The Catholic Deacon Today: 20 Questions for Deacon Greg Kandra

Deacon Greg Kandra is a Catholic journalist, permanent deacon and husband who ministers at Our Lady Queen of Martyrs parish in Forest Hills, N.Y. He holds a B.A. in English and was ordained a deacon for the Diocese of Brooklyn in 2007.

Deacon Kandra is multimedia editor for Catholic Near East Welfare Association (C.N.E.W.A.), a pontifical association founded by Pope Pius XI in 1926, overseeing its “One-to-One” blog and editing its award-winning magazine “One.” He authors a popular blog on the Catholic website Aleteia.

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Before joining C.N.E.W.A., Deacon Kandra spent nearly three decades in broadcast journalism, mostly at CBS News, where he was a writer and producer for several programs including “48 Hours,” “60 Minutes II,” “Sunday Morning” and “The CBS Evening News with Katie Couric.” In addition to his work with CBS News, from 2000 to 2004 he served as a writer and producer on the live finales of the hit reality series “Survivor.” He has received two Emmys, two Peabody Awards and four awards from the Writer’s Guild of America.

Deacon Kandra's homilies are featured in the collections Hungry and You Fed Me and Naked and You Clothed Me from Clear Faith Publishing. His writings have appeared in America, U.S. Catholic, Catholic Digest, Reality and the Brooklyn Tablet, among other venues. He also writes monthly reflections for “Give Us This Day” from Liturgical Press.

I recently interviewed Deacon Kandra by email about the ministry of permanent deacons.

Next summer will mark 50 years since Pope Paul VI restored the diaconate as a permanent ministry in Roman Catholicism on June 18, 1967, which he did on the recommendation of the council fathers at the Second Vatican Council. As a permanent deacon yourself, how do you assess the success of this restoration and the status of diaconal ministry in the Western Church today?

Rocco Palmo has called the restored diaconate one of the great success stories of Vatican II—and I don’t disagree! I saw some statistics a few years ago that showed that the diaconate is the only religious vocation that is actually growing, and if you look at the numbers in the United States alone, it’s been phenomenal. We’re still relatively new—50 years in the life of the church is barely a blip on the radar screen—and I know there are still priests and bishops (and laity!) who are getting used to the idea of deacons and figuring out how best to put us to use. But we’ve come a long way in a short time. The Holy Spirit hasn’t been idle. One great sign: there are many priests being ordained today who are sons of deacons or who grew up with deacons in their home parish. They “get” the diaconate and instinctively understand what this vocation is all about.   

Thanks to Paul VI’s restoration, we now have transitional deacons who are celibate men ordained for a fixed period prior to the priesthood and permanent deacons (often married men) who do not advance to priestly orders. In your experience, what are some similarities and differences between these two forms of the Roman Rite diaconate today?

Well, as blogger Fr. John Zuhlsdorf likes to say, “A deacon is a deacon is a deacon.” And he’s right. Technically, there’s really no difference between a transitional deacon and a permanent deacon. What changes, though, is what the men bring to their ministry. Transitional deacons are usually younger and, as you mentioned, are preparing for ordination to the priesthood. They’re looking at the diaconate as a step and thinking about it in a larger context. Permanent deacons, though, never aspire to be anything more than “just a deacon.” And we live out our ministry in the context of a job, marriage, family and so on. Many permanent deacons are also older—most are in their 50s and 60s when they’re ordained—and so they have all this life experience that they bring to their ministry. That informs how they minister, how they preach; it gives a different context. Also, since he lives and works in the community he serves, the permanent deacon is usually perceived differently by the people in the pews—and that’s as it should be! He can serve as the eyes and ears for the bishop or pastor—and as a voice for the people.    

In the Bible, Acts of the Apostles mentions the institution of the diaconate to assist the ministry of the 12 apostles after the resurrection of Jesus, and deacons were initially more important than presbyters (priests) as assistants to bishops in the early centuries of Christianity. But as time progressed and priests acquired more responsibilities, the diaconate became a transitional phase for priesthood candidates in the West, where it vanished as a permanent ministry for many centuries prior to 1967. In what ways does your diaconal ministry today echo the ministry of deacons in the early church?  

A big part of my job is to try and make the priest’s job a little easier—a parishioner once described the deacon as “the priest’s helper,” and that’s not far off the mark. By pitching in with weddings, wakes, baptisms and preaching, I’m able to help free up the priests to devote their time to making sick calls, counseling, confessions, funerals and things like that. 

The diaconate means something different in the Eastern Orthodox churches. What are some similarities and differences between deacons in the east and west?

