While children dream of Santa’s reindeer hooves tapping on the roof with the promise of presents, Deacon Nelson Rubio said he is “living in a children’s story” of his own, a happy anticipation for the greatest gift he’ll ever receive — ordination to the priesthood.
“I’m very excited and I’m ready. I’m counting down,” he said, adding again, “I’m very excited. My life will change a lot and also it’s a remarkable step in my life because I desire to be a pastor for people, not for me; it’s for people.”
Rubio, 37, will be the first Venezuelan ordained in the Diocese of Little Rock at 10 a.m., Saturday, Dec. 16 at the Cathedral of St. Andrew in Little Rock. He had served at Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in Hot Springs Village and was ordained to the diaconate there last year. On Jan. 19, he will begin his ministry as associate pastor of Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in North Little Rock (Marche) and St. Mary Church in North Little Rock.
On a recent spiritual retreat, Rubio said, “I was thinking, I was nervous, ‘Oh my gosh, in almost three weeks I will be a priest, how wonderful it will be.’ I’m so happy.”
The path to his priesthood has been in the works since his First Communion. At his home parish in St. Joseph in Maracaibo, Venezuela, he felt God call him to serve. He entered the seminary in Venezuela, earning three degrees in philosophy and teaching, as well as a master’s degree in existential philosophy. But six months before his diaconate ordination in 2008, he decided to discern his vocation outside of the seminary. After four years, he met Father Javier Bustos, then-vice rector at Sacred Heart Seminary and School of Theology in Hales Corner, Wis., who connected him with diocesan vocations director Msgr. Scott Friend.
Rubio became a diocesan seminarian in 2014 and has learned in his continued formation at Sacred Heart Seminary, which has a special focus of educating men 30 years old and older, to “be humble,” he said.
“Be humble and be yourself. And do the best you can. That is what I am doing, the best I can,” making sure his spiritual life is solid, Rubio said.
He has learned to use his sufferings from Guillain–Barré Syndrome, which was triggered after receiving a flu shot in 2014, to minister to those who are ill. Prayer, he said, is his “biggest medicine to be strong.”
“Sometimes I ask Jesus, ‘How can I serve? How can I handle my situation?’ I wanted to be active; I wanted to be with the people. And Jesus told me, ‘Well, you are with them.’ When I preach, teach in the parish I serve in, the people have been grateful for my vocation and my health,” he said. “They told me, ‘Oh Nelson, even though you are not every day in the parish, you challenge my family, you challenge me personally. Through you I found Jesus.’”
Rubio is on medication and attends physical therapy twice a week for the syndrome, which caused extreme muscle weakness and damage to his peripheral nervous system.
“Every day is better. Every day I am in pain, sometimes it’s a little and sometimes it’s worse, but with that I’m trying to work … sometimes I can’t do anything active, but I can do something with a word, something with a smile; say good morning in an enthusiastic way, that’s how I evangelize people,” he said.
One of the most rewarding experiences in his seminary formation was hospital ministry. During summer 2016, he met a Little Rock woman who was 102 years old. Every time he visited her hospital room, “I saw her face, she was in pain, but she was very enthusiastic. I said, ‘Well, that lady made me strong, I cannot stop. I will never give up in any worse situation.’”
“She died with me,” while he was there, he said. “That kind of experience, I don’t know if I will have again.”
Though his ordination will be a happy day, his mother and three sisters in Venezuela will not be able to attend. Because of the political unrest in Venezuela, they were unable to get a visa to travel to the United States.
“We tried many ways, it is impossible. The situation in Venezuela every day is worse and worse. My family is OK,” but food and everyday items like toiletries are scarce, he said. “I talk with her every day, she didn’t tell me about” all the details because she thought her son “will worry.”
However, Rubio said his godparents, originally from Venezuela who now live in Chile, will attend. There will also be about 90 people from Wisconsin, where he attended seminary, and many locally from Hot Springs Village.
“I can say it’s sad, but it’s meaningful, I’m grateful,” that even though his family cannot be there, many friends will be, he said. “I don’t feel abandoned by Jesus because a lot of people will attend … that is my family, people who will attend my ordination. God is my family. Everybody is my family.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the new name of Sacred Heart Seminary and School of Theology. This article has been updated.
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