by Gordon Nary
Gordon: When you attended Syracuse UniversityCollege of Law, what was your favorite course, and why was it your favorite?
Deacon John: My favorite course in law school was Constitutional Law. I enjoyed learning how the U.S. Constitution outlines the basic rights a society must provide to protect its citizens from social injustice, such as discrimination based on skin color, persecution for religious beliefs, and unequal access to liberties. Our nation was founded on the belief that every person deserves the dignity of living a free existence and receiving equitable treatment. These guarantees, such as the freedom to practice any religion, are necessary if a society intends to operate with justice. These principles must never be compromised because of a person's gender, culture, religion, sexuality, or age. This course has helped shape me into a person who believes in justice and equitable treatment for all people. It eventually led me into prison ministry, where I can put these concepts into practice.
Gordon: What are some of your favorite memories when you attended St. Bernard's School of Theology & Ministry where you earned your Master of Divinity?
Deacon John: Attending St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry was a great blessing in my life. It was there where I first learned the concept of Catholic social teaching. Catholic social teaching is based on a biblical understanding of the value of human life and human dignity. Our Church teaches that every human being is created in the image of God, and therefore is precious and worthy of respect. Every person, from the moment of conception to natural death, has an inherent dignity and a right to life consistent with that dignity. This understanding was foundational in preparing me for my ministry as a Catholic Prison Chaplain. I now minister with individuals who many people see as invaluable and unworthy of respect or dignity. My grounding in this concept of basic human dignity has helped me to bring this better understanding to others, including those who are incarcerated.
Gordon: What were your primary responsibilities when you served as Deacon at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church in Rochester NY? ·
Deacon John: When I served as Parish Deacon and Pastoral Associate at Our Lady of Perpetual Help, I was tasked with providing Pastoral Leadership in a center-city, multicultural urban faith community. My duties included oversight of the parish food pantry, which provided rations to those in the neighborhood struggling to make ends meet. I was also responsible for administrative maintenance of the parish, including leadership of the finance, liturgy, and social justice committees. My main responsibility was to be present and available to the families who were members of the parish.
Gordon: What were your primary responsibilities when you served as Director of Deacons at the Diocese of Rochester?
Deacon John: My role as Director of Deacons at the Diocese of Rochester required me to keep track of over 100 active deacons and their ministerial assignments in our 12-county diocese. I was also serving as Diocesan Director of Deacon Personnel, with accountability over several dozen candidates for ordination as they worked on completing a master’s degree program of study at St. Bernard’s. I was responsible for keeping all official records for those still in deacon formation and those already serving as deacons, including tracking continuing formation requirements and safe environment training. I particularly enjoyed helping possible candidates in their discernment of whether they might be called to serve in diaconal ministry.
Gordon: What are some of the challenges as Prison Chaplain at NYS Department of Corrections & Community Supervision?
Deacon John: Ministry as a Prison Chaplain certainly has its challenges. Prison ministry involves daily interaction with incarcerated individuals who have committed violent, heinous and terrible crimes. It also involves navigating the prison system and successfully collaborating with the corrections officers, who keep order and promote safety inside the fence. A prison setting is a stressful environment which at times can be overwhelming and filled with unrest and tension.
Gordon: What are some of the rewards as a Prison Chaplain?
Deacon John: Prison Chaplaincy at times can provide real opportunities to make a difference to those who are too often forgotten or given up on by society. The very things chaplains can bring to the table - spiritual enlightenment, compassion, and understanding - are needed in prisons more than anywhere else. I feel blessed to serve in this ministry.
Gordon: What impact did the Covid-19 pandemic have upon the prison population in New York
Deacon John: To control the spread of the virus, New York Correctional officials temporarily limited visitors, gatherings, and unnecessary contact for incarcerated individuals. This included a pause on religious gatherings until it was safe to resume worship activities. As prison chaplains, however, we were still able to be meet with and be present to staff and the incarcerated individuals, which helped to keep spirituality and prayer in place during this difficult time.
Gordon: What are some of the primary lessons of forgiveness that people can learn while ministering at prisons?
Deacon John: Pastoral care is an all-inclusive approach to healing all types of human suffering: physical, social, emotional, and spiritual. Just as God, the creator and source of all goodness, is in a unique position to forgive sins and be accepting of human failings, the prison chaplain is in a unique position to talk with incarcerated individuals about God and forgiveness. Self-forgiveness is a major part of this healing. With forgiveness comes the possibility for real transformation.
Gordon: Thank you for an exceptional interview.