The National Catholic Review
Greg Kandra
Seven things they don't teach you in formation
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I never realized just how hard a stone church floor can be until I found myself lying on one, face down, on a chilly May evening in 2007, just a few nights before my ordination. It was the rehearsal for the Big Event. As we practiced lying prostrate on the basilica floor for the Litany of the Saints, a thousand random thoughts ricocheted through my mind, but one jumped out and stays with me still: “Funny, but I didn’t think the floor would be this cold.”

Funny, but that was just the first unexpected surprise of my new life in the church. It would not be the last. It turns out there are a lot of things you do not learn about being an ordained clergyman until after the incense is cleared and the flowers have wilted and you are suddenly struck by two little words: “Now what?”

I remember feeling a little of that on my wedding day 23 years ago, as my new wife and I waved goodbye amid a blizzard of flower petals and birdseed, climbed into my Nissan Sentra and headed down the driveway toward our honeymoon. We had a map, but the direction our life together was about to take was unknowable and unpredictable.

Like married life, ordained life is something nobody can really prepare you for. And the most valuable lessons are often ones never mentioned in the classroom.

On May 19 I marked my two-year anniversary as a permanent deacon in the Diocese of Brooklyn. It’s been an exhilarating, humbling, maddening, joyous and exhausting ride. Every now and then, deacon candidates ask me if I have any advice. “Pray,” I tell them. “Pray hard.”

But if you want something more concrete, here are a few brief observations from the last two years in the trenches and in the pulpit.

1. Priests are like snowflakes: no two are alike. Earlier this year, my bishop led a day of recollection for deacons and offered this insight, “You shouldn’t look at cheese under a microscope because it will make you never want to eat cheese again.” Then he explained that deacons are often exposed to the priesthood as if looking at it under a microscope.

It is not always pretty.

Well, like all of us, priests have quirks. Most I have met are enthusiastic cheerleaders for the diaconate and are happy to have the deacons’ help. But there can be challenges. Some priests find deacons annoying and look at us the way W. C. Fields used to look at small dogs and children. Some prefer to work solo and roll their eyes when you show up in the sacristy. With others you need a GPS device to follow how they work around the altar: one gestures so broadly during Mass that when he opens his arms to pray, I have to duck; another priest can be as still as a stone. Some like just a little wine in the chalice, others more. Often the deacon has to think on his feet to anticipate what the priest is going to come up with next. It’s like playing liturgical Ping-Pong.

A priest I know once began a homily by saying, “I learned the other day that deacons are actually good for something…” which elicited a few chuckles from the congregation that quickly turned to groans. I told him afterward: “Don’t mock the deacons. They’ll turn on you.”

2. To paraphrase Art Linkletter: parishioners say the darnedest things. Not long after ordination, I started having regular office hours in the rectory. One Saturday, I met with a woman to set up a baptism. I asked her if she and her husband had been married by a Catholic priest. She thought for a moment. “I don’t think she was a priest,” she began. I smiled. “If it was a ‘she,’” I explained, “it wasn’t a Catholic priest.” Her face lit up and she smiled. “Oh then,” she beamed proudly, “then she was a nun!” Um, no. Moving on, I later tried to explain to her that both godparents didn’t have to be Catholic. “One has to be Catholic,” I told her, “but the other can be Christian.” She stared at me a long moment and asked, “What’s the difference?”

The Communion line can also be an interesting place. I remember one Ash Wednesday when a man came up to receive, and as I was about to offer him the host, he shook his head. “Just a quick question,” he whispered. “Will you guys be giving out ashes after Mass?”

3. The most important words in a deacon’s vocabulary are also the shortest: “Yes” and “No.” People who work in ministry cannot be all things to all people, and very few of us have mastered the art of bilocation, so it is probably a good idea to establish boundaries. Parishioners want to meet at all hours to discuss everything from rehearsing a wedding to arranging an annulment to figuring out how to handle a wayward teenage daughter.