Well, the biggest difference is purely liturgical. In the Eastern churches, deacons do a lot in the Divine Liturgy—including a fair amount of chanting/singing. They do not preside at weddings—the Eastern theology of marriage is a bit different than ours in the west—and I don’t believe they perform baptisms, either. Unlike in the Latin church, the deacon in the Eastern church never takes on the role of a presider. He doesn’t offer blessings, either. But the theological understanding of the diaconate is still fundamentally the same: they are seen as serving the people of God and assisting the priest—standing before the people as an image of Christ the servant. 

What have been some highlights of your diaconal ministry?

Well, a recent highlight was attending the jubilee for deacons in Rome last May. I was invited to be one of the deacons who addressed the English-speaking deacons; my wife and I later had the incredible opportunity to actually meet Pope Francis after the Mass in St. Peter’s Square. That was something I’ll never forget. And there are all the firsts that go with any ministry—my first baptism, first wedding, first funeral. I was humbled to be asked to vest my friend Jeremy Cana when he was ordained a transitional deacon a couple years back. And it was a special privilege to be able to preach the homily at my in-laws’ 50th wedding anniversary a few years ago. Those kinds of moments are priceless.

What have been some challenges of your diaconal ministry?

I remember vividly my first funeral homily. A good friend and diaconal classmate of mine, Jim Hynes, passed away suddenly just a few months after ordination. His wife asked me to preach at the funeral Mass. It was the hardest thing I’d ever had to do. The celebrant was Bishop Frank Caggiano—so it was also my first Mass serving with a bishop. Adding to the emotion of the day: Jim was a retired cop, so the church was packed with deacons and police officers and as we made our way to the entrance of the church to greet the body, I could hear from outside the sound of bagpipes. This was one of those moments when the “grace of orders” must have kicked in. I never could have gotten through it without the help of the Holy Spirit—and, I’m sure, a prayerful assist from Jim.

Some famous Roman Catholic deacons include the early martyr St. Lawrence, who died roasted on a gridiron, and St. Francis of Assisi, perhaps the most popular Catholic saint, whom many might not realize was a celibate deacon rather than a priest. Who inspires you the most in your own diaconal ministry and why?

I like to preach, and before I climb into the pulpit, I never forget to whisper a prayer to St. Stephen, the first deacon and first martyr. (When I teach homiletics, I like to remind the guys that Stephen was killed for his preaching—so prepare to be stoned!) But someone who really challenges me, and inspires me, and humbles me in my ministry is Pope Francis. Not long after his election, I wrote a blog post and said, “This pope is getting to me.” He’s making all of us look at how we live, how we minister, the choices we make—and he’s showing us another way. Honestly, I think he’s the most “diaconal” pope we’ve had in my lifetime. He walks the walk. He heads into the margins. He embraces the poor and disfigured and shows us how to minister to everyone. He radiates the love of God however he can, to whomever he can. And he just never seems to run out of gas. This 80-year-old guy with one lung puts the rest of us to shame. 

How has being a deacon influenced your Catholic faith?

I think I tend to see and experience everything through the lens of my ministry. I’m not just a Catholic anymore. I’m a Catholic clergyman, and my life is directed more and more to ministering to the people of God in whatever way I can. My faith is not just something reserved for Sundays. It permeates everything now. And one area that has been affected most profoundly is my marriage. I think both my wife and I see our marriage differently since I’ve been ordained. And I think the grace of Holy Orders has enriched the grace of marriage and reminded us both that we are here to serve one another, and that ultimately what we do should be for God, not for us.

How do you pray?

One person who was instrumental in my faith journey, and in my vocation, is Thomas Merton. His classic “Thoughts in Solitude” is a daily companion. In times of stress, I turn to the famous words on the back of the Miraculous Medal: “O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee.” She never lets me down.

Where do you find God in your diaconal ministry?

Oh, he is EVERYWHERE. And I’ve learned to seek him out everywhere, too. I’ve often said that everything in my life now is either a homily or a blog post—and that’s not much of an exaggeration. Living that way, and looking at life that way, has forced me to keep my eyes, ears and heart open to little epiphanies that pop up when you don’t expect them. And God is most assuredly there, in everything—he’s in the homeless guy begging on the subway; he’s in the divorced man seeking an annulment so he can remarry in the church and receive the Eucharist; he’s in the cry of a baby at a baptism; he’s in the 10-year-old altar server carrying incense for the first time, trying not to stumble and fall. More and more, the dividing line between my “church life” and “secular life” has blurred—and I think that’s how it should be. If you’re doing this whole deacon thing right, it all becomes one; the world becomes my ministry.

In ancient religions like Judaism and Christianity, the married father of a family was often the local priest in a community, leading worship for his family and for others. How does being a husband influence your own ministry as a deacon?

Well, among other things, it gives me some interesting stories for homilies. But in various ministries, people know and understand that I’m not a solo act—they know my wife; she’s a visible part of parish life, and they see us as a team. (She often assists me with baptisms and sometimes lectors when I serve Mass.)

