I am sorry to say that the Archdiocese of Chicago lost one of its best deacons this week. My dear friend and brother in the stole, Deacon Peter Hajdu died where we knew he would be, in service to his church. Deacon Peter and his wife Melissa were in the midst of a baptismal preparation class. One never knows the day or the hour.
Peter was ordained in May 2014 by His Eminence Cardinal Francis George. Peter was the “Deacon of the Eucharist.” I don’t know how it works in other dioceses, but in Chicago this is quite an honor.The Deacon of the Eucharist is chosen by the Formation staff and among the ordinandi as a candidate who greatly exemplifies the spirit of what it means to be a deacon. During the deacon ordination ceremony each man walks in as laity and at mid-service and after the prayers, lowering of the hands and blessing by the bishop are ordained to the clerical state of Deacon. The chosen Deacon of the Eucharist takes over for the Deacon of the Word and assists the bishop for the rest of the service. Being our Deacon of the Eucharist is not what made Peter great but, it was an honor we wanted him to have. If our group had voted for this honor, the vote would’ve been 7-1. The sole abstention would have been Peter’s.
I met Peter in formation. I didn’t come to know Peter well until we were halfway done with the journey. I first recall him from a Saturday class we had. Saturday classes are typically long and come at the end of the work week. On this particular Saturday our wives were invited to join us. We were asked to break off in groups. (Yes, Saturday class and breaking into groups – the count is 0-2.) I don’t recall if I was in my wife’s group but I do recall her coming back to me and saying “I like that guy.” I responded to her with my typical “what guy?” and she proceeded to point out Peter. Until that point, Peter was just a guy who sat in front of me and not particularly on my radar screen. Now formation, especially in the beginning, is often a lot like college classes. It is not all hallelujahs and kumbaya moments. So, Greg being a good Catholic and as he does in church, often took the back “pew” of the classroom. I laugh at the story now because from there a great friendship developed.
Deacon Peter did not have a college degree. In our formation cohort several of us had previously done graduate work in theology or pastoral studies. There were times Peter felt overwhelmed and felt behind in thinking that he had to keep pace with his classmates. He was worried about writing papers and how it might take him a little longer to complete them than it did for many of us. I liked to bounce my ideas off Peter and in turn he sometimes asked me to evaluate some of his coursework. I got to see firsthand that where Peter felt he lacked in academic credentials, he more than made up for with his knowledge from teaching RCIA for so many years and, most importantly, his heart from being a man of compassion. I often wondered what it was that led my wife to keying in on Peter that first time they met. I am guessing one of my classmates went off on a tangent and it was Peter who re-centered the discussion. We are often reminded in the rubrics to “do the red and see the black.” My orthodox friend Peter never had to be reminded of this.
Peter was ordained and went on to be a very active deacon. He ministered to parishioners in hospitals and was asked to visit them at home as they were dying. He walked with the families at their end of life. He was there for their baptisms and witnessed their weddings. I often told him “I hope someday to be the deacon that you are.” He thought I was joking. I was not. The fact was that after all those years where Peter was worried about his academic credentials it was I who was leaning on him. Whenever I could, I would send my homily to him for review. I often sent them to priests, as well, but I wanted Peter’s thoughts on how best to align my perspective with those in the pew. We celebrate the priesthood and dedication our priests have to ministry. Yet, it is our deacons that join us in the workplace, carry mortgages, worry about college tuitions, and deal directly with teenage children. When both ministers can balance those perspectives and complement each other a truly effective ministry can ensue. I relied on Peter to tell me when I missed my mark on that week’s Sunday Scripture. He was so worried about getting through formation and in the end, my friend was in many ways my mentor.
Deacons are ordained to serve in persona Christi Servi, “in the person of Christ the Servant.” That is exactly what he was doing the night he died. That’s what he has been doing for the last two years since ordination. That’s what he’s been doing as a husband, father, grandfather and friend. In our Catholic faith we know that Peter has gone on to new life in God. It is the life we believe we have in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Christ died and resurrected so that we may do so as well.
Peter lived life in the vocations God gave him. Peter departed when God called him, not when he would have wanted. We live our lives like we are in control of this decision. Society is trying to tell us that we call the shots. Peter knew and taught that our aspiration should not be a “death with dignity.” Rather, Peter preached that it is a “life with dignity” each of us deserve in the imago Dei.
At his vigil a line formed and went into the parking lot for five hours. Was it for someone famous, a dignitary lying in state? No, they came to see “Deacon Pete.” Family, friends and the people of St. Emily’s came to show their respect for a man who had given so much of himself to them. I will miss my friend but I’m comforted to know that he lives in the communion of saints. He has left me his standard to shoot for.
Eternal rest grant unto Peter, O Lord. May perpetual light shine upon him.