This past September, four students of the Catholic faith entered the ranks of transitional deacon. They are in a unique place in their education. They are still students, not yet priests, but have been granted some of the faculties of clergy. These four men will spend about nine months developing their craft before being ordained to the priesthood this spring.
"It's really not that different from being a seminarian," said Deacon Paul Cygan, thinking about his current role. "We study. We pray. We live at the seminary in community with all the other seminarians. But we also have added responsibilities at assigned parishes."
At their ordination to the diaconate, each of the men received a parish assignment where they spend at least one weekend a month helping at Mass in the role of a deacon. Mainly, they proclaim the Gospel and preach. They can also preside over weddings and funerals outside of Mass, and offer the sacrament of baptism.
Still early in their ministry, none of the deacons have been able to offer those sacraments yet.
At Christ the King Seminary in East Aurora, they live like college students, staying in dorms and hanging out together after class. They study Liturgical Pracitum II, which teaches them the practices of the role of priest; Canon Law; American Church History; and Marriage and Sexuality. They also work on their master's thesis.
"(There is) not a whole lot of time for anything else," said Deacon Peter Santandreu, who is assigned to Blessed Sacrament Parish in Buffalo, where he serves with Father Paul R. Bossi, the pastor.
Deacon Santandreu tries to be a part of the parish life there as much as his time allows. He also shadows Father Bossi at Catholic Academy of West Buffalo, a regional school on Delaware Avenue, where Father Bossi serves as canonical administrator, and Voice-Buffalo meetings.
"I try to stay informed about what they're doing and be available to help out whenever I can," he said. When Catholic Academy needed a substitute religion teacher for the day, Deacon Santandreu filled in.
Deacon Gerard Skrzynski serves at Nativity of Our Lord in Orchard Park, with Father James Ciupek. The two met last summer when Deacon Skrzynski had a summer assignment at St. John the Baptist in Alden, where Father Ciupek was serving as pastor.
"The unique situation (at Nativity) is they just got a new pastor, Father Jim Ciupek, who I was with in Alden over the summer. He just introduced himself two weeks ago, and I went out last week to introduce myself. So, there's a lot of change, which is a good learning experience."
Deacon Skrzynski, age 54, and Father Ciupek share a similar background. Both men entered the seminary after starting careers in science.
"Father Jim is a very good mentor. He is very willing to take a hands-off approach. When I was with him over the summer, he would tell me what was expected, what Masses I would be giving the reflections at, or if I worked with the Vacation Bible School. So, he told me what was expected and when it was due, then he would let me to go out and figure out the best way to do it. If he saw problems in the plan, then he'd tell me about them, but he never really micromanaged," Deacon Skrzynski said. "Just to have that freedom to figure things out on your own, see how the parish reacts, get some feedback on my own, that did a lot to make me feel prepared to go out to a parish."
Out in Alden, he recalls seeing Father Ciupek deal with some busy weekends. "There'd be some Saturdays where there'd be two weddings, a funeral, confessions, the vigil Mass. That was interesting to see the way he was able to keep his energy levels up and how he would pace things and make time for relaxation among so many activities happening."
So, Deacon Skrzynski not only learned the professional side of being a priest, but learned how to manage his personal life as well.
Deacon Paul Cygan has a unique parish placement. He serves at St. Joseph Cathedral in downtown Buffalo, assisting at the special large Masses celebrated by Bishop Richard J. Malone, as well as with Father Charles Slisz, the cathedral rector.
"A lot of people have asked me how it feels to be a deacon. Does it feel any different? I can honestly tell them that because of the grace of the Holy Spirit through holy orders and because of the formation that we have received in the seminary, being a deacon has felt completely natural to me. Because we have been preparing for this ministry for a long time, we have all had an acute sense that our studying and formation has prepared us for active ministry in the Church and serving the people of God."
The seminary prepares the men to deliver homilies and blessing from the altar, but do priests still get stage fright? Looking out at hundreds of parishioners hungry for wisdom from Scripture every Sunday can be a daunting task.
"Before ordination, there was a little bit of nervousness," Deacon Cygan admits. "It was a good nervousness. The next day, I got to diaconate for Mass in my home parish in the Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels in Olean with Father Greg Dobson and Father David Tourville. I can honestly say that before Mass I was nervous, but once the Sign of the Cross began, all that nervousness went away. I would say, the grace of the Holy Spirit in holy orders really took over in that moment. It felt completely natural to function as a deacon in the special roles and to also preach at the Mass, and the beautiful moment when, after the consecration at the great Amen, when you get to hold the chalice right beside the priest. The gravity of that moment is so profound, so beautiful. The grace of that moment really helps me to enter into that role as deacon. I am a deacon of the Word and a deacon of the Eucharist. This is what God is calling me to be for the people of God."
Deacons Cygan, Santandreu, Skrzynski and Peter Bassey will be ordained to the priesthood June 2, 2018, at St. Joseph Cathedral.