A judge, an engineer, a sales manager, a custodian and a financial operations consultant.
No, this is not the start of one of those jokes that builds up to a clever ending.
This is just a sampling that reflects the backgrounds of the 14 men who were ordained permanent deacons by Bishop John M. Smith May 8 in St. Mary of the Assumption Cathedral, Trenton.
Now with their ordination day behind them, several of the new deacons paused to reflect on their vocation and the new responsibilities that go along with it, as well as the joys, struggles and sacrifices they made in the past four years during formation.
All of the men agreed that their decisions to becoming deacons did not come lightly or smoothly. It took time, prayer, and various lived and learning experiences for them to conclude that serving the Church was something that God indeed wanted them to do.
Though his name might not be known to every Catholic in New Jersey, the work that newly-ordained Deacon Patrick Brannigan does as executive director of the New Jersey Catholic Conference does indeed affect the lives of every Catholic and the population at large.
Now he is serving the Church in his new role as a deacon for the Diocese of Trenton, assigned to St. James Parish, Pennington, where he has been a member for 35 years.
“They put me to work this past weekend,” said Deacon Brannigan of his whirlwind weekend May 22-23, and how he had to preside at a wake service, prepare a homily for a funeral, and lead a committal service. On top of that, he had to preach homilies for two Masses on Pentecost Sunday.
“I was very tired come Sunday afternoon,” he said with a chuckle.
Long active in his parish as an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion and lector, who made visits to the homebound, Deacon Brannigan said the call to consider a vocation came by way of two deacons in the parish.
At first, Deacon Brannigan admitted to being a bit reluctant, “because of my age” and that he had just retired from a 40-year career working in public service with New Jersey Institute of Technology. But, just about the same time he was asked about the diaconate, he was approached about applying for the job as executive director of the NJCC by “my predecessor,” Bill Bolan, who was planning to retire.
In thinking back, Deacon Brannigan realized that the timing of the two were more than just coincidences.
“I began to wonder if God really might be calling me to serve the Church,” he said, and with that he went for both. He applied for the NJCC job and entered the diaconate formation program.
Deacon Brannigan is pleased at how his NJCC and diaconate ministries will complement one another.
“The two blend together so much,” he said. At the NJCC, many issues that are addressed focus on Catholic Social Teaching – social justice, end-of-life, marriage, etc.
“In a sense, the diaconate studies provided basic training for the NJCC job.”
For Deacon Walter Karpecik of St. Katharine Drexel Parish, Burlington, the invitation to consider the diaconate was made by his former pastor, Father Adam Midor.
Father Midor, who is now pastor of Sts. Francis and Clare Parish, Florence Township, was pastor of All Saints Parish, Burlington, where Deacon Karpecik has been a lifelong member. In 2008, All Saints was merged with St. Paul Parish, Burlington, and became St. Katharine Drexel Parish.
“I hadn’t thought about becoming a deacon until Father Adam approached me after Mass one Sunday,” said Deacon Karpecik, who has been involved in the St. Vincent de Paul Society and as a reader and extraordinary minister of Holy Communion.
After learning about what the program would entail, Deacon Karpecik said that “I decided to go for it.”
As Deacon Karpecik pursued his studies, he acknowledged the tremendous support he’s received from Father Michael Dunn, pastor of St. Katharine Drexel Parish.
“When he first came, I was concerned that he had so much on his plate with bringing our two parishes together that I didn’t know how he would respond to my being in the diaconate program and his having to sponsor me,” said Deacon Karpecik.
But his fears were soon allayed and “I couldn’t have asked for a better pastor,” he said.
Before Deacon Terence Sikoryak of St. Theresa Parish, Tuckerton, tells about how it was his wife, Mary Lou, who encouraged him to consider becoming a deacon, he first tells how Mary Lou was the reason for his returning to the Catholic Church after being “away from it” for 25 years.
Although Deacon Sikoryak was raised Catholic, he left the Church and joined a Protestant church where he became active as a preacher, studied the Bible and started his own radio ministry program, “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” which continues to air on Saturday mornings on WYRS-FM and on the internet.
The show features a mix of folk, blue grass, Irish, rock and some Christian music, plus a brief reflective message.
“It’s good clean music,” he said. “It’s different than anything else that’s on the radio.”
Deacon Sikoryak returned to the Catholic Church about eight years ago and it was because of the “faith of my wife.”
“Mary Lou and I lost a baby and we had a crisis of faith,” said the father of six children. “I wanted us to be together in church and Mary Lou just couldn’t leave the Catholic Church. I decided that I’ll come to the Catholic Church and that was when I fell in love with it.”
He decided to pursue the diaconate after attending the information night and encountering a deacon who shared some of his own insights.
“That deacon,” recalled Deacon Sikoryak, “said that when he was ordained that ‘God took me to places that I never would have been before’ and that he was able to touch people’s lives through his ministries – celebrating Baptisms, witnessing marriages, presiding at funerals and preaching.”
“And that’s what did it for me,” he said.
‘Till death do us part’
In the diocesan diaconate formation program, it’s consistently emphasized to the candidates that they keep their priorities straight. They are told that God comes first in their lives, then their families, then their careers and then their diaconate duties.
This is a concept that Deacon Robert and Judy Gay of St. Barnabas Parish, Bayville, have come to appreciate in the past four years.
The way Deacon Gay sees it, having both a vocation to marriage and the diaconate through the Sacrament of Holy Orders “means being called to God’s discipleship.”