On any given night, there are ministries to head, committees to form, grievances to hear. There are classes to teach and courses to take, and potluck suppers that will require you to sample at least some of the food. (I’ve discovered, like many in ministry, that albs can cover a multitude of sins, and that the most valuable part of my wardrobe is a black pair of pants with an elastic waistband.) The work can be taxing and exhausting.

My advice to anyone who wades into the world of parish work: set limits. Otherwise after going several months without a day off or a night free, you will start speaking in tongues.

4. Never, ever, under any circumstances, tell people in a homily that it might be spiritually enriching to pray for our enemies and then suggest a name. I did that once, mentioning Osama bin Laden, and the congregation actually gasped. I never heard the end of it.

5. Speaking of homilies, as with every kind of public speaking, you can say a lot by saying just a little. Listeners will overlook many faults and even shrug if the preacher proclaims some unspeakable heresy from the pulpit, as long as the speaker makes the point in seven minutes or less and it does not cause a bottleneck in the parking lot after Mass. (The exception, of course, is a homily that involves a known terrorist. See No. 4 above.)

6. Like a Boy Scout, a deacon needs to be prepared. During my first Holy Week as a deacon, the sacristan came to work with a cough on Tuesday. By Thursday every man in the rectory was coughing, wheezing, sneezing and clutching the walls to keep from fainting. The only person who was relatively healthy was—you guessed it—the deacon. Since I was the only one able to stand in the pulpit without holding onto the sides for help, I ended up preaching at all the liturgies, including the trifecta: the Good Friday afternoon liturgy, the Easter Vigil and Easter Sunday. My homiletic muscles got a full workout that week. I survived, but by Easter Monday I too was down for the count. I think I overdosed on incense.

On a related note, a seasoned deacon once offered me this advice: When it comes to preaching, be ready for anything. “I’ve had priests who told me while we were vesting that I would be preaching for them,” he explained. “And once, a priest told me as we were about to process down the aisle that I was going to preach.” His advice: better safe than sorry. Just be prepared.

7. But despite all that, no amount of preparation can prepare you for the miraculous. The first time I baptized a baby, I made a mental note to check out my eyeglass prescription, until I realized I was having trouble seeing because my eyes were blurred by my own tears. Ministerial life has been like that. I have been moved and inspired by the boundless joy of a couple on their wedding day, the giddiness of a mother and father dabbing the water from their baby’s brow on the day of his baptism and the heartfelt handshake of a man who was grateful for something I mentioned in the pulpit. I have dried tears at funerals (sometimes my own) and smiled at small children who trot around the aisles during my homilies. I have been reminded, week after week, at wakes and weddings, at fundraisers and first Communions, that I am a part of something that is, like the mysteries of the rosary, joyous, luminous, sorrowful and glorious.

I have had a front-row seat for the great milestones of life and have shared in the worries and wonders and hopes of the people in the pews. I do not know most of their names, but they know me, and they know my wife, and they wave at us in the supermarket or stop us on the subway and go out of their way to say hello or how are you or thank you. I have been doing this for only two years, but already I’ve witnessed more miracles than I can count.

Probably the greatest of these is one that began on that cold stone floor in 2007. I still cannot explain it, but what is inexpressible is also inescapable. With ordination, the world shifts, and you are changed by a mystery that is uplifted and enlarged by something that you can only describe as grace. Barely a day goes by that I don’t give prayerful thanks to God for inviting me into that mystery and sharing with me that grace.

I know this much: you can never be too grateful for what God gives you. And of all the lessons I have learned so far, that may well be the most valuable.

Deacon Greg Kandra is news director for New Evangelizaton Television (NET), the cable channel of the Diocese of Brooklyn. He also writes “The Deacon’s Bench” (deacbench.blogspot.com).

