VESTAL — Zachary Miller stopped by to have coffee with some friends on Saturday morning. Later, those on-duty crews from the Vestal Volunteer Emergency Squad watched Miller’s ordination to the transitional diaconate from behind a glass wall at Our Lady of Sorrows chapel. They were ready to answer calls if needed, but wanted to be there for one of their own who answered a higher calling. Miller, a longtime member of the squad, still drives the ambulance when he’s home. It’s just one aspect of helping others that’s formed the new deacon.
Clad in a crisp white alb, Miller was called forward from the congregation and responded with the word “present.” In the rite that followed, he pledged obedience to Bishop Robert J. Cunningham and his successors. He also vowed to live a celibate life. Bishop Cunningham laid hands on Miller, an action traced back to the first diaconate ordination by the apostles.
During the Litany of Saints, Miller lay face-down on the tile floor in front of the altar. His arms were outstretched, forming what looked like a cross. Later he held the Book of the Gospels as the bishop prayed for him.
“Zachary is chosen to be a minister of God’s love. As our brother, he strives to become a light-giving sign of the presence of Jesus, a servant in our midst. May he experience our prayers of support,” Bishop Cunningham said during his homily.
“Dear Brother Zachary, the proclamation of the Gospel which you must carry on in the name of Christ and his church should become evident in every aspect of your diaconate ministry. Through your sacred ministry you become a distributor of God’s manifold grace,” he added.
He told Deacon Miller that living out charitable service is “intertwined inexorably with proclamation of the Gospel and celebration of the sacraments.”
As a transitional deacon, Miller will have all the duties of the office, yet one more year of seminary before he’s ordained a priest.
Miller’s road to the diaconate has been filled with some challenges. He was born in Kingston, Pa., but considers Vestal his hometown. That’s where his family moved in the mid-1980s when his father got a job at IBM. He’s the youngest sibling. Brother Josh is 8 years older; sister Leah is 13 months older. Another sister, Katherine, died at two weeks old. Zach’s father died when Zach was 10, “So growing up we learned what struggles and joys can be in a single-parent household.”
He joined the National Guard during his senior year of high school at age 17 in 2002. He was never called to overseas duty, but his unit, based in Binghamton, was called for active duty during storms and flooding. He also spent time watching bridges and tunnels in New York City. The death of a close friend in the guard gave him a special concern for people who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, “To let service men and women know that I can be a listening ear if they need it,” he said.
Miller graduated from Buffalo State with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice in 2008 and entered the seminary. He hadn’t listened to the call to the priesthood until his junior year, when he gave it to prayer and became active with the Newman Center.
“I wanted to learn more and gain a deeper faith,” Miller said. “I believe that discernment is a lifelong journey. Even after my ordination I will be discerning God active within my life. Discernment should be a lifelong journey for everyone.”
Deacon Miller feels “blessed” to have the support of several of priests for guidance. Father Matthew Brown, in residence at Our Lady of Sorrows, was the first person he told of his interest in the priesthood. He learned from Father Brown that God is active in our lives: “It is only after that we can see God present in our daily life that we can let go of the things that keep us from God. God is present to us every day.”
“Father [Msgr. John] Putano was my pastor at OLS during my high school years. [What] I learned from father was his example of prayer and spirituality of understanding the needs of a parish. He truly gives himself in service to God’s people,” Miller said.
He also mentioned Father Laurence Lord, a retired priest of the diocese. “He has become a good friend of mine in the past three years. He approached me a few years back to just talk to me about ministering to the men and women of law enforcement. Father Lord has been a great role model to me in understanding how to be present to those who are in service professions,” he said.
The current pastor of Our Lady of Sorrows, Father John Kurgan, was an inspiration as well, teaching him several things: “How a priest cares for the People of God and the wider community. I remember during the Flood of 2011 he went to parishioners’ houses to help them clean up,” Miller said. “He has shown me that a priest can have sense of humor. He has been a great help for me and my vocation.”
Deacon Miller is also grateful for his pastoral year, served at St. John the Evangelist in New Hartford. His duties there were varied, including teaching religious education in the parish and at Notre Dame Jr./Sr. High School. He visited the sick and he was asked to speak at several parishes on vocations.
“When people first ask me about my calling, I always like to respond that ‘God has a sense of humor,’” Miller said. “When we look at ourselves we need to look at everyone being equal and that we all have our own personal strengths and struggles.”
“If you think God is calling you or even if [you have] the idea of becoming a priest, deacon, or a religious sister or brother, stop and pray and trust in God. It is when you let go and let God [that] the world is opened up in new and joyful ways. This isn’t just for religious vocations but also for those who might get married or stay single. As Christians we all are called to a vocation. We just need to listen to God’s voice leading us on that path,” he added.
Deacon Miller had the support of family, friends and Our Lady of Sorrows parishioners on the way to ordination. More than 350 people attended the Mass. They then lined the gathering space for a few words with Miller, who stood in front of a statue of the patron saint of the parish.
“To my family, to God’s people, and my friends, especially those who could not make it and those who came, especially for both my parents and my dad who couldn’t be here, because he’s shining down from above,” he said. “In a year from now, God willing…I’ll be ordained a priest.”
Deacon Tom Picciano is a longtime contributing writer to the Sun. A professional journalist by trade, he currently serves at St. Vincent de Paul Blessed Sacrament Church in Vestal.