“We’re all called to be disciples of God,” he said. But what is important for him to remember is that his marriage to Judy is his primary vocation and being a deacon is his secondary vocation.
“I have to remember that’s where my roots are – in my marriage,” he said.
Deacon Gay said that it would have been mighty difficult to have pursued his diaconate studies without his wife’s unwavering support and their strong marital foundation.
“If you don’t have a solid marriage, you won’t be a good deacon,” he said, then added that those deacons who are married and have families can bring their experiences to the table serving in such ministries as marriage preparation programs.
“Marriage does help you for some of the ministries you are called to do.”
One way Judy Gay supported her husband was by attending his formational classes with him.
“I’m a retired teacher and I retired just around the time Bob started the classes so I had this great opportunity to attend,” she said.
Throughout his diaconate journey, Judy Gay said that both she and Bob had matured in their faith, as individuals and as a married couple.
“It was a wonderful experience and it brought us really closer together,” she said. “We would talk about the classes in the car on the way home.”
Judy Gay admitted that some adjustments had to be made in their home life to accommodate his ministry as a deacon.
“It’s not easy,” she said. “Wives need to be supportive of their husbands. There’s a lot that’s required of them.”
“Your marriage has to be strong,” Judy Gay added. “Couples have to be on the same page in terms of how much time is going to be given to the parish and the diaconate duties as well as how much time we will need for ourselves.”
As the only unmarried man out of the class of 14 newly ordained deacons, Deacon Karpecik went into the diaconate program knowing full well that on ordination day he would have to make a promise of celibacy before Bishop Smith.
Though Deacon Karpecik instantly speaks of how his fellow classmates and their wives “were all wonderful to me” and “we went on to become one big happy family,” Deacon Karpecik still felt the pangs of being single and experiencing a journey which he regarded as being a “little different.”
Deacon Karpecik spoke of how ironic it was that in the four years, he missed only one class because of car trouble. And the topic of that night’s class, he said, was on marriage.
Though he was given an audio recording of the class and had to write a reflection paper on marriage, Deacon Karpecik said that because he was not married, the topic was “difficult.”
“I think more needs to be done to address” the issue of unmarried deacons, said Deacon Karpecik. “It certainly changed my life when I made the promise of celibacy in front of the bishop and I did feel a little distance from the class in that respect.”
Wanna Become a Deacon?
The newly ordained deacons had lots of advice to share with other men who might be considering a vocation.
Deacon Sikoryak said that he would advise a man to pray and recognize “what God was doing in his life.”
“For me, this past year of formation especially has been the most powerful,” he said. “Even though I had gone to Bible School in California and was used to preaching on the radio, I always thought I was ‘qualified’ to become a deacon. But in the past year, God showed me that I wasn’t qualified. He showed me that by my saying yes to a vocation, that he was now able to use me to do his will.”
“That was incredibly humbling,” said Deacon Sikoryak, “and very liberating.”
If he’s heard it once, he’s heard it again and again, about a man resisting to consider the diaconate simply because he doesn’t feel that he is “worthy,” said Deacon Karpecik.
“My response is ‘Who is worthy?’”
Though Deacon Karpecik admitted that the past four years have been a bit of a “roller coaster ride” between his studies and the time commitment to the diaconate and experiencing his share of “ups and downs, there was never a time when I didn’t say that ‘Yes, I want to do this.’”
For any man seriously considering the diaconate, he added that he would encourage him “not to be afraid.”
Deacon Karpecik explained, “He’ll know if it’s right for him. He’ll truly know. I honestly believe that.”
Deacon Gay said he believes that God had been calling him to a vocation in the diaconate for many years.
“But, I was probably not responding to the call,” he said.
He now says with certainty, “God’s got me in the right place, right now.” Prior to joining St. Barnabas Parish, Deacon Gay and his wife, Judy, had been members of Our Lady Star of the Sea Parish, Long Branch, (which is now part of Christ the King Parish) where he was active as a reader, visiting nursing home residents and homebound parishioners, the St. Vincent de Paul Society and the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. He also volunteered with Catholic Charities for many years. Through his ministries, Deacon Gay said he realized that he could “do more for Christ’s Church as a deacon.”
Upon relocating to Lanoka Harbor and joining St. Barnabas Parish, Deacon Gay pursued discussions about the diaconate with Father Kevin Keelen, pastor, even though he was new to the area and not well acquainted with Father Keelen or the parish.
However, as time went on, Deacon Gay said, “Father Keelen had come to have enough confidence in me and he continued to encourage me in this training.”
Now newly ordained Deacon Gay looks forward to serving his parish community, which he described as being one where “there is a great need.”
“There are a lot of families and people who have gone through rough times who need ministering to,” he said, noting that the parish population is comprised of a “mix” of various backgrounds – cultural, age, economic, and that there are folks who are “spiritually starving and they come to church looking for direction,” said Deacon Gay.
“I’m just grateful to the parishioners of St. Barnabas and Father Keelen who had faith in me to become a deacon. I will continue to support the parish and serve the Diocese of Trenton any way I can.”
For Deacon Brannigan the most powerful part of his diaconate formation was “making the journey with the other 13 candidates.”
“All of them are wonderful, good people,” he said, then went on to commend the roster of instructors.
Deacon Brannigan said that if any man had expressed an interest in becoming a deacon, “I would tell him just do it.”