By putting God in the driver's seat, blogging deacon found his path

Deacon Greg Kandra

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Greg Kandra
Who he is: Deacon, multimedia editor for the Catholic Near East Welfare Association
Lives in: Forest Hills, N.Y.

Sr. Camille: Greg, your presence and the blog you offer have inspired and challenged parishioners at Our Lady Queen of Martyrs for many years. How long have you been providing this service?

Kandra:  I started "The Deacon's Bench" a couple of weeks after I was ordained, in June 2007.

Who encouraged you to do this?

At the time, I was the editor of Katie Couric's blog, "Couric & Co.," at CBS News, so I had a little experience in the blogosphere. A good friend, Elizabeth Scalia (who created the blog "The Anchoress"), had encouraged me to think about starting a blog, and as I looked around, I noticed there were very few out there by deacons and fewer still that reflected an image of the church that was recognizable to me -- a church made up of a wide variety of people and practices. So I spent some time one afternoon putting together a template on Blogger, and the rest is history.

What effect has it had on your readers?

The most important effect has been expanding people's knowledge about and awareness of the diaconate. While I don't post exclusively on deacons, I do devote a lot of time and attention to it, and I always try to post interesting items about vocations and ordinations. Some readers are flabbergasted -- one wrote to me to say, "I had no idea there were so many deacons!"

Others who are curious about this ministry seek out the blog for information. I find a lot of people come to the site looking for homily ideas, too, and a few people have written to say they heard a homily from my blog delivered at their local parish, which is sort of funny. But I put this material out there for anyone to make use of. As I like to say, "The Holy Spirit owns the copyright, not me."

What effect has your blog had on you?

It's been both rewarding and humbling. I'm stunned at the reach of the Internet. I get emails from all over the world. That's been a little bewildering. But it's a reminder of God's extravagant creativity. He's endlessly finding ways to get out his word.

When were you ordained a deacon and by whom?

May 24, 2007, by Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn, N.Y.

What led you to this ministry?

In a very real and tangible way, my vocation grew out of the ashes of 9/11. Being in New York then, working at CBS News, I saw up close just how fragile and vulnerable we all are. I remember seeing the "Missing" posters on lampposts and bus stops, watching the endless funerals on TV, feeling the pervasive sense of dread and sorrow that seemed to haunt the city.

I found myself pulled deeper into my prayer life, seeking to do something more meaningful with the time I've been given. I began reading Thomas Merton, and after I'd finished The Seven Storey Mountain, I had a hunger to plunge into Cistercian spirituality. I made a couple of monastic retreats. Finally, on one retreat, I met someone I'd never met before: a permanent deacon. I heard him preach at Mass, and everything fell into place. This, I thought, was what I should be doing. It was a "Eureka!" moment.

Is this your full-time work?

I have a lot of "full-time work"! My main job is working for Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA), a papal agency based in Manhattan, where I serve as the agency's multimedia editor and one of the editors of its quarterly magazine, ONE. Then in my free time, I manage my blog, "The Deacon's Bench," minister at my parish, write a weekly column for the bulletin, and travel around the country giving parish missions and retreats. I also do some freelance writing for places like America magazine and Give Us This Day.  But my work at CNEWA is my "day job."

Where and with whom did you spend your childhood?

I grew up in Rockville, Md., and did all the usual things: Cub Scouts, altar boy society, school plays. I attended St. Vincent Pallotti High School in Laurel, Md., where I was editor of the school newspaper and worked on the yearbook. That was where I first fell in love with writing and journalism.  

Did you have any role models?

My great hero was E.B. White. Sr. Matthew Christi, my fourth-grade teacher, introduced us to Charlotte's Web at St. Peter's Elementary School, and I fell in love with the words, the characters, the poignancy behind the story of life and death on a family farm.

Did you ever want to become a priest?

For about 10 minutes, yeah.

Expand on that answer, please.

Well, then I discovered girls. And writing. And my imagination and my hormones and my ambition had other plans for me.

Where did you meet your wife?

I met Siobhain shortly after I graduated high school. The two of us acted in a summer theater production of "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown." I was Charlie Brown; she played Patty. For me, it was love at first sight. For her, not so much. I was a jerk and pathetically immature. But I guess I grew on her. We dated through college, and for a little while after. We got married in 1986.   

Do you have children?

No. For whatever reason, children were not part of God's plan for us.  

Please share something about your current home life.

My wife was pursuing a career as an actor for a number of years, doing regional theater and a few small films, but she decided to put that on hold after I began formation. She's now my resident "prayer warrior." She's involved in some ministries at our parish -- she is, hands down, the world's greatest lector -- and helps support me in my ministry.

She really makes what I do possible and is extraordinarily generous, giving me the freedom and opportunity to do what I do, whether it's sitting at the computer all night toiling over a homily or heading out after work to meet a parishioner about an annulment case or leaving for a weekend to lead a retreat. She also assists me whenever I do baptisms: I introduce her to people as the "minister of the towel." I should also add: She keeps me grounded and sane, which is no small thing.

How many pastors have you had since you began your service as a deacon?

Two: Msgr. Joseph Funaro, who mentored me in my formation, and now Bishop Paul Sanchez, an auxiliary bishop for the diocese of Brooklyn (and, not insignificantly, the son of a deacon!).

What have you learned from being a deacon?

I never cease to be amazed, awed, humbled and challenged. God uses us in ways we may never have imagined. And the grace of Holy Orders continues to make the impossible possible. I sometimes wonder where I find the stamina, energy or imagination to do what I need to do. But as St. Paul reminded us, "God's grace is sufficient." More and more, I realize that being a deacon draws on that grace. It's a well that never runs dry.

