Priesthood was always his dream

Deacon Gregory Rannazzisi

In kindergarten, when his classmates were drawing pictures of their future selves as astronauts and fire fighters, Deacon Gregory Rannazzisi recalls, “I was drawing a Roman collar.”

This month the 26-year-old will have his childhood dreams fulfilled when he is ordained to the diocesan priesthood by Bishop William Murphy.

“This is the only thing I ever wanted to do,” he said recently as he prepared for ordination while studying at Pontifical College North American in Rome.

Deacon Rannazzisi, who grew up in SS. Philip and James parish, St. James, and attended the parish school, said his early call was nurtured by his family, teachers and the parish community.

“We were very blessed to have great priests who recognized quickly — probably even before me — the potential of my vocation to the priesthood,” he said. Working in the rectory “enabled me to see priests ‘behind the scenes’ as normal men called to do extraordinary things. Their examples have shaped my vocation tremendously,” he said. He was an altar server and worked as a sacristan and in the rectory.

“My parish has had four wonderful pastors since I was a kid: Msgr. Charles Guarino, Father Robert Guintini, Msgr. Brian McNamara and now Father Tony Stanganelli.”

Msgr. Guarino, who remembers first meeting Deacon Rannazzisi when he was graduating from kindergarten, said, “I am so looking forward to his ordination and first Mass.”

“He was a normal kid, with a great sense of humor, but he also had a great reverence. There was no doubt in my mind that he would make a good priest as I watched him, especially at the altar. He had such a great devotion to the Eucharist,” Msgr. Guarino said.

Msgr. Guarino trained the young man to serve as master of ceremonies for liturgies, including the Easter Vigil. “When I was named Monsignor, people started calling him “Mon-junior,” said Msgr. Guarino.

The Franciscan brothers at St. Anthony’s High School in South Huntington were also a great support and inspiration according to Deacon Rannazzisi. “They helped me see what religious life was like and how it complemented diocesan priesthood.”

While at St. Anthony’s he met Father Brian Barr, who was the chaplain there and is now the diocesan vocation director, and he worked closely with Father Thomas Coogan, vocation director at the time. “Both men have been great models to me of priestly, selfless service,” he said.

“When I was in fourth grade, I understood priesthood as a fourth grader would: Father was the one who wore the cool clothes on Sunday, spoke in front of everyone and was respected by all the parishioners,” Deacon Rannazzisi said. “As I grew, I learned what else priests do — counseling, administration, education, retreats, vocation work, chaplaincy, etc. — and fell in love with the idea of doing those things. ”

His parents supported his desire to become a priest, said his mother, Noel Rannazzisi, but also assured him that he wasn’t locked in to the decision he made as a boy.

“As time went on we could see the Lord working in Gregory’s life,” she said. With his ordination now approaching, “his father and I are thrilled — walking on air. Gregory has wanted this all his life and it’s finally coming to fruition,” she said.

While studying theology and philosophy at Fordham University, he often returned to work with the SS. Philip and James youth group. In February of his senior year at Fordham, Bishop Murphy informed Deacon Rannazzisi that he would like him to pursue his seminary studies at the Pontifical
North American College. The surprised young man quickly scrambled to get into an Italian class for his last semester to build on the one year he had studied the language in high school.

Studying in Rome has been “an incredible experience,” he said, especially the opportunity to form bonds with classmates from diverse regions.   With just a few exceptions, all of his classes have been in Italian. “Last October, after my diaconate ordination, I began my studies for a Licentiate in Dogmatic Theology, and I will return to Rome in the fall for one more year to complete my degree.”

People “often ask what it’s like to live in Rome or express that it must be quite an honor to be sent here to study for the priesthood.  I remind them that it’s a privilege to study anywhere for the priesthood of Jesus Christ,” Deacon Rannazzisi said. “Being in Rome is certainly a unique setting, being at the heart of Catholicism.  Here we have the opportunity to see and hear the Holy Father very often, attend papal liturgies, study at international universities with great professors, walk the streets made holy by the many martyrs and saints who have gone before us, see many parts of Europe and so much more.  Yet I have consistently said that the best part of being in Rome is that I live with 200 or so great men who have felt the call by God to be a priest.”

Modern technology has made life away from family and friends easier than it could have been.  “A generation ago there was one phone in the corridor for everyone.  I can’t complain.  With e-mail and Skype we talk weekly.”

During visits home he has helped out at St. Matthew’s parish in Dix Hills and St. Mary of the Isle in Long Beach and of course, SS. Philip and James.  While he was home this past Christmas, Deacon Rannazzisi assisted at various liturgies and helped in the rectory, said Father Anthony Stanganelli, who was appointed SS. Philip and James pastor last June.

“Everyone in this parish is so excited,” he said, adding that the choirs have been practicing for Deacon Rannazzisi’s first Mass at the church, which will be the day after his ordination.  About 25 people from SS. Philip and James traveled to Rome last year for Deacon Rannazzisi’s ordination to the diaconate, including Pat Kaleita, a long-time family friend and administrator of the parish religious education program.

“It was wonderful to be included in it.  This was his dream,” she said.  “I am so excited for him.  He has such a wonderful way with people. Whatever parish gets him will be so lucky.”

 Deacon Rannazzisi describes himself as “kind of a news junkie,” using a number of media blogs to keep up on the world.  He is also a Yankees fan and loves constitutional law.

During high school Deacon Rannazzisi worked with an ecumenical charismatic renewal ministry and traveled around the country leading weekends of prayer and healing.  At Fordham, he was a campus Emergency Medical Technician and, while in Rome, has served as an English tutor to members of the Swiss Guard.

“My only hope is to be a good, holy priest for the people of God on Long Island who deserve nothing less,” said Deacon Rannazzisi.  “I look forward to being in a parish, sharing the joys and sorrows of daily life and praying through the liturgical year with them.”