This also means that some people are more apt to approach me first if they have a problem or concern involving marriage or family life; they think I’ll be more sympathetic, or more understanding, and maybe have ideas or solutions that a celibate priest might not have. I’m not sure that’s entirely true, but the perception is that people, for whatever reason, are often more trusting and open about these things to a man who’s married. Certainly, I’ve seen this in my ministry to couples seeking an annulment—I try to reassure them that I know personally the stresses and strains of married life, and that helps them to open up.

What are some lessons you’ve learned over the years of your ministry as a deacon?

When you think you can’t do something, God says, “Yes, you can.” When you think you don’t have the words, God says, “Yes, you do.” When you think you’ve run out of hope, God says, “Here’s hope.” Miracles abound. God will not be outdone in his generosity. People are amazing, too—full of possibility, but also full of fear and anxiety, especially now. The most profound gift you can give anyone, under almost any circumstance, is to simply remind them that they are loved. Too many people don’t think that. They feel as if God has given up on them. If you impart no other message from the pulpit, make it this: “God loves you.” That simple message in itself can work miracles.

From your perspective, what does the Roman Catholic diaconate need most badly today?

Diversity. Certainly, in parts of the United States we need more deacons representing different racial and ethnic groups—Hispanics, Native Americans, Chinese. Even in Brooklyn, there’s a dearth of Hispanic deacons. The deacons should look and sound like the people they serve, and we need to find more ways to make that happen.

If you could say one thing to Pope Francis about the diaconate today, what would it be?

Thanks for showing us how it’s done.

Although divine law bars women from becoming priests in Roman Catholicism, and canon law restricts all forms of ordination to baptized men, the existence of deaconesses in the early church has led some to speculate about restoring an order of deaconesses to the Roman Rite sometime in the future. Who were deaconesses in the early centuries of Christianity and how were they similar to or different from deacons?

There’s a lot of dispute about that, and that recently-formed commission set up by Pope Francis is going to try and answer some of those questionsThe best information available tells us that they assisted with baptisms of women. It’s unclear if they were involved in other sacramental duties. Some scholars have pointed to evidence that they did, in fact, preach, and may have had other liturgical functions, but if they did it wasn’t widespread and it didn’t last very long.

Since post-conciliar Roman Catholicism no longer requires ordination for ministries like taking communion to the sick and assisting with baptism, what reasons might remain for ordaining women as deaconesses today?

Well, the most important reason would be to add a woman’s voice, and a woman’s perspectiveI think a woman’s homily would, by its nature, be different from a man’s, and reflect different sensibilities. There’s a wealth of experience a wife and mother or grandmother would bring to breaking open the Word that would be very different, too. Likewise, a wife and mother doing a wedding or a baptism would offer something unique and new. 

Short of admitting women to the same order of deacon restricted to men, and short of admitting women to preaching and other ministries restricted to ordained clergy, Pope Francis has hinted that there may be other possibilities to enhance the role of women in the church and to develop a Catholic “theology of women.” What are some possibilities that you might imagine in this area?

I think a few people have floated the idea of women cardinals, and wouldn’t THAT be something? There’s a story circulating that John Paul once approached Mother Teresa and asked her if she’d consider being a cardinal, and she turned him down. One saint, turning down another for a historic job! I think we might also see more women canon lawyers and chancellors—all that, I think, would be great.

What do you hope people take away from your life and work?

I really want people to hear a message of hope. I haven’t tried it, but I imagine if you made a “word cloud” of my homilies, “hope” would be the biggest word. I want people to remember that there is always hope, and it comes to us in the person of Jesus Christ. We are a people of resurrection, and we are a people who can always begin again, by the grace and love of God. I also hope (there’s that word again) that I’m able to communicate the Gospel message in a way that’s relevant and real. My background is in the news business, and now I’m in the “Good News” business! I want folks to understand that what happened 2,000 years ago in the Judean desert is relevant to what’s happening today in Brooklyn and Queens. And I pray that somehow through my online ministry and my blog I’ve been able to evangelize a bit about the diaconate and make this vocation come alive for people.

That, plus when they read my blog, I hope they notice that I know how to write a catchy headline. In my next life, I want to write headlines for The New York Post.

Sean Salai, S.J., is a frequent contributor to America.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Crystal Watson
10 months ago
Depressing what short shrift the idea of equality of women with men in the church gets. The Pope doesn't want women to be ordained deacons as men are. The Pope has said the idea of women cardinals is a joke. And he has also said recently that women will *never* be priests in the Catholic church. Just wondering - do you guys, a deacon and a Jesuit, think that's what is fair, do you really think that's what God intends? Recently 11 German priests said that women should be priests in an open letter - the Pope will ignore them, of course. I wish more of the priests in this church had the courage and the integrity to speak up for women being treated equally.

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