What is your image of God?

He is a lot more patient, tolerant, merciful and good-humored than we are. He delights in surprising us. I imagine he finds himself exasperated sometimes, but he never tires of waiting for us to come to our senses. And: He loves without limits, loving even those who do not love him or even believe in him. This is something most of us can't fathom because it's just not something most of us could manage. But, of course: That's why he's God and we're not.    

How do you pray best?

I love the Liturgy of the Hours; the psalms never fail to strike a chord. But I do my best praying, and often get the best advice and ideas, just sitting before the Blessed Sacrament and saying, "Here I am, Lord. What do you need to tell me?"

Do you have a favorite Bible passage, prayer or saint?

The Prayer of St. Francis is my go-to prayer -- a source of tremendous serenity and hope. And I adore St. Therese of Lisieux, who was so human but had so much pluck and drive. I find her so accessible, too. She was constantly stumbling toward sainthood -- a good model for us all.

My favorite Bible verse? "Behold, I make all things new." I never tire of remembering that. We are continually being renewed! I need to hear that. I think everyone does.   

Who and what encourages you?

I am genuinely moved by the fervor and faith of my wife. She prays with such utter sincerity and simplicity and trust. She's much more disciplined than I am. A day doesn't go by that she doesn't pray a full rosary, sometimes two or three. I want to be like her when I grow up.

Do you meet with deacons in other parishes to share experiences and expectations?

One of the joys of my ministry is being able to travel around the country to meet deacons from other parishes, other dioceses. Every group is different, but we're also all the same. There is a burning desire in the heart of every deacon simply to serve: to help people on their path to heaven. It's great to get together and compare notes about how we're doing that.  

What do you find missing?

I wish there were more uniformity in the diaconate. Every diocese approaches its deacons and their formation a little differently. Some places let deacons preach often, some don't; some places encourage them to wear the collar, some don't. And not every pastor (or even every bishop) loves deacons. It can be a source of tension and even resentment. But the restoration of the diaconate as a permanent order is still something new, and I think we're all still finding our way and figuring it out. In another century or two, we'll be fine. 

What advice would you offer men wanting to follow your example?

When I began formation, after a very brief period of discernment, just a few weeks, I essentially said to God, "OK. Here's the deal. You take the keys. You drive. We'll go as far as you want. If you want me to get out, fine. If you want me to make it to the end and be ordained, that's fine, too. But probably for the first time in my life, I'm trusting you with this major life decision. You are literally in the driver's seat. Now, let's go." It seems to have worked out. If anyone is discerning a calling, my advice is simple: Give the keys to God and see where he wants to take you.

Do you have an opinion about opening the diaconate to qualified women?

In many ways, I think it could be a real blessing. But I can also understand the hesitancy and why the church is skittish. It's a complicated issue.  

How would you feel about welcoming qualified laypeople to the ministry of preaching?

I'm for it. We need good preachers, and we need better preachers. The opportunity to preach is one of the reasons I wanted to become a deacon. I'd spent 40 years in the pews hearing too many boring homilies, and I kept thinking, "There's got to be a better way to do this." I think there are gifted laypeople sitting in the pews today who are probably thinking the same thing. Many of them are better-educated -- and better communicators -- than the clergy and could bring a different dimension to the pulpit.   

In many parishes, there is little to attract young adults. Do you have plan or program to address their needs?

We have a superb young adult ministry that is just taking root at my parish. I think it begins with finding a youth minister who has a special knack for this and who can make the life of faith especially attractive to teens and young adults. Give them a reason to want to come to church and a community of like-minded people to support them, and who knows what might result?

At Our Lady Queen of Martyrs, we have a sensational altar server program that brings in boys and girls in third or fourth grade, and many stay involved and stay engaged in parish life past high school and into college. They're given a sense of community, of engagement, of mission, and of joy -- and it works.

What in the church would you like to see changed?

As vocations shrink and parishes close, we need to rethink how parishes are run and who runs them. The model many of us grew up with, with three or four priests at every parish, always on call, is no longer sustainable. If a qualified layperson or sister or deacon can serve as a parish administrator, they should, freeing up priests to offer the sacraments and meet the spiritual needs of the flock. And it may be time for the church to take a serious and thoughtful look at priestly celibacy. Is that model still sustainable? If married men became priests, how would that work? How have our Eastern siblings managed it? What are the financial implications? It's worth some serious, sober study.

What in the church has great value for you?

Again and again, turning over that question in my mind, I keep going back to just one word: grace. There's that famous moment at the end of "Diary of a Country Priest" where the protagonist says, "Grace is everywhere." So it is in the church. We are besotted with grace -- in the sacraments, our liturgy, our teachings, the Gospel, the extraordinary work of so many selfless and loving people who continue to make Christ manifest in the work they do and they sacrifices they make. Grace really is everywhere in the church. I continue to be humbled and inspired by it -- and tremendously grateful.

[Mercy Sr. Camille D'Arienzo, broadcaster and author, narrates Stories of Forgiveness, a book about people whose experiences have caused them to consider the possibilities of extending or accepting forgiveness. The audiobook, renamed Forgiveness: Stories of Redemption, is available from Now You Know Media.]

Editor's note: We can send you an email alert every time Sr. Camille's column, Conversations with Sr. Camille, is posted. Go to this page and follow directions: Email alert signup.

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