NOTE: This is my front page article in this week’s Catholic Free Press (November 11, 2016).
Dennis McCarthy drove by the same church each day on the way to work in Hartford, CT. The sign read “St. Ann’s Melkite Catholic Church” and it looked like no Catholic Church Mr. McCarthy had seen before.
“[I] always wondered what it was,” said Mr. McCarthy in an email interview. “One Saturday, I was driving by on the way to do some errands, and I saw the priest coming down the driveway to get his mail. I stopped and asked him what a Melkite Church was. He said if I had a few minutes, he would explain and show me the church. He did and he invited me to Liturgy the next day. I went that day and kept going!”
The priest gave a generous gift of his time; the fruit of that gift was a reawakening of a vocation in Mr. McCarthy. He began attending St. Ann’s in 1995 and was ordained a deacon in 2003.
Mr. McCarthy grew up Roman Catholic. He was attracted to the liturgy (called the Divine Liturgy in the Eastern Catholic Church) because it reminded him of his time as an altar boy serving at the Latin mass (especially the high mass) – “it was something that was familiar to me – the incense, the icons. It seemed familiar although it was a completely different rite.”
His wife Lisa, also Catholic, was taken aback at first as the Eastern Catholic Church is not well known to Roman Catholics. Mr. McCarthy invited her to come to Divine Liturgy with him as she was curious about it, and she came to understand better her husband’s attraction. “It was an education process,” he said. They maintain an ‘East-West’ home as Lisa has remained Roman Catholic.
“A priest told me, ‘People pray in different ways, they are comfortable in different rites; there’s nothing wrong with that,’” he said.
Mr. McCarthy served for several years in the military before settling in CT. A change of jobs brought him to the Worcester area where he now serves as deacon at Our Lady of Perpetual Help on Hamilton Street in Worcester, MA with the Rev. Paul Frechette.
Deacon Dennis has a BA from the University of Connecticut in Economics, an MA in Human Resources Management from Pepperdine University, a Juris Doctor from the University of Connecticut School of Law, and an MA in Theology from Providence College. He is currently enrolled in an advanced Theology Certificate program at Boston College School of Theology and Ministry.
The Eastern Catholic Church contains twenty-three different branches including the Maronite and Melkite communities. The Eparchy of Newton, led for the last five years by Bishop Nicholas Samra, oversees the Melkite Church. The Eastern Church celebrates the liturgy using the Byzantine rite. In 2014 Pope Francis lifted the restriction on Eastern Churches ordaining married men into the priesthood as had always been their tradition. Through aggressive and effective outreach to men, Bishop Nicholas has ordained several priests and deacons: “Eleven priests and eight deacons. Two [are] celibate eparchial priests and one religious. The other eight are married priests,” he said.
The Melkite Church is experiencing much growth in the last several years. “Requests for new missions have increased,” said Bishop Nicholas through an email interview. “One of the reasons is the horrific war in Syria and the economic problems of the entire Middle East. We have received many newcomers from the Middle East and we are trying [to] locate as many as possible to keep them attached to their Melkite traditions.”
Many non-Melkites are choosing to join the church because of their attachment to eastern spirituality and liturgy.
As a result of this growth, Bishop Nicholas made an extraordinary appeal to the Pope. “I requested from Pope Francis to name a second cathedral in the USA – the parish church of St. Anne in Los Angeles. He consented graciously and we celebrated this naming with the presence of Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, prefect of the Congregation for the Eastern Churches and delegate of the Pope to proclaim the cathedral.” It is hoped that a second eparchy can be created in California.
Deacon Dennis McCarthy is part of this growth by making the decision to explore his vocation more deeply.
“I always felt a desire to perhaps be a priest growing up, but focused on other things. The interest was awakened after I had been a part of the St Ann community in Waterford for a few years,” he said.
The priest at the time, the Rev. Damon Geiger (now stationed at St. Jude Melkite Church in Miami), encouraged Mr. McCarthy to consider becoming a deacon. “I was so new I didn’t even know if you could be married and be a deacon. He’s the one who asked me and asked me to pray about it. I talked to my wife about it and decided to try it to see if it was the right thing to do, which it proved to be.”
When the path was opened regarding married priests, Deacon Dennis knew it was time to pursue his vocation as a priest. Bishop Nicholas’ support and encouragement has been a key factor in Deacon Dennis’ spiritual development.
“Bishop Nicholas has been a really good leader. Having been born in the United States and growing up [here] while having the Middle Eastern background, he is the perfect bridge between the United States and the Patriarch. He’s really got a plan for the church; he’s got a very practical approach to the practical, everyday necessities of the church to have it survive. He’s done all the right things. He’s got a mission and a vision and he doesn’t veer from that. That’s comforting to know to have someone like that at the helm of the church. He’s been very supportive of me since I became a deacon,” said Mr. McCarthy.
Despite logistical hurdles, Bishop Nicholas is committed to ordaining married men to the priesthood.
“The church is still struggling with it because you have the issue of health insurance for the spouse — if the spouse doesn’t have health insurance and you have to cover the spouse now along with the priest. And what about the kids? There are financial concerns that the eparchy is still struggling with. It’s been a bold move on his [the bishop’s] part,” said Mr. McCarthy.
Deacon Dennis is both excited and at peace about his future. “It is very humbling to think about the possibility of celebrating the Liturgy as a priest,” he said.
Note: Susan Bailey’s husband, Deacon Elias (Richard Bailey) served with and was mentored by Deacon Dennis while serving at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church on Hamilton Street in Worcester. He aided in the writing of this piece.
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