New priests build meaningful friendships on the way to ordination
May 29, 2014 — Most Reverend J. Terry Steib, SVD, bishop of Memphis, ordained three members of the Society of the Divine Word (SVD) on Saturday, May 24, at the Chapel of the Holy Spirit in Techny, Ill.
The path to the priesthood for Father Jesús Mata Martinez, SVD, has come full circle. Not only has he fulfilled his dream of becoming a priest, but through Divine Providence, he will be assigned to the parish of a woman who played a role in launching his journey.
Father Mata Martinez, 34, grew up in a large family in Matamoros, Mexico, directly south of Brownsville, Texas.
His call to the priesthood came early. He recalls that when he was a boy of 6 or 7, he corralled the family dogs so that he would have a congregation for his playtime pretend Masses.
"I wanted to do the same as the priest, so I prepared the table," he said. "I had books. I needed people, but there were no people, so I gathered my dogs."
The young Mata Martinez also had a desire to be an altar server, but his family did not have the economic means to pay for the obligatory outfit. Then, around age 12, he stopped going to church. But, his journey continued. At age 16, he had an epiphany at a Catholic youth gathering.
"When I heard all the youth singing, clapping, holding hands, I felt something right here," he said as he motioned to his heart. "I started to cry. In Mexico, we don’t cry. I considered that a moment of grace when God touched my heart. I wanted to continue experiencing those times, to experience those moments of amazement."
Life continued and he earned a bachelor’s degree in accounting from Instituto Technologica de Matamoros in Mexico, and his desire to become a priest grew. With his sister’s encouragement, he contacted his Confirmation sponsor, Father Jesús Zamarripa-Salazar, SVD, a member of the U.S. Western Province.
In 2004, Father Mata Martinez came to the United States and entered formation at Divine Word College in Epworth, Iowa.
"I like to be with people—in their joys and struggles," he said.
He said he is inspired by the sense of community that he felt at Epworth, in the novitiate and especially with the older Divine Word Missionaries. He completed his Cross-cultural Training Program in Argentina and served as a deacon at Immaculate Conception in Chicago’s Brighton Park neighborhood. His first assignment will be in the Chicago Province.
A few weeks ago, Father Mata Martinez took part in Saturday evening Mass at St. Patrick in Fort Wayne, Ind., where he will serve as a new priest. A woman approached him. Trying to place him, she said, "I have a question for you."
He replied, ‘I have a question for you, Rosie.’" After nearly two decades, they met again. She was one of the organizers of the youth conference in Mexico those many years ago.
The proverbial road that Father Peter Phong Nguyen, SVD, 42, took to the priesthood was as winding as that of his confrere.
Born and raised in Vietnam, he is the fourth of five children. Family means the world to him. He was little when his father had to leave Vietnam.
"My father came [to the United States] after the war," he said. "He was in the [Vietnamese] Navy, so he had to leave after the war."
Father Nguyen’s older brother followed later and paved the way for the rest of the family to immigrate to the United States in 1991. "It was difficult back then," he said of his childhood. "It was a different world. The living standard was different."
Religious life was a part of his childhood. Three of his aunts are nuns. He admired his uncle who is a Divine Word Missionary. In 1995, he took the leap; left Fort Worth, Tex.; and enrolled in Divine Word College in Epworth, Iowa.
However, the Iowa climate made life difficult for him. The cold winds, open corn fields and being so far from his family were foreign to him.
"I felt so lonely, so I decided to quit after half a year and go back home," he said.
He returned to Texas, but the bond of friendships that he made in Iowa remained with him. He remained in contact with several schoolmates who are now Divine Word Missionaries.
Back in Texas, Father Nguyen continued with his studies, earning a bachelor’s degree in engineering in 2005. He then worked as an engineer, but the call to become a Divine Word Missionary was still in his heart.
In 2007, he applied to the SVD Associate Program and entered the novitiate in 2009.
During his preparation for the priesthood, Father Nguyen did his clinical pastoral education (CPE) at the Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas and his Cross-cultural Training Program at Immaculate Conception, a parish that serves a farming community in Liberty, Texas. For his first assignment, he will return to the U.S. Southern Province.
A third seminarian, who remains unnamed because of religious persecution in his homeland, also was ordained to the Catholic priesthood.
Founded in 1875, the Society of the Divine Word has more than 6,000 members who serve the spiritual and social needs of people in more than 70 countries.
To see more photos of the ordination, go to www.divineword.org/gallery.