife dabbed away the water on her head with a towel. I found myself wiping away drops that had inadvertently splashed into my face — only to realize it was, in fact, my own tears.
If I didn’t quite grasp it then, I do now: something great was just beginning.
And, I think, for me.
A deacon for the Diocese of Brooklyn, Greg Kandra is multimedia editor for Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA) and writes and edits the popular blog “The Deacon’s Bench” at Patheos.com.