Comments

Deacon Paul | 9/1/2009 - 11:04am
Each year brings a new challenges for a deacon ,as does life. As you grow in faith and experience the grace of ordination helps you through your journey of faith and enables you to cope with each situation as it arises. The  'be prepared' motto is always a good starting place, but after almost 20 years of being a permanent deacon I realise more and more that the Holy Spirit will always guide you through any circumstance if you allow him too.
Deacon Paul | 9/1/2009 - 11:04am
Each year brings a new challenges for a deacon ,as does life. As you grow in faith and experience the grace of ordination helps you through your journey of faith and enables you to cope with each situation as it arises. The  'be prepared' motto is always a good starting place, but after almost 20 years of being a permanent deacon I realise more and more that the Holy Spirit will always guide you through any circumstance if you allow him too.
Danny Holguin | 8/31/2009 - 12:14pm

Dear Deacon Kandra,

Thank you for sharing your experiences with us. I got some good medicine for my body and soul from reading your experiences, mainly laughter.  The story about the person that came up to communion on Ash Wednesday and wanted only to ask if the ashes would be distributed, resonated with me and I just had quite a chuckle.

I can relate as a Deacon Candidate to some of your experiences and will be better off by having known yours. I am also grateful for your comment on how blessed it has been to be given the gift of your ministry and how we can never thank God enough although it should always be on our lips and in our heart.
Peace and Joy,
Danny Holguin
Deacon Candidate, Diocese of San Angelo, Texas

William Blanchard | 8/4/2009 - 9:54am

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I was dismayed by Lesson #4 in Deacon Greg Kandra’s article: “Never, ever, under any circumstances, tell people in a homily that it might be spiritually enriching to pray for our enemies and then suggest a name.” Deacon Kandra explained, “I did that once, mentioning Osama bin Laden, and the congregation actually gasped. I never heard the end of it.”

That gasp and the subsequent stream of complaints presented many teachable moments.

The congregation revealed that they did not understand the infinite nature of God’s mercy. Deacon Kandra should, with charity, remind those who were appalled by his Osama bin Laden example that no one is beyond the need for our prayers, and that God’s mercy is not reserved for those we decide are worthy of it.

Dorothy K. LaMantia | 7/27/2009 - 6:53pm

 

 

 

 

 

                                                                        44 Spring Lake Boulevard

                                                                        Waretown, NJ 08758

                                                                        26 July 2009

 

Editorial Department

America Magazine

106 West 56th Street

New York, New York 10019-3803

 

Dear Friends at America: 

 

      I enjoyed reading Greg Kandra’s article A Deacon’s Lessons  (July 20-27, 2009) but was disappointed over the fourth piece of advice he gave his brother deacons:  “Never, ever…tell people in a homily…to pray for our enemies and then suggest a name.”  He revealed how his congregation never got over his suggesting they pray for Osama bin Laden.

 

      I applaud his courage and I am disappointed but not surprised by the reaction of his parishioners. Even though “Love your enemy” is an instruction given to us so plainly by Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew,  most of us shirk it off as impractical and inapplicable to our personal lives, much less to a political world inhabited by suicide bombers.  But I have hardly ever heard any priest or deacon challenge a congregation the way Deacon Kandra did. Maybe his congregation’s reaction points to the need for the faithful to be eased into the practice of praying for one’s enemies—and to the Church’s reticence in teaching it.

 

       I often wonder why the Church does not make it a regular practice to pray for our enemies just as we do for our benefactors during the Eucharistic Prayers, which would at least make us hear this command weekly in our liturgies. No doubt such a Eucharistic prayer would speak to, if not poke, the heart of someone unable to worship at a Sunday Mass because of a spat with a spouse, coworker, or fellow parishioner, certainly a good beginning in living the challenge. 

 

      Through personal conflicts I have learned that offering forgiveness is life-giving because cultivating ill will and vengeance only contaminates the heart in which they are sown, blighting its very well-being. Jesus is right; peace comes through forgiveness and begins when we pray not only for our enemies but also for the desire to forgive them, especially when the wounds go deep.

 

      Although I embrace the necessity of forgiveness, very rarely have I been satisfied when priests or deacons give homilies about it because they fail to validate the anger and fear left by physical or emotional injuries or to recognize forgiveness as a process which needs time.  Most of the homilies on the subject I have heard skip over the human realities and sound as if Christians can fast forward through the visceral mess with a jerk of the knee. 

