For the diocese’s five new transitional deacons, summer plans were greatly altered during the pandemic. They were originally scheduled to be ordained in May but the ceremonies were moved to August to allow for greater participation with their parish communities. Instead of ministering as deacons this summer, they served in parishes learning about the sacraments and ministry.
Their ordinations were held for four consecutive nights, Aug. 11-14, in Little Rock, Jacksonville and Fort Smith. At each one, everyone in the sanctuary was required to wear a mask, pews and seating were marked or roped off to maintain social distancing and attendance was by invitation only. The Masses were livestreamed on YouTube and Facebook to allow friends and out-of-town relatives to watch live.
JACKSONVILLE – Alex Smith’s Filipino heritage was honored during his Aug. 11 diaconate ordination at his home parish, St. Jude Church in Jacksonville.
His mother Gilda Elizondo was born in the Philippines, and it was something Smith wanted to include in the ordination Mass. Vocations director Msgr. Scott Friend practiced Tagalog, a native Filipino language, to proclaim the Election of the Candidate. One of the Scripture readings was also in Tagalog.
“My mom sent a couple voice recordings so Monsignor could listen and practice,” he said. “She said he sounded like a champ and he knew what he was doing … I wanted to show the respect of who I am but also to give the love back to my mom and my family back in the Philippines and California.”
Smith, 25, said he wants to learn more of the language because he only knows a few conversational words like “hello,” “thank you” and “yes ma’am.”
“Growing up in Beebe we were the only Filipino family,” he said.
For the ordination Mass, the church was near capacity with only 12 priests and a handful of deacons, seminarians, family members and close friends.
One of the moments most meaningful for him was when Deacon Mike Alberson vested him in the stole and dalmatic worn by a deacon. Alberson has been close to the Smith family since they moved to Beebe from San Diego when Alex was 4 years old.
“When he vested me, he said ‘Remember what the bishop said, you have been called to serve first,’” he said. “This community is very close and him vesting me was a very tender, beautiful moment.”
Smith said he can appreciate the commitment his parents made to drive 40 minutes round trip from Beebe to Jacksonville to bring the family to Mass every week. He was one of a few Catholics in his high school in Beebe. Many of his non-Catholic classmates watched the livestreamed Mass and messaged him after the ordination.
“It was neat to get a shoutout from them later,” he said. “I got messages from my buddies as well as my coaches back in high school.”
His sister Rita Elizondo of Searcy said of her older brother, “I couldn’t be more proud … I enjoy seeing how happy he is spreading his gift.”
Smith worked this summer at St. Raphael Church in Springdale where he was allowed to give reflections during Mass and assisted as a sacristan.
“It gave me a real look at what parish is about,” where he learned from pastor Father John Connell, who is also the diocesan vicar general.
Smith will return this month to Assumption Seminary in San Antonio for his final year of seminary.
FORT SMITH -- Eucharistic adoration played an important role in fostering Deacon Omar Galván’s vocation. All through his childhood, his mother Florinda would lead him, his three brothers and two sisters in the nightly family rosary, and his father Baltazar introduced him to adoration.
“My dad would go and spend 30 minutes at the Blessed Sacrament every Wednesday,” Galván said. “One night he took me with him and told me that before his marriage he promised to go to weekly adoration and offer prayers up for our family. He introduced me to the chapel, and in my teen years I was led to go back myself.”
On Aug. 12 Galván was ordained a deacon by Bishop Anthony B. Taylor at Immaculate Conception Church in Fort Smith.
Watching her son ordained a deacon, Florinda Gonzalez said, “I am happy, enthusiastic and teary-eyed.”
Galván, 27, started attending adoration weekly when his older cousin, Jose Luis Galván, asked him to fill in for him so he could take a trip to Mexico. Galván continued attending weekly adoration, praying to discern God’s will in his life.
“Before I left to go to the seminary, my mother gave me a traditional blessing for guidance on my long journey. My dad was excited and happy that I was following God’s call,” he said.
He entered the seminary in 2013 and completed his bachelor’s degree while living in the House of Formation in Little Rock. In 2017, he continued his theology studies at St. Meinrad Seminary in Indiana and will complete his final studies there before his priesthood ordination in 2021.
In May, he went to his summer assignment at Sacred Heart Church in Morrilton without having been ordained as a deacon and allowed the Spirit to lead him as he adapted to the limitations created by the virus.
“One of the things we did was home visits,” Galván said. “Since the church has a high school, I helped with the girls’ basketball and softball drills. I was able to get permission from the bishop to preach during Mass, and in-person Masses began again the first week I arrived. After Mass, I was able to meet with parishioners and talk to them. It’s a small parish, with two English and one Spanish Mass each week, but there is a lot of activity going on.”
