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Archbishop ordains nine to priesthood

Largest class in decades includes natives of Guam, Philippines, Lebanon, Peru, Colombia, India,Miami

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MIAMI | They range in age from 28 to 59. They hail from Guam, the Philippines, Lebanon, Colombia, Peru, and India, as well as Miami. And they represent the largest ordination class in decades. 

Nine men received the sacrament of Holy Orders in a joyous, standing-room only St. Mary Cathedral May 13, as hundreds more watched via livestream on the archdiocesan website.

Their call-to-priesthood stories are as different as the new priests themselves. Suffice to say that, for most of them, the road to ordination was paved with detours. Here are their stories.

 

 

'Jet-set' producer

Archbishop Thomas Wenski lays hands on Oswaldo Agudelo, ordaining him to the archdiocesan priesthood.

Photographer: TOM TRACY | FC

Archbishop Thomas Wenski lays hands on Oswaldo Agudelo, ordaining him to the archdiocesan priesthood.

Father Oswaldo Agudelo, 54, comes to the priesthood after a jet-setting life as a public relations executive for Lufthansa, and later an Emmy-winning executive producer for Telemundo Internacional.

A native of El Carmen de Atrato in Colombia and the second of three siblings — his older brother will be ordained next year for the Diocese of Brooklyn — Father Agudelo studied art in Barcelona, Spain, and mass communications in his native Colombia. He is a certified expert on Old Masters paintings and even owned an art gallery in Coral Gables. He also is an expert on the conflict in the Middle East, a region he has visited countless times. He settled in Miami 21 years ago and began attending Little Flower Church in Coral Gables.

“I was a Catholic ‘light’,” he said. “I went to Mass because of the obligation.” In the meantime, he lived a “very agitated social life,” indulging a taste for nightlife, travel and luxury cars.

That changed in 2005, when Telemundo shut down its Miami-based, 24-hour news operation. He took a job with Univision in Sacramento, California, but the city bored him.

One morning, on his day off, he took a walk around the neighborhood and wound up in a Catholic cemetery. Sitting in one of the mausoleums, he told himself, “I’m going to pray an Our Father for each of these souls.”

Suddenly, he felt a hand on his shoulder. It was the groundskeeper. The cemetery was closing. He had sat down to pray at 10 a.m. and it was 7 p.m. “But I liked it,” he recalled, so he kept coming back and spending hours in prayer.

Within months he had quit his job, returned to Miami, and practically “ locked myself up,” praying for as many as 12 or 13 hours a day. He took the 2 to 3 a.m. adoration slot at St. Raymond Church in Miami, where his companion was often the pastor at the time, Father Jordi Rivero.

One night he got up the courage to ask: “Father, is it very hard to be a priest?” To which Father Rivero replied: “You’re ready. Go to the vocations office.”

“I’ve never in my whole life been happier than I am now,” Father Agudelo said.

And neither are his parents back in Colombia. When he told them he was entering the seminary, they confessed they had been praying two to three hours a day for him to leave his jet-set life behind.

“What everyone in the world considers success, they saw as taking me away from God,” Father Agudelo said. “People say, ‘What a life!’ But it really was, ‘What a fall!’ I would not change any of it for what I’m doing now.”

He has been assigned to Our Lady of the Lakes, Miami Lakes.

 

 

‘The forgotten one’

Archbishop Thomas Wenski lays hands on James Arriola, ordaining him to the archdiocesan priesthood.

Photographer: TOM TRACY | FC

Archbishop Thomas Wenski lays hands on James Arriola, ordaining him to the archdiocesan priesthood.

Father James Arriola, 28, was born in a U.S. military base in Japan, the third of seven children who range in age from 33 to 10. His family is from Guam, and they moved back there when his father retired from the U.S. Navy. James was 4. He admits he felt a little lost after graduating from high school.

“I had ideas to get married, ideas to get a career. But nothing concrete.” Although he had joined a Neocatechumenal Way community at 13, “there wasn’t an inclination to the priesthood.”

Then he attended a retreat, and at the closing Mass, the priest preached: “If you feel a call, don’t be afraid. And what do you have to lose? I was thinking about my life and I thought, I have nothing to lose. Why don’t I try it?” Father Arriola recalled.

Neither the eldest nor the baby in his family, he said he often felt like “the forgotten one.” But now he realizes God “brought me to that point to show me that he loves me.” And once he experienced that love, “he showed me that this vocation is for me.”

