From the ashes of 9-11, a newsman finds vocation

By Peter Finney Jr., Clarion Herald Commentary

Greg Kandra was a good-enough Catholic, observant and Mass-going, although he admits his wife was by comparison the real lion of the faith as they attended church at Our Lady Queen of Martyrs Parish in Forest Hills, New York.

Before he got married, Kandra had forged quite a career for himself at CBS through the written and spoken word. His professional arc had started at ground zero. After all, in the early 1980s, when interest rates on home mortgages were on the Evita Perone side of 16 percent, an English degree from the University of Maryland and a dollar bill could fetch a cup of coffee.

“I graduated in the middle of the last big recession in 1981, and I couldn’t find a newspaper job to save my life,” Kandra recalled. “The Washington Star had just gone out of business. The Baltimore News-American was in bad shape. Nobody was hiring. I found myself spending entirely too much time at home, driving my parents crazy.”

At a dinner party, his father ran into a news producer for CBS and wistfully pleaded with him, “I’ve got this kid who needs a job.”

Well, he could type

A few days later, Kandra went down to the CBS bureau in Washington, D.C., and aced a typing test.

“Lo and behold, a couple of weeks later, I was in the production center for ‘The CBS Evening News with Dan Rather,’” Kandra said. “It was the greatest education in the world. I worked with some amazing people.”

Kandra had edited his school newspaper at St. Vincent Pallotti High in Laurel, Maryland, and he always had wanted to write. After getting married in 1986, he and his wife Siobhan moved to New York, where he worked as a writer and editor for CBS News Radio, writing copy for broadcast legends such as Charles Kurault and Douglas Edwards.

His radio background led naturally to thinking about TV. “My wife said maybe I was working for the right church but was in the wrong pew,” Kandra said. Heeding her gentle prodding, Kandra moved to the television side in 1990 and wrote for news shows such as “America Tonight” (Kurault and Leslie Stahl), “Street Stories” (Ed Bradley) and later for “60 Minutes II.”

His professional life was more than 15 minutes of fame.

“The church was in the background of my life,” Kandra said. “I would say I was a casual Catholic. I wasn’t the most pious Catholic. I was observant and went to Mass. My wife was much better than I.”

His world changed instantly

And then, his life finally got to the verb. Sept. 11, 2001, happened.

His office in the CBS Broadcast Center was on 57th Street in Manhattan. That Tuesday morning, everyone on the eighth floor was looking south at the smoke billowing from the first tower of the World Trade Center.

The next 48 hours – watching the world he had carefully constructed crumble into pumice and ash – “transformed” Kandra’s life.

“Covering that story from end to end had a profound impact on me and literally made me think more clearly about what I was doing, the choices I had made in my life and what I wanted to do in my life,” he said. “You saw the signs staked to lampposts: ‘Missing: Have you seen him?’ It was heartbreaking. I remember after a few days, even in Queens, which was seven to eight miles away, you had the smells. The big cloud had drifted to the east.

“It came down to how close it was and realizing everything I had, everything I had worked for, everything I had received – the Emmy awards, all the accolades, making good money, everything I had – could be gone instantly. And what was I doing with my life? Was there something else I should be doing? That’s what turned me back to the faith.”

He began by reading Thomas Merton’s “The Seven Storey Mountain.” He followed that by making two retreats at a Trappist monastery. On one of the retreats, he met a man who had been ordained as a permanent deacon, the first deacon Kandra really had ever met on a personal level.

Then the deacon got up at Mass one day and preached.

“Something said to me, ‘That’s what you should be doing,’” Kandra said. “It was just that simple. I went back to New York and told my wife, ‘Hey, I’m going to be a deacon,’ and she just thought I was crazy.”

Ordained in 2007

When the transformed man became Deacon Greg Kandra in 2007 – ordained for the Diocese of Brooklyn – he felt an obligation to use his storytelling gifts as a way of breaking open the stories of Jesus, the universal parables that, by speaking to every person’s heart, create a communion of faith.

