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Nelson Rubio overcomes health crisis to become a deacon

Seminarian is the first to be ordained at Sacred Heart Church in Hot Springs Village

Published: December 22, 2016         
Aprille Hanson
Bishop Anthony B. Taylor presents the Book of the Gospels to Nelson Rubio during his diaconate ordination Mass Dec. 17 at Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in Hot Springs Village. Also pictured are Deacons Martin Siebold (left) and Ramses Mendieta.

HOT SPRINGS VILLAGE — Nelson Rubio has known since the day of his first Communion that he was called to be a priest. Overcome with happiness, Rubio said at just 8 years old he couldn’t hold back his tears. 

“At that time I felt Jesus called me,” at his home parish of St. Joseph in Maracaibo, Venezuela. “But I can’t describe by many words because it’s a deep feeling.”

On Dec. 17, he was once again smiling and weeping as he felt God’s blessing during his diaconate ordination at Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in Hot Springs Village.

“This is a blessed moment God gives you,” the newly ordained deacon Rubio, 36, said after Mass. “… I am born for the Church, a new person.”

It was the first ordination for Sacred Heart Parish and the first Venezuelan seminarian ordained in the diocese.

“He’s very inspiring to me because he’s had to go through so much,” said Msgr. Scott Friend, diocesan director of vocations, adding that Rubio is “living from the cross. I believe for every priest that’s where we belong.

“He’s never lost his smile. I’d say it’s gotten a little bigger.”

In Venezuela, Rubio received three degrees in philosophy and teaching, plus a master’s degree in existential philosophy. Around 2008, he hit the brakes six months before his diaconate ordination. He felt called to discern his vocation outside of the seminary and spent four years working at his local parish.

“For me when Jesus calls a person to be a priest, it’s not for a moment. It’s forever,” Rubio said. “… I discovered that Jesus called me for all my life.”

After his four-year break, he spoke with Father Javier Bustos, then-vice rector at Sacred Heart Seminary in Hales Corner, Wis., who told Msgr. Friend about him. After meeting with Msgr. Friend, Rubio was eventually invited to become a diocesan seminarian. Sacred Heart Seminary has a special focus of educating men 30 years old and older.

“He has an inner strength that allows him to overcome any difficulty and hardship in his life,” said Father Jose Gonzalez, pastor of St. Adalbert Church where Rubio serves while in seminary. 

Though his mother, Carmen Villalobos, and three older sisters could not travel from Venezuela, the ordination was recorded for them.

In 2014, Rubio’s health hit rock bottom. After receiving a flu shot, it triggered Guillain–Barré syndrome, which causes extreme muscle weakness and damage to the peripheral nervous system. He was hospitalized for a month, battling intense pain, where doctors misdiagnosed him with Multiple Sclerosis and leukemia. He said “the power of prayer” got him through.

Rubio still goes to therapy twice a week in nearby Milwaukee to relieve muscle tightness. A Guillain–Barré specialist in Milwaukee called Rubio’s recovery “a miracle,” as many lose the ability to walk or feeling in parts of their body.

“I can walk, I can talk, not perfect,” he laughed, “and I can move. I said, ‘Oh, thank you God.’”

Bishop Anthony B. Taylor said during his homily that while Rubio will have to manage his work because of his illness, it will not damage his call to ministry.

“As we all know very well, some of our most effective and inspiring priests live with chronic pain and increasing physical limitations,” Bishop Taylor said. “All the Lord asks is that you serve him with sacrificial love.”

Rubio said he felt God still call him to be a priest “to help the people that are suffering in this world.”

“After my illness I am focused to spend a lot of time with Jesus especially in front of the Blessed Sacrament. So every single day I make a holy hour in front of the altar by myself,” he said. “Jesus touched me to spend more time with him. I felt that after my illness, my life changed.”

Rubio said he’s been surrounded by support from many people, including Sacred Heart parishioners Bob and Mary Anne Honzik.

“It’s overwhelming. We know what he’s gone through … he’s like a son,” Mary Anne Honzik said, fighting back tears.

Rubio, who is scheduled to be ordained a priest in December 2017, is looking forward to ministering to people in the parishes.

“A merciful priest, a compassionate priest … I want to be like Jesus,” he said.

An earlier version of this article incorrectly listed Deacon Nelson Rubio's age. This article has been updated.

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