He entered Blessed San Diego Luis de San Vitores Catholic Theological Institute for Oceania, which is affiliated with the Lateran University in Rome. When the Neocatechumenal Way’s Redemptoris Mater Seminary opened in Miami in 2011, he was chosen as one of its first 12 seminarians.

“I always felt called to go out to the missions and experience other places,” Father Arriola said. About his vocation, he added: “It’s God showing his love for me so hopefully I can show his love to the world.”

He has been assigned to St. Katharine Drexel in Weston.

 

 

‘Power seller’

Archbishop Thomas Wenski lays hands on Edgardo

Photographer: TOM TRACY | FC

Archbishop Thomas Wenski lays hands on Edgardo "Gary" De Los Santos, ordaining him to the archdiocesan priesthood.

Father Edgar “Gary” De Los Santos, 54, was born in Zamboanga City, Philippines, the youngest of six children. He has a degree in business administration and came to the U.S. in 1991 to work as an investment banker. Settling in Miami Shores, he joined St. Rose of Lima Parish, where he first assumed the duties of sacristan and eventually worked as parish manager.

An adventurous and competitive soul, he took evening culinary classes at Johnson & Wales University in North Miami and opened his own catering company. He’s run the Tough Mudder and 17 half marathons, ranked as a “power seller” on eBay, won a key lime pie-eating contest in Key West and a Honda Element from a local radio station, and even applied to compete on the Food Network’s “Chopped.”

“You won’t catch me watching TV,” he said. “Twenty years from now I can say my life is colorful. I have a lot of stories to tell.”

He began discerning a vocation to priesthood in 2009. The trigger came one night as he was closing the church after a wedding. Alone in the dark, he was walking back to the sacristy when he looked at the crucifix on the altar. “It was the only thing lit. And then suddenly I said, what if you become a priest?”

He had completely forgotten that, as a child, he used to play at being a priest, using the white cardboard under the lid of a Nescafe jar as the host.

“I want challenges,” Father De Los Santos said, and fate has obliged. He left everything behind to enter the seminary, where he was always the oldest of the men. His mother and one sister died during his first three years of study.

“Challenges are still coming, and God is helping me a lot,” he said. “God was with me all those years and will always be with me.”

Father De Los Santos has been assigned to St. Gregory in Plantation.

 

 

Seeking signs

Archbishop Thomas Wenski lays hands on Luis Flores, ordaining him to the archdiocesan priesthood.

Photographer: TOM TRACY | FC

Archbishop Thomas Wenski lays hands on Luis Flores, ordaining him to the archdiocesan priesthood.

Father Luis Flores, Jr., 41, admits his was a late vocation. A native of Lima, Peru, and the eldest of three brothers, his family moved to the U.S. in 1983. After a one-year stint in Miami, they moved to Washington, D.C., where his father found work in government radio. Upon returning to Miami in 1996, Luis began working as a project manager for a security systems company. His mother kept after him to stay close to the church, and he joined Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Kendall, “but I wasn’t getting anything out of it.”

Then he went on an Emmaus retreat. “That’s when this life of service kind of began to attract me,” he recalled. “I asked God for signs.”

The biggest came through his parents. He remembers his mother’s reaction when he told her, “I think the Lord is calling me.” She lowered her head, said “thanks be to God” and whispered, “Now I understand.”

When he asked her what that meant, she replied: “Something in my heart told me about a month ago to pray that one of my three sons be consecrated to the Lord.”

“That’s when I looked up and said, ‘God, that was a good one,’” Father Flores said.

The same thing happened when he told his dad. “I had a dream” that you were already a priest, his dad told him. “That was like a two-by-four in the back of my head, from God,” Father Flores says now.

He also understands that he had to walk away from his own plans and desires to answer the call to priesthood.

“My understanding of marriage was different than the understanding of marriage that God had for me. God wanted me to have an even greater wife — the Church. He wanted me not to have two children, but many children of all types, of all races,” Father Flores said.

He has been assigned to Little Flower in Coral Gables.

 

 

‘Running to God’

Archbishop Thomas Wenski lays hands on Joseph Maalouf, ordaining him to the archdiocesan priesthood.

Photographer: TOM TRACY | FC

Archbishop Thomas Wenski lays hands on Joseph Maalouf, ordaining him to the archdiocesan priesthood.

