The weather was awful, and the forecast was grim: heavy snow, possibly as much as a foot, on one of the coldest and darkest nights of the winter. But inside St. Ephrem’s, a large church in Brooklyn, it was springtime. Something was beginning. Candles were lit, hymns were sung, and 65 men from the Diocese of Brooklyn rose to become candidates for ordination as deacons. I was one of them. In 2007, by the grace of Godand the endless prayers of friends and family who still cannot believe I’m actually doing thisI will be, at last, a deacon.
You hear much these days about the crisis in the church. They keep telling us we are in trouble. Scandals are everywhere. Lawyers are filing suits. The pope is dying. Vocations are drying up. The pews are emptying.
But not that night in Brooklyn.
The place was nearly fullclose to 1,000 people had gathered to mark the Rite of Candidacy. And vocations? Looking around the church, I would say that vocations are alive and well. They just are not where the church expected them. The call to serve is no longer confined to the single or the celibate. The 65 men who stood before the bishop that night to affirm their calling offered compelling proof.
We are a varied bunch. Two of us are single, the rest are married. The oldest is 70, the youngest 31. We are accountants, lawyers, doormen, retired cops. One of us works in the mayor’s office; another (me) works in network television. We have jobs, wives, children and, above all, an abiding love for the church and a desire to serve it.
Most of us did not decide to become deacons overnight. And that’s a good thing, because the church does not make it easy. Pursuing the diaconate is not like joining the Lion’s Club.
I was accepted into the Aspirancy Program for the Diaconate in the summer of 2002. For the next 18 months, my wife and I attended weekly classes at a Catholic high school in Queens. We listened to lectures; we prayed; we pondered. We made retreats with others who were also aspiring to become deacons. We took part in days of recollection.
I wrote short reflection papers. I had a medical check-up and submitted a doctor’s report. I took a psychological exam and described all the little animals I could discern in the inkblots. I was fingerprinted and investigated and interviewed. I gave the diocese my academic records, my baptismal certificate and letters of recommendation from both my employer and my pastor. My wife gave her formal, written consent to the bishop.
All this just to get a foot in the door.
Those first 18 months were a time of testing. Jesus could walk on water; we aspirants were trying to walk on ice. So we set out, tentatively, step by step, as if crossing a frozen pond, testing the ice to see if our vocations would hold, if they were strong enough to carry us to candidacy.
In the end, most of us made it, safe and dry.
Now the real work begins: classes two nights a week and one Saturday a month on subjects like liturgy, Christian anthropology and church history. It’s a daunting taskespecially since the last time I was in a classroom was during my final semester in college, to pick up two elective credits in bowling. It was a pass/fail course, and I passedbarely.
Did I mention that I have a lot of people praying for me?
As I swallow hard and sharpen my pencils and prepare to march into the Great Unknown, I’m comforted by one thought: I am not alone. The Holy Spirit, who hatched this scheme in the first place, has been thoughtfully checking in with me from time to time to reassure me that this is, indeed, doable.
My wife, who has accompanied me to lectures and retreatseven going to some classes when I couldn’thas been my biggest cheerleader, and most ardent dispenser of prayers. I’ve told friends that if they see her in church, on her knees, with her rosary, she’s probably praying for me. Please do not disturb her, Isay. She has important work to do.
I have also received abundant support and encouragement from the people in my parish, from my friends and from my classmates. I am beginning candidacy with a happy heart.
So, I suspect, are the 64 other men who braved a blizzard to stand before the bishop and proclaim, vigorously, their intention to serve the church. We are pioneers, in a waya small but growing band of believers marching into an unmapped frontier, the church of the 21st century.
There are nearly 14,000 permanent deacons in the United States. In some dioceses, in fact, there are now more deacons than priests. Deacons are becoming a formidable presence in parishes and, in the decades to come, could even become the most familiar faces of the Catholic clergy.
Soon enough, God willing, one of those faces will be mine.
On that blessed day, I will remember vividly how I got there and the moment I became a candidate for ordinationin the middle of a dark night and a bleak forecast, but with snow falling around me like grace.