“I felt compelled to preach,” Deacon Kandra said. “That was one of the things that called out to me about the diaconate – to take what I had learned in my professional career and use that in a different way. I really almost fell into being the ‘communications’ deacon.”

Two weeks after he was ordained, Deacon Kandra was poking around in the blogosphere. He had been the founding editor of Katie Couric’s  blog at CBS News, so he knew a few things about blogging. The more he looked, Deacon Kandra could not find any blogs being written by or about permanent deacons. Why not write one himself, he thought? Thus was launched “The Deacon’s Bench.”

“I thought that was an incredibly smart name,” Deacon Kandra says, laughing.

‘The Deacon’s Bench’

Since 2007, his blog – www.patheos.com/blogs/deacons bench – has reached 20 million readers, averaging about 150,000 page views per month. Deacon Kandra, 58, will be in New Orleans this week to speak to the 2018 National Diaconate Congress about the necessity of deacons and priests embracing social media as a way of inserting the Catholic voice into the digital, and cacophonous, public square.

“The idea is to take the encouragement of Pope Francis and apply that to our ministry, particularly to our social media ministry on Facebook and blogging and on Twitter,” Deacon Kandra said. “We need to act as leaven in the world. We all can see the social media acrimony and the biting disagreement. This is an opportunity for deacons to step into this world and say something beneficial and in service to the Gospel.”

Deacon Kandra tries to post three or four brief reflections a day, mostly on news that deserves a deeper look.

“I like to post things that are important and things other people might have missed,” Deacon Kandra said. “A lot of my readers don’t necessarily like to read mainstream media. 

I should put in a subhead: ‘I read the New York Times so you don’t have to.’ I find interesting things in the Times and the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal, and people might dismiss them, but there’s a lot of good nuggets there. I feel like I’m going into the mine, mining little nuggets of gold.”

He especially wants people to learn more about the ministry of deacons, who are ordained to be ministers of charity and service. He also tries to show that the Catholic Church is indeed catholic – universal – and cannot be boxed into one or two or a dozen charisms. His “day job” is multimedia editor for the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, a papal agency that offers pastoral and humanitarian support to the Middle East, North Africa, Eastern Europe and India.

“I want to present all sides of the church, because we have a big church, from Mother Angelica to Madonna, from sacred music to folk Masses,” Deacon Kandra said. “One of my great joys has been to see the incredible diversity of the church. I want to show the diversity and the vibrancy and the commitment. I am incredibly fortunate to see how dynamic and alive the church is. It’s really an inspiration. And, I love being a little bit of an evangelist for the diaconate.”

As a trained writer, Deacon Kandra has heard homilies that seem to be as focused as  runaway trains. Whenever he gives workshops to deacons and priests about the craft of homily writing, he leans on his “60 Minutes” training.

“One of the things that is so critically important to me in my preaching – and it was critically important in writing for radio – is that you have to write for the ear and read out loud everything you write to make sure it makes sense,” Deacon Kandra said. “I tend to write short sentences and even sentence fragments and be as conversational as possible. So often, guys get up there for their first couple of homilies, and the homilies sound like Wikipedia entries or term papers.”

As a communications professional, he decries the polarized culture that infects social media discourse, even among Catholics.

“Father James Martin, who himself has been the subject of vitriol, once said, ‘See how these Christians shove each other!’”

While he has been intimately involved with communications for nearly 40 years, Deacon Kandra understands why some of his deacon brothers and priests may feel unprepared or hesitant to immerse themselves in social media. 

“But I always mention this from Scripture when I talk to them: ‘Be not afraid,’” Deacon Kandra said. “Sure, it can be intimidating and daunting, and people can be cruel, but we have to put ourselves out there. We can’t leave social media to the crazy people and the trolls. We need to be a voice of love and reason and hope in a world so desperately in need of it.”

Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at pfinney@clarionherald.org.

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