Bishop O'Connell presides over the Rite of Candidacy for the five men who will begin formation in the diocesan diaconate program. Joe Moore photos
Bishop O'Connell presides over the Rite of Candidacy for the five men who will begin formation in the diocesan diaconate program. Joe Moore photos

By Lois Rogers | Correspondent

Surrounded by brother deacons whose ranks they seek to join, five men from the four counties of the Diocese took a meaningful step on their journey Oct. 27 when they were formally accepted by Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., as candidates for the diocesan diaconate program.

Photo Gallery: 2018 Convocation for Deacons and their Wives

In moments they described as life-changing, the five candidates – George A. Chemaly, St. Mary Parish, Middletown; Robert A. Golden, St. Martha Parish, Point Pleasant; Eugene Kotowski, St. Joan of Arc Parish, Marlton; Paul C. LaPlante, St. Gregory the Great Parish, Hamilton Square, and Joseph V. Montone, St. Mary of the Assumption Cathedral, Trenton – were called by the Bishop to prepare to receive the Sacrament of Holy Orders, which is expected to occur after five years of study.

The rite, which took place within the Mass celebrated by Bishop O’Connell, marked the end of a period of aspirancy, which began last year. During that time, the five sought to discern whether they were being called to the diaconate and learn what to expect in the formation program and about the life of a deacon in general.

Reflecting on the day’s significance, Chemaly spoke of the rite as a confirmation of his years of holding onto his faith despite great pressure to do otherwise. Chemaly witnessed great persecution in Lebanon before winning a green card lottery to immigrate with his family to the United States.

“I cannot describe the feeling that the Holy Spirit was there, lifting us up,” he said. “We are brothers. This is my family. We have the same aspiration to serve God. We are walking the journey together.”

The rite took place during the annual deacon convocation Oct. 26-27 in Princeton that also marked the 50th anniversary of the re-establishment of the permanent diaconate. Some 200 deacons and their wives gathered for presentations by keynote speaker Father Daniel E. Kirk, pastor in St. Charles Borromeo Parish, Cinnaminson, who spoke on spirituality of service as a key element of the deacon ministry.

Endless Possibilities

In his homily, Bishop O’Connell drew from the Scripture of the day, focusing on the Gospel of Luke 13:1-9 with its two-fold emphasis on repentance and renewal. Focusing especially on the parable of the Barren Fig Tree, he shared how many of the stories told by Jesus “leave us thinking about what they mean.”

When preaching, there must be real consideration, he said, on “what do we want [those listening] to take home with them. This morning, we hear of the barren fig tree in the vineyard and the reaction of the owner to cut it down after three years of failing to bear fruit.”

“However, a worker in the vineyard looks at the tree in a different way. … He says, not so fast. There is still a possibility it can bear fruit. The worker had a vision that all was not lost for the fig tree.” The Bishop asked everyone to ponder the meaning.

The story, he said, “may be saying, this is the way the Lord looks at us. He doesn’t see what we have failed to do but what we can do. If the Lord looks at us in this way, we should look for faint signs of new life and do everything we can to make life happen.”

Multi-Dimensional Ministry

Over the two days, Father Kirk, an instructor in the Permanent Diaconate Formation Program, addressed the personal, family and pastoral dimensions of the vocation and what its revival has meant to the Church.

He spoke on the “rich history of the diaconate in the early Church, which created hallmarks from the very beginning when we hear how deacons would not only distribute Holy Bread in Church” but took it out into the community.

He also addressed family as an essential element in the life of the Church and its members. Describing families as “the proving grounds of love,” Father Kirk reflected that the challenge in these complicated times is to “continue to strengthen families, especially in light of the current culture and the struggles of modern families.”

“Losing things like family dinner time,” he said, “hurts not only relationships within the home but also weakens one’s understanding of the importance of sharing the Eucharistic meal with the wider Christian community. In large part, so goes the family, so goes the Church.”

Focusing on the pastoral dimension of the ministry, Father Kirk reminded the deacons that with sacred ordination, they became “living icons of Christ the servant, called to represent Christ in a very real way.”

“Modeling Christ in all that you do is a heavy responsibility,” he said, one that God would not ask for “if he did not give you the tools.”

“God gives you the grace to live up to what he has called you to,” he said, urging the deacons to seek balance as they tend to their families and their flocks. “If you don’t take care of yourselves, you won’t be able to help the people who need you. Be fed by God and then go out to others.”