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Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Answering God's Call to the Priesthood...

Fr. Daniel Martin...
St. John Mary Vianney, known as the Cure of Ars, would often say, "The priesthood is the love of the heart of Jesus." While, Bl. Pope John Paul II once said, "No one can see Christ; but everyone sees the priest, and through him they wish to catch a glimpse of the Lord. Immense is the grandeur and dignity of the priest!"

I'm sure those remarks may raise some eyebrows in today's jaded and skeptical world, especially considering the stories that have captured the headlines on national news media over the past decade or so.  But, just as for every Judas, there was a Peter and a decade of other apostles, for every stray priest, there are nine or ten more who live righteous and holy lives and don't get the recognition they deserve for their humility, dedication and unwavering service and love for Christ and His Church.

Those are the priests the Catholic Church has relied on for the past two thousand years to evangelize the world and administer the sacraments that Christ handed to His apostles, and those are the priests that the Catechism calls the "means by which Christ unceasingly builds up and leads his Church" until the end of time...

At 27, Fr. Daniel Martin is the youngest priest in the Archdiocese of Miami. Freshly ordained by Archbishop Thomas Wenski, along with three others last May, the South Florida native, who was born at Jackson Memorial Hospital, raised in Coral Springs, where he attended St. Andrew's Catholic School, and graduated from St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Ft. Lauderdale, has hit the ground running at his first parish assignment at the Church of the Little Flower in Coral Gables (where I just so happen to be a parishioner!).

So, instead of focusing on his career, starting a family or just hanging out and having fun with friends, like most men his age, he is getting up before the crack of dawn to pray, celebrating daily Mass (as early as six fifteen in the morning!), anointing the sick, meeting and counseling parishioners and couples getting married, visiting hospitals, administering last rites, attending funerals and celebrating funeral Masses, going to parish ministry and school meetings and somewhere in between, preparing his daily reflections and Sunday homilies, catching up on the news (to ensure his homilies are relevant), reading, praying and more praying. And, that doesn't even include Saturdays, which are filled with morning and vigil Masses, Confessions, Baptisms and Weddings!  (And, you thought doctors were busy!)

The life of a parish priest is not one of comfort and leisure, especially at large parishes, where the demands are many and idle time few and far between, particularly as you get your grounding. It's a life of sacrifice, service, discipline and selflessness, but Fr. Martin, who once considered the Jesuit Order, like his favorite saint, St. Francis Xavier, the 16th Century missionary and co-founder of the Society of Jesus, whose zeal and passion for Christ helped spread Catholicism into India, where Fr. Martin's family descended from, wouldn't want it any other way.  The priesthood is the fulfillment of an internal longing that drew him to the Mass from an early age.

"I always loved the liturgy. I was an altar server almost since the time I did my First Holy Communion. I don’t think I ever missed Mass, maybe once, in my entire life because I always loved the liturgy. I also have a very philosophical mind and liked to ask questions. In the Church, I discovered many great philosophical minds, who liked to ask great questions and were able to conform faith and reason.”

That inquisitive mind and a theology teacher in high school, who challenged his faith and made him dig a little deeper, started him on a journey of discernment that eventually led him to the Sacrament of Holy Orders this year.

“I think adolescence is a time to question and that’s when you need good teachers and priests to guide young people. It’s by asking questions that faith can grow deeper and stronger. It was during that period of questioning that the deepest desire arose within me.”

The laying of hands...
It is one of the reasons he enjoys working with teens and young adults so much.  Admittedly, like most teenagers trying to discover himself and the world around him, those questions and a thirst for truth, heightened by that theology teacher, kindled within him a fire that continued to grow.

Despite knowing since high school that God was calling him to be a priest, he says his discernment was a gradual one.  So, when I asked him during an interview, shortly after his ordination, what he thought of so many teenagers straying from their faith (many times after receiving their Confirmation), he answered that he didn't believe it was necessarily such a bad thing.

"I think every person has a time in their life of challenging and questioning what has been handed to them. They have to come to their own sense of values, their own belief systems.  They need to kind of embrace what has been given to them; what has been handed to them by their parents."  He added, "Anyone who doesn't question their faith at some point in their life or doesn't go through that process is probably missing out because once you get through to the other side of that, you usually come out with a deeper faith and that is what happened to me."

In fact, as long as they have a sound faith formation at home, Fr. Martin believes that, like the lost sheep in the Bible parable, those that stray will eventually be led back home.

During our meeting, I was struck by the young priest's gentle demeanor and pastoral nature.  Fr. Martin, who says he enjoys listening to Y-100 (my daughter's favorite station!), although his musical taste ranges from classical to classic rock, depending on what station pops up on the radio when he is trying to avoid commercials, exudes a sincere desire for helping people; a virtue that will suit him well in his vocation.  When I asked him what he would be if not a priest, he was actually stumped momentarily and said it was a hard question to answer. After a brief pause and some thought, he finally answered that "maybe" he would be a politician because "politics is about trying to make the world a better place."

A scholar at heart, he enjoys reading about theology, politics, economics and social issues.  He grew up tinkering with computers, playing soccer and basketball and playing the piano, which he still toys with from time to time, and once competed in on a state level.

