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6/5/2014 10:50:00 AM
TO BE ORDAINED
Who are Diocese's two new priests?
Deacons Slezak and Davis
Deacons Slezak and Davis
BY ANGELA CAVE
STAFF WRITER

Two men will be ordained to the priesthood for the Albany Diocese by Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger June 14 at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Albany.

Both Brian Slezak, 30, and James Davis, 60, took a roundabout path in responding to their calls.

DEACON SLEZAK
"God does not write with straight lines," Deacon Slezak said of his journey, which involved debating marriage and an awakening to faith during college.

He grew up in Rotterdam Junction, where he was a parishioner of St. Margaret of Cortona Church; he attended the former St. Helen's School and Notre Dame-Bishop Gibbons School in Schenectady. Teachers always pegged him as a possible priest and even sent him to a vocation discernment event in middle school, but he didn't think it was for him.

Still, "I couldn't get it out of my head," he said.

Deacon Slezak was impressed back then that his family prioritized Sunday Mass while running a dairy farm, but he didn't feel like faith made an impact on his own life. He entered The College of Saint Rose in Albany in 2001 to study history and political science and started dating a Protestant girl whose religious studies sparked a greater interest in his own religion.

"She was asking questions about Catholic theology and I just couldn't answer them," he said. So he started reading books and the Bible and praying more. Around the same time, a high school friend had a "huge conversion: Something was totally different about him. He was joyful."

The friend took him to the Newman Center on his campus, and he once again felt uneducated about his faith. So he got more involved with campus ministry and started going to confession.

"I knew that's where I should be," he said. "I was tired of running. I found out I was falling in love with the Church and I was falling out of love with [my girlfriend]."

His new passion for Catholicism inspired his girlfriend to convert. After graduation, he spent the summer and fall teaching history on a tugboat that toured the state canal system, then ended his relationship to enter the Diocese's priesthood discernment house for five months.

But "I think it was too soon for me," he said.

Deacon Slezak got back together with his girlfriend while working as an environmental specialist for FEMA for almost two years. He decided that if God sent him the perfect woman but he still felt like something was missing, then he was meant to be a priest.

"When that all clicked, there was no turning back," he said. He reapplied to the seminary in 2008 and spent six years studying at the University of St. Mary at the Lake in Mundelein, Ill. He learned that "God's in love with all of us and all He wants of us is a relationship with Him."

The future priest, who enjoys woodworking, hiking, cross-country skiing and helping his brother and father with their farm, was surprised by "how rich our tradition is" and "how the hand of God is at work in the world. The beauty and splendor of the Church is just mind-blowing."

During seminary, he spent two summers learning Spanish in Bolivia and served at Our Lady of Victory parish in Troy, Immaculate Heart of Mary in Watervliet and St. Jude the Apostle in Wynantskill, doing hospital and homebound ministry and parish work. After he was ordained a transitional deacon last spring, he started celebrating baptisms and weddings at St. Jude.

"It was intimidating at first because it was like, 'Is this baby really baptized?'" he said. But "something happens at ordination. The Holy Spirit comes upon you."

Ahead of ordination day, Deacon Slezak was both excited and anxious: "The awesomeness of it all is a little haunting. I'm grateful for the preparation behind me."

He was looking forward to "living the life of a parish priest [and] immersing myself with people.

"The priesthood is all about remaining in love with Christ," he said. "It's just falling in love with God's people. You have to be centered on Christ - a humble man and willing to let God direct your life."

DEACON DAVIS
College was also an important time for Deacon Davis' vocation: After the Vietnam War ended in the middle of his history studies, he switched from a Navy ROTC track to Congregation of Holy Cross seminary at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, planning to become a Holy Cross priest. A deacon from that religious order had led by example, as had the priests who inspired him to consider a junior seminary in high school (which his parents had vetoed).

"I've always known priests that were happy and loved what they were doing," the future priest said. "In those days, you had four or five priests in the rectory."

After college graduation, he continued as a novice and visited schools run by the Holy Cross order. But he felt too young for the commitment: "Now I feel I waited too long, but back then I didn't want to rush it," he told The Evangelist.

Deacon Davis grew up on Long Island and attended Catholic elementary school until his family moved to Upper Saddle, N.J., and he switched to public high school. Faith was "like a rock" in his family: "I think we went to Mass every day but Saturday."

After college, he taught history in Catholic schools and earned a master's degree in history from Fairleigh Dickinson University in Hackensack, N.J. At his parish, he taught religious education, helped with men's retreats and a young adult group and served as a eucharistic minister and lector.

"I teased the pastor that I should have had a bed down there," he said with a laugh.

Deacon Davis worked for the New York City public school system as a junior high teacher in Harlem for 25 years, mostly in special education. He volunteered as an EMT on weekends and never married, though he proposed to three women: "God works in strange ways," he said.

The future priest began visiting the Albany Diocese after his father retired here, and decided he would eventually retire here, too. He attended St. Francis of Assisi parish in Northville, where Rev. Thomas Morrette suggested the diaconate or the priesthood - even mentioning that Blessed John XXIII National Seminary in Weston, Mass., is known for accepting older men.

Deacon Davis had wrongly thought his age would disqualify him or that he couldn't enter the priesthood because he had dropped out of a religious community. He began commuting to the Diocese for spiritual direction with the diocesan Vocations Office once a month for a year.

He decided it was time to retire from teaching when a student entered his school through a side door, looking to sell a submachine gun and two live hand grenades. Deacon Davis was 56 when he entered the seminary.

"I wasn't too thrilled about going back to school," he said. "The transition from being the teacher to being a student was tough." His motto became, "Take it a day at a time."

Through assignments in Massachusetts and at Blessed Sacrament parish in Albany, Immaculate Heart of Mary in Watervliet and Christ the King in Westmere, he improved his "people skills" and learned that the priesthood is a ministry of presence.

"You never realize how crucial you are until somebody's on their deathbed," he said. "You step in and enable them to pray. I like to be able to help them in that stage of the faith journey. You're letting them know that there's something beyond this life. They're so grateful that somebody's there."

Deacon Davis felt frustrated in the last days before ordination, saying he was "waiting on God. He's slowing me down, telling me to take a rest."

He said he doesn't want to fall back into "teacher mode" as a priest, but his background does make him sensitive to diversity: "The first thing I look for [on the altar] is handicapped kids. They tend not to be included. I don't want them to feel segregated."





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