 

     Instead forgiveness ought to be taught as a destination that starts with small steps:  through prayer, such as, “Lord, bless me with the grace to forgive,” and “Lord, please forgive them until I can;” through recognizing the wedge we place between God and ourselves when we harbor hatred, not to mention the damage it does to our physical and emotional health; and through realizing that the God Who loves us loves our enemies—either personal or political- as much.

 

       Praying for and then forgiving one’s enemies is neither easy nor popular, yet it is Jesus’ command and part of our call to discipleship. But we need to hear and learn more about it before we can put the teaching into practice—as well as more shepherds like Greg Kandra who are willing to challenge the flock.

 

                                                            Sincerely yours,

 

                                                           

                                                            Dorothy K. LaMantia

                                                           

Edison Woods | 7/25/2009 - 12:05pm
One point concerning this article, I fail to see why this gentleman's fellow paritioners should be shocked by the suggestion they should pray for their enemies, even one which is mentioned by name. After all our Lord Jesus commanded us to pray for them. Christians who are shocked by such a proceeding need to pray for themselves as well as their enemies.
Michael McGrath | 7/23/2009 - 1:19pm
Dear Deacon Greg,
I would like to thank you for your article in AMERICA magizine this month.  You certainly captured the many facits that are part of the life of the deacon.  This year will be the thirtieth anniversary of my ordination in the Diocese of Syracuse.  As you might expect it has been an occasion for reflection and gratitude.  Your article reminded me of the many experiences, people, opportunities of growth, and sense of service that has come with this grace as a deacon.
Sincerely,
Mike McGrath
Tanya Rybarczyk | 7/22/2009 - 10:42am
I wept, after reading A Deacon's Lessons, for all the Catholic women who already minister, who already, because of their nature, share "in the worries and wonders and hopes of the people in the pews," but who will never experience the sacramental grace of ordination - will never experience and be changed by the mystery that is "uplifted and enlarged" by a grace conferred by the church they so love and believe in.  I understand now more fully why my childrens' God-mother left the Catholic church she so loved to become a protestant pastor.  How sad that our church - the Universal Church - is not big enough to make room for women deacons.  Kudos to William T. Ditewig for inviting discussion of women deacons in his article Married and Ordained.  The church would benefit not only from conversation, but from action, on this issue.  Women ARE ministering within the church - why do we insist on denying them all the tools and training and spiritual support available to them?  Why deny them the grace that Greg Kandra so expounds?
ROBERT NUNZ MR | 7/15/2009 - 1:22pm
Add to the list that Deacons(and priests, though some aren't) should be uniters, not dividers. Online today, a Deacon Keith Fournier has a piece that says we need to crush the dissenters, and, like good children, report those who say or do anything not by the book. In a world frequently short of priests, deacons are often individuals most interacting from the clergy standpoint with the laity.In our harshly divided Church, they can either bring folks closer or push them apart.Another good rule in that is to follow Benedict(the saint, that is) and be alistener (with the ear of the heart.
 
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STEPHANIE SIPE | 7/15/2009 - 11:20am
Just 'clearing up' my comment:
Just one question, what about those of us who are called to the Diaconate but have been given a resounding 'no'? We are left with a burning flame, placed in the deepest part of our souls by God, which cannot be extinguished, even on a cold floor.
THOMAS EVRARD | 7/15/2009 - 9:46am
Deacon Greg's message is simple and succinct: "humble service." Thanks for a great article.
Peace,
Deacon Tom Evrard
STEPHANIE SIPE | 7/14/2009 - 12:17pm
[size= 11pt; color: black; font-family: Verdana]Just one question, what about those of us who are called to the Diaconate but have been given a resounding ‘no’? We are left with a burning flame, placed in the deepest part of our souls by God, which cannot be extinguished, even on a cold floor.[/size]