At 59, Father Joseph Maalouf is the oldest of this year’s ordination class. He brings a lot of experience to the ministry. Ordained a permanent deacon for the archdiocese, the Lebanon-born, former body shop owner and manager speaks Arabic, French, English and Spanish, which he learned in Miami after arriving here in 1983. He also was married for 21 years and has two adult daughters.

“I was 11 years old when I first felt the calling,” he said. “I decided to do other things.” But the calling never left. “God’s been calling for a long time. In my human weakness, I didn’t want to give him more.”

After obtaining an annulment in 1999, he became very involved in his parish, St. John Neumann in Miami. His pastor, Msgr. Pablo Navarro, kept asking him, “What are you waiting for?”

“I was afraid,” Father Maalouf said. “Am I running away from the world? Am I going to hide in the Church? If that’s the case, I didn’t want to do it.” After “a long prayer,” he realized, “I was not doing things to run away from the world. Actually, I was running to God.”

He entered the diaconate program in 2005. But within six months of his deaconate ordination in December 2010, the call to priesthood manifested itself. He remembers the exact moment. He was assisting as a deacon at a funeral Mass when “I felt my heart exploding with joy… I realized it was a calling to the priesthood. I was called to be there consecrating.”

Instead of studying in South Florida, he was sent to what is known as a “second vocation” seminary, the Pope St. John XXIII National Seminary in Weston, Massachusetts. The past five years, away from family, friends and his parish community have not been easy, but “all of my fears, all of my doubts, God took care of them.”

He hopes to use his experience to help couples and teenagers especially. “Because I know what they’re going through. Been there, done that. Not only with myself but with my children.”

Father Maalouf has been assigned to All Saints in Sunrise.

 

 

‘Prodigal son’

Archbishop Thomas Wenski lays hands on Luis Pavon, ordaining him to the archdiocesan priesthood.

Photographer: TOM TRACY | FC

Archbishop Thomas Wenski lays hands on Luis Pavon, ordaining him to the archdiocesan priesthood.

Father Luis Pavon, who turns 36 May 20, is that rarest of breeds: a Miami native, born at Mercy Hospital, a graduate of St. Michael the Archangel School and Christopher Columbus High School. The second of four siblings, he recalls growing up in a “faith environment,” even though that did not include regular attendance at Sunday Mass.

After earning a degree in English from FIU, he worked at a marketing firm and other “odd, English-related jobs.” He also “abandoned” himself to the world. He didn’t question his faith. He didn’t search for truth. He just became convinced that “it was impossible to live like Christ has called us.”

But “the world is an unfaithful lover,” he said. “It doesn’t treat the ones who give into her very well.”

At 25, prompted by the death of Pope John Paul II, he made a radical return to the Church. He decided to become a monk and spent three months at a Trappist monastery in Conyers, Georgia. “I thought I was going to shut myself away from the world to do penance for my sins.”

When that didn’t work out, he began attending Mass at St. Augustine Church and Catholic Student Center in Coral Gables. Soon, he was leading the young adult group and serving as sacristan. He continued to discern the call to priesthood, and sensed the Lord assuaging his fears, letting him know that “this time it will be different.”

His story, he said, is biblical. “The prodigal son returns and knows who he really is.” He hopes that experience will make him a better priest, one more open to people’s need for God’s mercy.

“I have an intimate knowledge of sin and an intimate knowledge of the hunger for God,” he said. “I think I understand why that hunger (exists) in others. And the banquet that’s been offered to me, I would invite them to share it.”

Father Pavon has been assigned to Our Lady of Guadalupe in Doral.

 

 

Science and faith

Archbishop Thomas Wenski lays hands on Alexander Rivera, ordaining him to the archdiocesan priesthood.

Photographer: TOM TRACY | FC

Archbishop Thomas Wenski lays hands on Alexander Rivera, ordaining him to the archdiocesan priesthood.

Father Alex Rivera, 29, was born in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, but grew up in Miami. The oldest of four siblings, he graduated from Our Lady of the Lakes School in Miami Lakes and St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Fort Lauderdale. His family —Peruvian mom, Puerto Rican dad — have always been involved in the Church, and the thought of priesthood occurred to him at first in middle school.

But he also felt called to medicine, and got a full academic scholarship to Duke University in North Carolina. His first year there, “I really started feeling very strongly that desire to priesthood.” His thought: “There are plenty of people who want to be doctors but I haven’t met any who want to be priests.”

He spoke with his pastor about it, the late Father James Murphy of Our Lady of the Lakes. Father Murphy suggested he finish his bachelor’s degree and then consider the seminary. So he returned to Miami and earned his bachelor’s degree in biology from FIU while getting more involved in his parish. He finds it ironic that his stint at Duke convinced him of his vocation.

