The six men processing down the center aisle of St. Louis Cathedral hailed from four different countries, yet were united in one extraordinary desire: taking the first giant step on the road to the priesthood through their ordination to the transitional diaconate.
Receiving the sacrament of Holy Orders as transitional deacons for the Archdiocese of New Orleans on May 21 were: José Cáceres Chavez, José “Alex” Guzman Torres and Pedro Prada Gomez, all of Colombia; Colm Cahill of England; and the group’s sole American, Jared Rodrigue of Destrehan.
A sixth man, Emmanuel Omunyokol, was ordained for the Archdiocese of Tororo, located in his native Uganda.
“They come here today fully aware of what they are undertaking and fully aware of their total yes to God,” said Archbishop Gregory Aymond, thanking the sextet for their many dedicated years of formation, prayer and discernment and those who helped them along the way.
“Today (our new deacons) come to say: ‘God, I truly believe from the depths of my heart that you are calling me to serve the church in ordained ministry,’” the archbishop said. “And we as the church gather and we say, ‘We, too, recognize God’s call in you and we support you in Holy Orders.’”
A call to perform charitable works
Minutes before laying his hands on the heads of the six ordinands – to invoke the power of the Holy Spirit upon each – Archbishop Aymond reflected on the nearly 2,000-year-old roots of the diaconate, a moment in church history chronicled in the Mass’ second reading from the Acts of the Apostles. Concerned that they could not meet the needs of their growing flock and already consumed with the tasks of preaching and leading prayer, the 12 Apostles laid their hands on the heads of seven deeply spiritual men of good repute, missioning them to perform acts of charity.
“It is exactly the same ritual that we use today. They are sent forth by the Spirit and with the Spirit as a deacon of the church; they are sent to lead and to serve God’s people,” Archbishop Aymond said, reminding the six of the deacon’s three-fold ministry – most significantly, making “Christ the Servant” present through works of charity and taking Christ’s message of unconditional love and forgiveness to a world marred by revenge, violence and poisonous discourse.
“All of us in the church through our baptism are called to charity, but you (as ordained deacons) are called to lead us in the works of charity in the church; you are called in some fashion to be our conscience – the conscience of the church – to point out those who are in need,” the archbishop said. “As you feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, care for the homeless, clothe those who are in need, visit the sick and those who are in prison and reach out to the poor, we look to you!”
Men of prayer, preparation, preaching
The new deacons also were reminded of their charge to lead the faithful in prayer, with their responsibilities including assisting the priest at Mass, celebrating baptisms, witnessing marriages, burying the dead and taking Communion to the sick and dying.
The newly minted deacons spent much time in the seminary preparing for their third role as ordained ministers: proclaiming the Gospel and breaking it open “so people can truly eat of it” and be guided well, noted Archbishop Aymond.
“It is a privilege to preach the word of God – never preach without prayer and never preach without preparation,” he advised them, offering three tips from Pope Francis: May your homilies never be dull; may they never be too long; and may they always be relevant to people’s lives.
Supporting the trio of Colombian-born deacons at the Ordination Mass was a large contingent of Spanish-speaking congregants who could be heard singing the Offertory hymn – “Pescador de Hombres” (Fisher of Men) – with great reverence.
Following his ordination, Deacon Cáceres, who discerned his priestly calling after 16 years as a college professor, said he was overwhelmed by “the prayers of the whole community,” including those of his late parents.
“They passed away, but I am sure they are with me and my whole family today. I felt their presence,” said Deacon Cáceres, 42, who will fulfill his diaconate internship at St. Clement of Rome Parish in Metairie. “I hope to give service to the people of the Archdiocese of New Orleans for my entire life!”
Thoughts of his four deceased brothers were high on the mind of Deacon Guzman during the May 21 Mass. Deacon Guzman, 44, said his vocational seed was nurtured when he spent three years living with his uncle, a priest. His mother and one brother traveled from Colombia to witness his reception of Holy Orders.
“I am so happy and excited because this is a very important moment in my life,” said Deacon Guzman, whose internship will be at St. Jerome Parish in Kenner. “Although many of my family couldn’t be here because of the great distance, they were very close in my heart today.”
Deacon Prada, 33, had a fervent desire to serve others and do missionary work from the time he was a teen. Bound for Divine Mercy Parish in Kenner, he said his most profound ordination moment came as he lay prostrate on the floor of the cathedral sanctuary during the Litany of Saints.
“I recalled praying the Litany at home with Mom and Dad (in Colombia),” Deacon Prada said, his eyes welling with tears. “I felt the prayers, the fire within, the joy.”
Deacon Cahill, 25, a native of the English Isle of Jersey who will spend his diaconate internship at St. Pius X in New Orleans, was struck by thoughts of the whole communion of saints in heaven – and on earth – praying for and with him and his fellow ordinands. He said he felt especially humbled when his father, a Catholic permanent deacon who serves in England, vested him with the stole and dalmatic.
“The man who had clothed me from the time I was born was now clothing me for the next stage of my journey – as a deacon,” Deacon Cahill said. “I was filled with gratitude.”
Deacon Rodrigue, also 25, grew up in St. Charles Borromeo Parish in Destrehan attracted to the spiritual fatherhood exhibited by his childhood pastor, Father John Phuc, who died in a boating accident when Rodrigue was a fifth grader. The idea of spiritual fatherhood was reawakened when Deacon Rodrigue began taking mission trips to orphanages in Mexico with his parish youth group.
During the Ordination Mass, he said he experienced the remarkable, overwhelming joy that comes from “emptying” oneself before the Lord. When one does this well, one becomes extra receptive to the fruits of the Spirit, Deacon Rodrigue noted.
“When you empty yourself, you can feel yourself being filled up even more,” said Deacon Rodrigue, who will begin his diaconate journey at St. Catherine of Siena in Metairie.
Deacon Omunyokol, bound for Our Lady of Prompt Succor Parish in Westwego, said his ordination had him picturing the long and extraordinary journey he had taken from the time he was a 10-year-old altar server investigating the priesthood in his home parish in Uganda. The now 26-year-old entered the minor seminary at 13 and persevered in his studies, even when his seminary formation was interrupted by civil war.
“My desire to become a priest is growing every day,” Deacon Omunyokol said. “I could see myself (during the Ordination Mass), almost from above, lying prostrate before the archbishop. For me, that was a very grace-filled moment.”
The six deacons, who also made promises to be obedient to their bishop and to live as celibate men focused entirely on the needs of Christ and his church, will serve a full year as transitional deacons before their ordination to the priesthood in spring 2017.
Please note that in their new ministerial settings, the three deacons from Colombia will be known exclusively by their paternal surname. In Colombian tradition, one’s extended, formal name contains the father’s surname followed by the mother’s.
Beth Donze can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.