Even though the clouds covered the sun above Christ the King Church in Little Rock, God’s light shined in the smiles of William Burmester, Stephen Hart, Ramsés Mendieta, Martin Siebold and Luke Womack.
Their love, devotion and spirituality permeated the sanctuary as congregants overfilled the pews to witness and feel the joy of these men on their priestly ordination May 27.
It was the year of the hometown boys and the adopted son, loved all equally by the parishes that had watched them grow from children to answering God’s call to the priesthood: Fathers Burmester, 29, a member of St. Joseph Church in Conway; Hart, 28, Christ the King, Little Rock; Mendieta, 27, Immaculate Conception Church, North Little Rock; Siebold, 28, Immaculate Heart of Mary, North Little Rock (Marche); and Womack, 32, St. Mary Church in Hot Springs.
Their faith was formed through religious education, altar serving, youth ministry and the prayers of fellow parishioners who watched and maybe even predicted, “That young man will be a priest one day.” And for Mendieta, traveling more than 2,500 miles from his native Nicaragua to follow God’s call, the parish considers him one of their own.
Bishop Anthony B. Taylor called the Diocese of Little Rock a “living mosaic” of different cultures, encouraging the priests to “foster understanding, love and respect among all those whom Jesus entrusts to your care.”
“The Church in Arkansas needs priests who lead people by example, who revere the spiritual and ministerial gifts of those whom Jesus sends us to serve. Our Church should be characterized by collegiality, not by coercion. By intelligent discourse, not edicts imposed from on high. Ideals and values, not just legal rules,” Bishop Taylor said. “Ninety-nine percent of the time your ministry will require you to be, but not compel. To inspire and not shame. To encourage the sheep, instead of rebuking them. And hopefully that rare one percent of the time when rebuking is needed, they never arise if they know beyond a shadow of a doubt that you love them and revere them.”
Since arriving as bishop for the Diocese of Little Rock in 2008, Bishop Anthony B. Taylor has ordained a total of 26 diocesan priests. This year with five men ordained ties both 2010 and 2016 for the most ordained men at once, stretching back to at least 1960.
For Msgr. Scott Friend, vocations director of the Diocese of Little Rock, who has counseled the young men through their discernment, it was hard to hold back tears.
“It’s always beautiful to see guys grow,” he said. “It’s very powerful for me … It takes all of us as a Church to raise a priest.”
The universal Church can be a parish family, campus ministry family and even those spiritual leaders that become family. Father Hart was nurtured by his parents, Robert and Evelyn Hart, who always encouraged their sons, newly ordained Father Hart, who will be an associate pastor at St. Theresa Church in Little Rock, and Father Andrew Hart, pastor at St. Thomas Aquinas University Parish in Fayetteville, to follow Christ’s call.
“The Holy Spirit really inspired my boys,” Evelyn Hart said, adding, “All the glory to God.”
Father Hart said following the ordination that his priesthood is “the beginning of the fulfillment of a calling and I am something altogether new now,” while still staying true to the same young man that his mentor, Msgr. J. Gaston Hebert, retired pastor of Christ the King Church in Little Rock, proclaimed could become “a potential saint.”
“He has a very pure heart, clarity of vision to what’s important, highly intelligent,” Msgr. Hebert said, who traveled from New Mexico for the ordination.
When the bishop called each man forth to make a promise to fulfill the duties of the priesthood, each man said “I do,” and for Father Mendieta, it was a moment that he had been discerning since he was a teenager and he couldn’t hold back his laughter after being called “Father” following Mass.
“I’m blessed, blessed and grateful to the one who has given me this gift, this calling,” he told Arkansas Catholic. He will be an associate pastor at St. Raphael Church in Springdale.
His mother, Sandra Lacayo, who traveled from Nicargua, said the ordination was “a big blessing,” that her son “has had a spirit of service since he was little.”
Father Mendieta’s godfather, Javier Bonilla of Orlando, said it was a precious moment to change Mendieta’s contact in his phone from “Deacon” to “Father.”
“It is by far just the fulfillment of a dream we’ve had in our family to have a priest,” he said.
As each of the five lay prostrate during the litany of saints, congregants sang “Bless these chosen men, sanctify these chosen men.”
“I began to reflect on each one and how they played a part in my journey along the way,” said Father Siebold, who will be an associate pastor at St. Vincent de Paul Church in Rogers, of the saints mentioned during the litany. He contemplated Mary, remembering his time in Mexico visiting the Our Lady of Guadalupe shrine, St. Joseph, recalling his “great example of chastity” and St. Martin de Porres, his namesake. Father Siebold said there were several moments of reflection, including watching the priests on the altar. “I’m sitting there kind of reflecting on how many of the priests played a big part in my formation,” and knowing that he would be entering into the body of the priesthood, “that special group and having them call me one of their own now.”
The bishop then laid his hands on their heads in silence, as each priest then followed.
“I think when Bishop Taylor put his hand on my head was the biggest part of it,” Father Womack said, adding he felt “so many things — relief, extreme joy.”
God was asked to send forth the Holy Spirit on the men standing before the altar as a prayer of ordination was prayed, with all responding, “Amen.” The priests were clothed in liturgical vestments, the traditional stole and chasuble, by fellow priests that have impacted each of their journeys to the priesthood. Bishop Taylor anointed their hands, allowing the men to do the work of the sacraments.
The mothers of the newly ordained brought up the gifts of the Eucharist to the altar and all priests helped call forth the Holy Spirit on the gifts to become the body and blood of Christ.
“At peace,” said Father Burmester of how he felt to be ordained, adding that seeing those he loved come through the communion line who have helped him along this path was something that made it even more special. He will be an associate pastor at St. Raphael Church in Springdale.
Austin Franke, creative director of media and campus associate for Evangelical Catholic based in Wisconsin, has been a best friend of Father Burmester since the two were in Catholic Campus Ministry at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway more than 10 years ago.
“I call him Father Gillypoo,” he said with a laugh, but added with all seriousness, “Today means that the first example I saw of a disciple of Christ is now a priest. It’s a great day.”
After Communion, the five priests shared a blessing with their families. Father Siebold hugged his parents, their heads all resting gently together.
“It was just like no one else was here,” said his mother Lisa Siebold of the blessing, with tears in her eyes. “It was real touching, sweet and heartfelt,” with his father Larry adding, “it’s a celebration that’s a gift from God.”
At the end of Mass, the parish erupted in clapping, standing proud to honor the young men who all followed God’s call, who embraced in a group hug in front of the altar.
It was a moment of understanding for Buck Womack, Father Womack’s twin brother, who said it was the most touching part of the Mass.
“You hear about it, but to really see the brotherhood” was inspiring, he said. “It’s exciting for him to finally be here.”
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