“I had to go back to where I was born, to North Carolina, to realize what the Lord wanted,” he said. “There was a lot of worry before. Am I doing the right thing? But when I said yes, there was such peace.”

He noted that Father Murphy offered “very good advice” in suggesting he continue his studies in biology. Along with everything French, it remains a passion in his life. He sees no dichotomy between science and faith.

“Contemplating nature and creation is like watching the mind of God at work. That can be prayer,” Father Rivera said.

He has been assigned to Epiphany in Miami.

 

 

Pandebono: good bread

Archbishop Thomas Wenski lays hands on Juan Carlos Salazar, ordaining him to the archdiocesan priesthood.

Photographer: TOM TRACY | FC

Archbishop Thomas Wenski lays hands on Juan Carlos Salazar, ordaining him to the archdiocesan priesthood.

Father Juan Carlos Salazar, 41, came to the U.S. at age 25 from his native Antioquia, Colombia. The second oldest and only boy among four siblings, he had a degree in business administration and worked for his family's business in Colombia, which caused him to travel frequently to New York and Los Angeles.

“That’s how I was attracted to try new horizons, new life, the American dream,” he said.

But his degree was worthless once he settled here, so he began working at a warehouse for $5.15 an hour — at first cleaning up, then keeping track of inventory, and eventually combining duties as a courier with bookkeeping tasks. He had a girlfriend, and attended Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Kendall. That’s when “God’s dream” began substituting for his own.

“I thought it was crazy that the Lord would be calling me,” he recalled. But one day, while praying before the Blessed Sacrament, he said “yes. If that’s what you want for me, open the doors. And (God) began to open the doors.”

Too quickly, it seemed. He met with the archdiocesan vocations director at the time, Father Manny Alvarez, now pastor at Immaculate Conception in Hialeah, and was informed that he would have to study for nine years, primarily philosophy and English. “I ran out,” he said, thinking, “This isn’t for me.”

By that time, he had changed jobs. Now he worked for his family’s bakery, making “pandebono” — a Colombian cheese bread whose name literally translates as “good bread.” A thought occurred to him: “I’m making this bread, and the Lord is calling me to priesthood. It’s another bread I’m going to be kneading.”

He met again with the archdiocesan vocations director, this time Msgr. Roberto Garza, now rector of St. John Vianney College Seminary in Miami. “You’re ready,” Msgr. Garza told him. Still, at every step in the process — filling out the application, undergoing the psychological evaluation — he kept thinking, “I’m going to prove that this isn’t for me.”

But God kept opening doors. “You discern a vocation little by little. It’s a process also of falling in love, of getting to know yourself,” Father Salazar said.

He has been assigned to St. Thomas the Apostle in Miami.

 

 

For the deaf

Archbishop Thomas Wenski lays hands on Mathew Padickal Thomas, ordaining him to the archdiocesan priesthood.

Photographer: TOM TRACY | FC

Archbishop Thomas Wenski lays hands on Mathew Padickal Thomas, ordaining him to the archdiocesan priesthood.

Father Mathew Thomas, who turned 49 May 9, is a native of Kerala, India, who studied economics at Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam, India. One of six children whose oldest brother is deceased, he has many priest friends and comes from a family with “a lot of nuns.” One cousin works with the Missionaries of Charity in Libya, another is stationed in Austria, and two more serve in India.

He taught statistics and world economics before discerning a vocation to the priesthood. After thinking about it for three or four years, he entered the seminary in Bangalore, India, in 2002. A motorbike accident made him miss four years of study and left him with a slight limp. It also modified his vocation, to one focused on service to the disabled.

That’s what brought him to the U.S. three years ago, after finishing his master of divinity degree at Christ University in Bangalore. He joined a fledgling religious community, the Dominican Missionaries for the Deaf and Disabled, and has spent the last three years learning American Sign Language and perfecting his English, in Texas, New York and Missouri. He also served at Schott Communities in Cooper City.

“It is really hard for me to come to America,” Father Thomas said. None of his family could come from India for his ordination. But he looks forward to hearing confessions and celebrating Mass in sign language.

Many deaf people are joining Protestant congregations in Palm Beach County, he said, “because we don’t have any Catholic priests here” to serve them. His ordination should change that.

Father Thomas has been assigned to St. Paul the Apostle, Lighthouse Point.


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