After high school, the novice priest attended the historic Fordham University, in New York City, where, as an honors student, he earned a Bachelor's Degree in philosophy before enrolling at (none other than) St. John Vianney College Seminary in west Miami-Dade in 2007.

He grew up in a devout Catholic family, where prayer and church were a part of the everyday life for his parents, who immigrated from India, his younger brother, John Paul, and him. In fact, he says his father played a huge role in his vocation, albeit unbeknownst to him.  After his ordination, his dad, who has two uncles who are priests in India, confessed that he had been praying for Daniel to become a priest from the day he was born!

Therefore, St. Andrew’s, where he attended Mass from the time he was two years old, was like his extended family.

“The great thing about being at my home parish is that everywhere I turned, the church was my family because one of my uncles was a sacristan (the person in charge of the sacristy), another of my grand uncles was a leader in the Spanish choir, and another was an usher. So, it was a family affair and I jokingly say that, after becoming a priest, we could basically run the church!”

Meanwhile, his brother, who is currently a member of the National Guard, was also an altar server, his father, who is a psychiatrist in the Miami-Dade prison system, served as a Eucharistic Minister, and his mother became a Catechism teacher.  Needless to say, service and parish life was in his blood.

Giving a blessing...
In fact, one of his biggest thrills so far in his short pastoral career was celebrating his first Mass after his ordination at his parish.

“It was an awesome moment because, just being there so long… We all have a sense of what the Church is and we usually think of our home parishes when we think about the Church. You don’t really think of the Vatican. You think of where you go to Mass. So, it was really cool to be there and to lead everyone in prayer.”

It was a thrill that set the tone for his ministry and he has carried the enthusiasm into his first assignment at Little Flower.

He says he wants to be a positive and inspiring influence; a true witness and mentor like his old high school teacher was for him, especially to young people.

"They need to come to the point where they feel like the ones who are teaching them the faith are actually witnessing and living the faith; that they actually ascribe to what they are teaching.  They need to really see it (the faith) in action."

It is reminiscent of a quote by Pope Paul VI, which was used in Pope Benedict's letter proclaiming the Year for Priests, “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.”

That is why Fr. Martin believes that his role, as a shepherd of Christ, is to present the faith in a way that touches people and attracts instead of detracts.  In other words, he wants to live up to the words of St. John Vianney to be "the love of the heart of Jesus" and draw wayward sheep back into the fold.

"I think that many times people leave when they have encountered some sort of rash treatment.  As most people know, the second largest Christian group is former Catholics... We need to present our faith from a positive perspective.  I've heard many homilies where I agreed with everything being said but I would not be convinced by how it was being said.  I think the only way to really convince anyone is on a personal level."

Yet, despite the negative stories of doom and gloom in the ranks and files of the Catholic Church and the shortage of priestly vocations, Fr. Martin sees many signs of hope.

"Just here in the Archdiocese of Miami, we have 50 seminarians.  We have about 100 parishes.  If those seminarians become priests (and more follow at the current pace), we should be able to replenish any need in the next 10 to 20 years.  St. Vincent de Paul Seminary (in Boynton Beach, Fl.) has more seminarians then they have ever had.  So I don't think the crisis is necessarily true."

New laborers for God's vineyard...
When I interviewed Fr. Martin, he had just celebrated his first funeral Mass, after having performed his first anointing of the sick at a local hospital and was getting ready for his first Spanish homily at a wedding, after having celebrated his first Spanish Mass the previous Sunday. So, obviously, as with any new priest, there will be lots of firsts for him this year.   But, as legendary NCAA basketball coach and devout Christian, John Wooden, once said, "I'd rather have a lot of talent and little experience then have a lot of experience and little talent" and Fr. Martin certainly has the talent to be a great priest.

Going back to St. John Vianney, he also once said, "Without the Sacrament of Holy Orders, we would not have the Lord (the Eucharist). Who put him there in that tabernacle? The priest. Who welcomed your soul at the beginning of your life? The priest. Who feeds your soul and gives it strength for its journey? The priest. Who will prepare it to appear before God, bathing it one last time in the blood of Jesus Christ? The priest, always the priest. And if this soul should happen to die [as a result of sin], who will raise it up, who will restore its calm and peace? Again, the priest… Only in heaven will he fully realize what he is.”

May God bless Fr. Martin and all righteous and holy priests who have answered God's call, despite the sacrifices, in order to be, as John Paul said, the representatives of Christ on earth, so as to lead souls to heaven by sharing His love for each one of us...


Robert Molleda said...

Nice post, Carlos. It's great to see young priests embracing their vocation. The person standing to Fr. Martin's left in the picture at the bottom of the post is Fr. Elvis who is assigned to my parish (Our Lady of Lourdes). He is about the same age as Fr. Martin and has many of the qualities you describe.

Carlos Espinosa said...

Thanks, Robert.
Yes. Fr. Elvis Gonzalez is another inspiration at only 29. He is another young priest to shepherd God's flock, hopefully, for many years to come...

Jorge Alvarez said...

The part of our children coming back to their faith hit close to home....

Carlos Espinosa said...

I'm glad to hear that Jorge. Although, I know it's easier said then done. We get so concerned, as parents, that we are failing God and our children, that we don't want to wait for the Holy Spirit to take hold of them and lead them home. We think we have to transfer our faith unto them and that's not the way it works. It's a difficult balancing act...