Three deacons to be ordained to the priesthood May 21

By Jim Gauger
Special to The CS&T

WYNNEWOOD – The ranks of the priesthood in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia will be increased by three on Saturday, May 21, when Cardinal Justin Rigali ordains Deacons Kenneth C. Brabazon Jr., David M. Friel and Christopher P. Landis at 10 a.m. at the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul.

Deacon Brabazon, 25, a Philadelphia native, graduated from St. Barnabas School and St. John Neumann High School; Deacon Friel, 25, a Bethlehem native who grew up in Furlong, graduated from Our Lady of Mount Carmel School, Doylestown, and Archbishop Wood High School, Warminster; and Deacon Landis, 26, a native of Phoenixville and a member of St. Basil the Great Parish, Kimberton, graduated from East Pikeland Elementary, Phoenixville, Phoenixville Middle School and St. Pius X High School, Pottstown. {{more}}

All three received bachelor of arts and master of spaninity degrees from St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.

Recently, the deacons sat down for an interview with The Catholic Standard & Times at the seminary. Topics included their thoughts on ordination, goals in the priesthood, the changing role of the Church in the lives of Catholics, the sexual abuse scandal in the Church and how to attract young people to the Church.

Good priestly examples
Each of the men found his vocation with the support of priests in his parish.

“In grade school and high school I was involved in youth groups,” Deacon Friel said. “Through those experiences at the school groups and meeting the parish priests, it inspired me to look at the priesthood. When I came to the seminary for a visit, I found a sense of peace.”

Deacon Landis attended college for a year before entering the seminary. “I first considered the priesthood when I was in my senior year in high school,” he said. “I started getting involved in the campus ministry at St. Pius X and went on some retreats. It was during that year I started taking my Catholic faith more seriously. I started praying more. I went off to Dickinson College (Carlisle, Pa.), and I got involved with the Neumann Club there, which was a good group of Catholic students with a really great chaplain.”

Deacon Brabazon said he grew up in a family that embraced the faith and was involved in the parish community. “My decision to enter the seminary was very much influenced by the good priests who supported me,” Deacon Brabazon said. “Two that stand out are my childhood pastor, Msgr. Bernard Herron, and my present pastor, Father John Babowitch. Witnessing their priesthood and seeing how they affected the lives of the people of our parish interested me, and that interest took hold and never went away. It created an urge in me that God was calling me to follow in their footsteps. When the day came to decide, I decided to come and see.”

Learning to lead people in faith
The three men said their seminary experience was positive and gave them a fuller picture of the priesthood.

“It’s been a very wonderful, blessed experience during these years,” Deacon Friel said. “My understanding of who a priest is and what a priest is evolved for the better. I have a deeper understanding of the priesthood itself. It led to a different way of seeing why God called me here.”

Deacon Friel looks at a priest as “a countercultural symbol. He leads people to a deeper understanding of faith in their own lives,” he said, “how he helps, through prayer, the lives of people he is sent to serve.”

For Deacon Landis, the seminary gave him “the opportunity during assignments to see so many priests and how they work in their ministry – how they express their priesthood,” experiences that made a lasting impression on him.

The soon-to-be priests’ first parish assignments are unknown at this time, but they expressed how important their first assignment will be.

“The first year you just want to get involved in the parish and learn how to really be a priest,” Deacon Landis said. “I really want to learn as much as I can from my first pastor. They always pick really good mentors. My goal is to learn everything I can from that mentor and put it into practice in my life.”

Ready for challenges
Whether it’s a suburban parish or a city parish – and yes, they realize there are differences – there will be challenges.

“We take a vow of obedience; we take what we are given,” Deacon Brabazon said.

Deacon Friel said there is comfort in that two of his classmates are being ordained along with him. They know that many challenges await them as they go through life serving Christ.

“I think the biggest challenge is the huge transition,” Deacon Landis said. “Life as a parish priest is going to be completely different. I enjoyed my life at the seminary, and life in a parish is going to be wonderful, but you are adapting to a completely new lifestyle and role. The biggest challenge is starting to feel at home in that environment. Hopefully, it will be a smooth transition.”

That sudden change can be difficult, Deacon Brabazon said.

“We’re close to each other and to men in other classes, and one of the immediate effects is that we’re taken out of our comfort zone,” he said. “We’re placed in a new environment, and we don’t have the convenience of being surrounded by our fellow seminarians when we have questions. That’s the importance of the first pastor. He becomes the person we have to rely upon.”

Showing value of God in modern life
The increasing secularization of society is another challenge, Deacon Friel said. “On a larger scale than the challenges of the next couple of months, in my life, will be the increasingly secular character of our world,” he said.

“A priest is called to be a witness to Christ in whatever place, in whatever time he serves. In our particular time, as our Holy Father points out, secularism is one of the largest problems, so that’s a challenge to our identity as priests. It’s going to require fidelity to our identity to help surmount the problem.”

This is an opportunity, he added, “to help show people there is a value to faith and religion, and God in modern life.”

In the Archdiocese, statistics show that only about 25 percent of Catholics regularly attend Mass. Parishes are using new technology, including web sites and messages to smartphones, to give parishioners more access. But technology can only do so much.

The young priests face “the re-evangelization of our own people. Faith grows through personal encounter more than by technological trends,” Deacon Friel said.

“We can attest to that (through) the priesthood of good priests,” Deacon Brabazon said. “We came to a vocation in the Church by witnessing that. We have to be careful not to become gimmicky. We should use technology however we can, but not let it become the only thing we are about.”

The fix: Fidelity to Christ
The present sexual abuse scandal that has rocked the Archdiocese has given everyone – priests and laity – great pause and sorrow. And also great anger. At some churches, longtime parishioners have decided to no longer attend Mass.

“There may be certain ways in which this crisis makes ministry more difficult,” Deacon Friel said. “But ultimately, our role in helping to fix the problem is our own fidelity to Christ’s calling. Nothing short of our fidelity to the priesthood, to prayer, to obedience is going to constitute our part of helping to move beyond.”

“We need to be very much aware of the woundedness of those who have gone away,” Deacon Brabazon said. “Their faith in what the Church has meant to them is shaken. But we can’t allow that to diminish our effectiveness. We have to be creative in our response to the reality of what has happened.”

“It goes back to what we were saying about personal encounter between the Church and the people and the parishioners,” Deacon Landis said. “It’s that personal experience that will bring the healing forward. We need to be faithful as priests and live that faithfulness.”

Invite the young
The future priests also recognize the need for vocations to religious life and the priesthood.

“First and foremost, we need to be people of prayer,” Deacon Brabazon said. “We need to remind people constantly about the need for vocations in the Church.”

Deacon Landis said inviting young people to consider vocations is important. “Some people may be considering it in their head, but they don’t make that step until someone else gives it a voice,” he said. “It makes it real in a way that just thinking about it doesn’t.”

Get the word out that religious life is a good life, Deacon Friel said. “I personally pray every day for more vocations,” he said, “and I think we, as priests, have the opportunity to show that the priesthood is a life that can be very fulfilling. That in itself will be attractive to people who see our lives as lives of fulfillment, happiness and joy.”

Jim Gauger is a freelance writer and a member of St. Luke the Evangelist Parish, Glenside.