When a man is ordained a deacon, he enters the first of the three clerical states in the Church: the diaconate, the priesthood and the episcopate (becoming a bishop). He is officially a cleric. 

Every cleric must be accepted into a particular diocese, religious order or congregation. We call this process "incardination." Once incardinated, the cleric is at the service of the Church within that diocese, religious order or congregation.

On May 25, five other men and I were ordained deacons at Albany's Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. We became clerics, incardinated in the Diocese of Albany. Two of us will be ordained priests in 2014.

It is essential that a cleric be familiar with and committed to the diocese, order or congregation into which he has been incardinated. In my case, having been born and raised in the Diocese of Albany, I know a good deal about its history, tradition and overall makeup. Still, it's helpful to revisit the background of the Diocese as I begin my service as a cleric here.

The first Catholic presence in upstate New York came with the arrival of Jesuit missionaries who established missions in this area in the mid-17th century. Ss. Isaac Jogues, Rene Goupil and Jean de Lalande came from France to proclaim the Gospel to the Native Americans. Among those who heard their message was a young Mohawk woman, St. Kateri Tekakwitha, whose feast day is celebrated July 14.

Some of the American Indians rejected the missionaries. The Jesuits were heroic men, ready to shed their blood for their love of Christ. Their martyrdom occurred in 1647 at Ossernenon (now Auriesville), in the heart of our Diocese. They were canonized saints in 1930; their memorial is Oct. 19.

Subsequent missionaries continued to instill the faith in hearts of many of the natives. These courageous missionaries were the forerunners of the thousands of Catholic immigrants who would come to America in future years.

By 1847, a dozen priests were ministering to Catholics in the more than 10,000 square miles of the Albany area. They labored with great difficulty, often riding on horseback to reach outlying communities and the dozen churches that had been constructed by this time.

The Diocese of Albany was officially created in 1847, with Rev. John McCloskey appointed as its first bishop. Bishop McCloskey would later become archbishop of New York and America's first cardinal.

Albany's Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, the first cathedral designed by famous architect Patrick Keely of Brooklyn, was dedicated in 1852. In following years, Mr. Keely would become the architect for some 600 churches throughout the United States.

The 19th century brought new waves of immigrants to the Albany Diocese, many finding work in the building of the Erie Canal and the railroad to the west. The Diocese became a gateway for immigrants who came, especially from Europe, to venture westward to settle and find work. Several religious communities of men and women followed them to minister to the spiritual needs of the growing Catholic population.

The early 20th century brought expansion, including the establishment of a number of Catholic schools in the Diocese: The College of Saint Rose in Albany, Siena College in Loudonville, 22 high schools and 82 grammar schools. By the 1970s, there were roughly 180 parishes, served by about 400 diocesan and religious priests. Sisters and brothers taught in the schools and ministered in hospitals and nursing homes throughout what had become the 14-county Diocese.

Great changes came in the second half of the 20th century. Demographic shifts of the faithful from city parishes to the suburbs forced the closing or merging of many parishes and schools. An increasing secularization of American society brought a decline in vocations to the priesthood, causing a severe shortage of priests.

Today, there are only 100 active diocesan priests, 133 parishes and a diminished number of active religious men and women serving the 350,000 Catholics of the Diocese. Although the laity have assumed many roles formerly held by priests and religious, the decline in the number of priests and religious creates a huge problem for the Church's ministry.

This challenging situation requires that the Diocese be served by courageous priests and lay ministers with strong faith and wholehearted commitment to ministry. In a time when our people are vulnerable to the effects of materialism, consumerism, secular humanism and a consequent decline in moral values, strong and saintly leaders are desperately needed.
As I enter my final year of seminary formation, I pray that God will give me the grace to grow in virtue and wisdom so that I may always be a man of faith and courage. May He help me and all my brother clerics to be ready for ordination to the priesthood, that we may serve the Church effectively in the Diocese of Albany to the glory of God and the benefit of the people.

I am confident that the example and prayers of the Jesuit martyrs of North America will help us to fulfill the primary and timeless mission of the priest: winning souls for Christ. Perhaps we all must strive to live the missionary spirit of the Jesuit martyrs, who, 400 years ago, died for the faith. Their faith and prayers continue to inspire us, help us and enrich our lives in this third millennium in the Church's long history.

(Deacon Slezak is a native of St. Margaret of Cortona Church in Rotterdam Junction, a mission of St. Joseph's parish in Schenectady.)

This is part of The Evangelist's ongoing series of reports from diocesan seminarians on their studies, work and development. To read previous installments, go to http://www.evangelist.org/main.asp?SectionID=5&SubSectionID=97&ArticleID=24090&TM=63835.08. If you have any questions on studies for the priesthood you'd like answered in a future column, email them to kate.blain@rcda.org.