In Transition

May 1, 2003
In Transition
By Howie Mansfield
SUN photo(s) Paul Finch
After a seminarian’s pastoral year, time seems to fly by. Before long, there is ordaination to the transitional diaconate, followed a year later by ordination to the priesthood. Three diocesan seminarians are currently in the midst of their movement from the transitional diaconate to the priesthood. Deacon Tom Servatius is in his final semester at St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore, Md. and will be ordained a priest at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Syracuse on June 7. Deacon Servatius said his pastoral year at St. James Church in Johnson City during the 2000-01 school year was “one of the best years of my life.” He said by working in the parish, he gained a great appreciation of what a priest is called to do. Deacon Servatius still returns to the Southern Tier during school breaks and visits those people to whom he ministered. “Today I’m going down to Johnson City and visit a few shut-ins,” he said. “It’s someone whose going to be ordained to the priesthood saying to them that God has not forgotten them.” After a year of course work following his pastoral year, Deacon Servatius was ordained a transitional deacon at his home parish, St. Mary of Mount Carmel Church in Utica, on June 26, 2002. Having the ordination at St. Mary’s Church allowed many of his supporters to see him achieve one of the steps toward the priesthood. “It was a way to thank a number of elderly on fixed incomes, who give a little money to support someone in the seminary. So I wanted to bring the ordination to them,” he said. “But also, it was a wonderfully teachable moment. There were two or three people considering the priesthood or the permanent diaconate in the audience. Inscribed on one of the buildings at St. Mary’s Seminary is from the Gospel of Matthew, ‘Go forth and teach all nations.’ My ordination was affirming and deeply profound. None of these people have probably seen anything like it and they all embraced it.”

For Deacon Servatius, life as a deacon has been a tremendous experience. “It’s a wonderful thing. To have the opportunity to baptize, be a minister of God’s word — it’s great. I carried the book in for Holy Thursday service and I got a little choked up, because this is God’s word and I can proclaim it,” he said. Nearly a month away from ordination to the diocesan priesthood, Deacon Servatius is prepared for this big step in his life. He looks forward with happiness even with 25 pages to write for school and a retreat to attend in the near future. “There’s a joyful sense of anticipation,” said Deacon Servatius. “The sacraments aren’t private; they are public and need to be celebrated. I’m doing all the leg work now so I can enjoy the last few weeks before ordination.” Another seminarian, Deacon Michael Greco, was ordained to the transitional diaconate on March 19. He is scheduled for ordination to the priesthood in 2004. Deacon Greco didn’t enter the seminary in the usual fashion. A widower with five children, Deacon Greco felt called to serve because of his deep faith and love for others. He comes to the Syracuse Diocese from his home parish, St. James the Apostle Church, Carmel, NY, within the Archidiocese of New York. Although Deacon Greco didn’t have a formal pastoral year, he has worked extensively in parishes and hospitals. “What has convinced me of my vocation is to be able to work within the parish,” he said. “I had a wonderful experience, at St. Mary of Mount Carmel Church in Utica and at St. Mary’s Church in Holliston, Mass. I did a combination of things, from visiting the sick to working with RCIA candidates.”

Ordination to the diaconate was special to Deacon Greco and his family. The ordination was held at Blessed John XXIII Seminary.“It was a summation of what I had done so far. All of God’s graces come together in this step toward the priesthood. It was a grace-filled day,” said Deacon Greco. “Many of my children were there and there was just a great deal of happiness.” On the Sunday after his ordination, Deacon Greco performed his first baptism. “I baptized my own grandson. He is one of twins and my friend who is a priest, baptized my other grandson. It was so nice that my son and daughter-in-law asked me. They waited until I was ordained,” he said. “Afterwards, I was on Cloud Nine for a very long time. It was the greatest thing to happen to me in a long time. It was great affirmation that this is what God is calling me to do.” Deacon Greco has talked to other priests and deacons about the change that takes place in a person during the journey to priesthood. He said he does feel different, but he’s just answering the call. Deacon Greco said the strong spiritual direction he has received in seminary has guided him. “Spiritually, I’m prepared, definitely. I can feel a change happening, but I’m just excited to do those things a deacon can do — baptize, perform weddings, give homilies, serve at Mass. During Holy Thursday, I served as deacon in my home parish in Carmel. It was a great honor for me, especially during Holy Week.” Deacon John Kurgan, recently ordained to the diaconate, has one more year left at St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore, Md. and will be ordained in 2004. For Deacon John Kurgan, the pastoral year is a vital part of the discernment process. After spending last year at Our Lady of Sorrows Church in Vestal, Deacon Kurgan was even more energized for his final years of seminary. “I’ve always been a firm believer in the pastoral year. I know of only three dioceses who have students at St. Mary’s that still have pastoral years,” said Deacon Kurgan, from St. Joseph’s Church in LaFayette. “It’s important because we need to make sure we can live in a rectory situation. But the parish also gets a chance to mold you. A parish will let you know what they expect from a priest and you adjust. The people take that responsibility very seriously.”

During his pastoral year experience, he realized how supportive the parish was of his reflections during Masses. “I always received great reactions to my reflections. But it just goes to show how people stick with you. They are affirming not only to seminarians, but to the priests,” he said. “The parishioners bring you food and gifts. I’ve even received cards from people I’ve never met supporting me. But it’s part of what this diocese is about. People accept us and encourage us. It’s a great gift from God.”

Deacon Kurgan said his pastoral year was outstanding and he still returns to Vestal when he can. “Once you do the pastoral year, you want to go back to the parish. Once you get the taste of parish life, it really affects everything else you do from that point forward. You aren’t called to the seminary; you are called to the priesthood and all of your focus should be to that.” On his diaconate ordination day, April 5, Deacon Kurgan explained how the moment “suddenly hits you,” saying the experience is almost “too good to be true.” But the ceremony was deeply moving, he said. “The two things that really stood out for me were when I was prostrated and when the bishop laid hands on my head. The bishop looks right at your eyes and you then realize how serious this all is,” Deacon Kurgan noted. “This is what you entered seminary for, these moments, and it’s a wonderful feeling.”

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