Galván’s cousin Jose Luis, a former seminarian, was sure that the ordination would attract others to consider their vocations.
“It was emotional for me playing the music at Omar’s ordination,” he said. “I’ve lived here 28 years, and it was the first ordination that took place in our parish. It was so powerful seeing so many priests and seminarians. As a family we are happy to have another deacon, soon-to-be priest, from Fort Smith, with the Galván last name. My father, Candelario, is in his fourth year in the permanent diaconate program and will be ordained in the summer of 2022. We’re definitely blessed, and we hope vocations will continue to come.”
Deacon Galván said he feels encouraged and motivated by Catholics who live and model their faith in their everyday lives.
“I pray for the grace to be a good deacon and future priest, to overcome those moments of doubt and indecision,” he said. “I felt the call in high school, but it took me two years to accept that I was worthy enough to be accepted in the seminary. So many others are worthy to become priests, and God called me out of those thousands. God calls unworthy people. I identify with the apostles.”
Shortly before his diaconate ordination Aug. 13, Emmanuel Torres stole a private word with his parents, Juan and Maria Torres. Like everyone else gathering in St. Edward Church in Little Rock, the trio were wearing masks.
Just before Emmanuel turned to attend to one of a myriad last-minute details, he embraced his father, then leaned in close to his mother. At the last moment each pulled aside their masks; he to kiss her gently on the cheek and she to feel it.
The faithful came from far and wide with Torres’ birth family filling one side of the aisle, his faith family of seminarians, deacons and priests on the other and a healthy smattering of guests throughout.
Torres said he sensed the Holy Spirit as he lay prostrate on the floor during the Litany of Saints.
“I was so nervous,” he said afterward. “I cannot express right now how it felt. But just hearing everybody say, ‘Pray for us,’ I could tell that a lot of people were praying for me. I have prayed for this moment for a long time and am so very, very happy. I cannot express it in words.”
The 33-year-old from North Little Rock had been waiting for the day for 10 years. He was accepted as a discerner in 2010, first learning English before attending philosophy classes.
“I’m very happy; I feel at peace,” he said afterward. “I’m very excited that finally, I’m a deacon.”
Certain elements of the Mass had been shortened or omitted because of COVID-19 -- only a representative sample of deacons came forward to embrace Torres and the Sign of Peace was recited without handshakes or hugs. But two steps over the threshold after the recessional, Torres’ brother deacons demanded a curtain call, leading the crowd in thunderous applause which he received, smiling shyly, in the back of the church.
After the service, Torres grinned through a parade of well-wishers and took photographs with classmates, peers and an especially long line of family members. He called his family’s attendance, especially during the age of pandemic, a highlight of the evening and a representation of the larger diocesan family of faith who’d sustained him thus far.
“It means a lot to have my family here,” he said. “I always said, it’s my vocation, but it’s the work of many people behind me. I have been able to be here because of all of them, not only my family but also the people of the diocese have all been supporting me. They have my back.”
Last week, Torres finished his summer assignment at Immaculate Heart of Mary in North Little Rock (Marche) and St. Mary Church in North Little Rock. He will serve as deacon at St. Edward Church in Little Rock until returning to St. Meinrad Seminary in Indiana to finish his studies.
As Catholic High School classmates, fellow Eagle Scouts and members of Christ the King Church in Little Rock, the paths of Brian Cundall and Ben Riley will forever be intertwined for another reason as they were ordained deacons together Aug. 14.
The ordination Mass included their parents, siblings and their former pastor, Bishop Francis I. Malone of Shreveport, La.
The men, both 26, said laying prostrate on the floor on their home parish during the Litany of Saints was meaningful.
“Knowing when I get up I will no longer be living for myself but living for the Lord and will be dying to myself and rising as a new man,” Riley said. “It was profound. I was in tears and just thinking of all these incredible saints who were keeping me in their prayers. These real men and women are now helping me to live for (the Lord) as well.”
Cundall said, “At the end, it says ‘bless and sanctify this chosen man’ and ‘bless and sanctify this holy man.’ Those words hit me because, along with the Church choosing me, it was reaffirmed again that I have been chosen and even though I am a sinful, fallen human, I’m still holy and still called to holiness and still called to lead others to holiness.”
Deacon Bo and Vicki McAllister, Riley’s godparents, said they saw early signs in Riley that he was thinking about being a priest.
“Just knowing him and seeing him grow up and how he was always wanting to help others and sharing with others,” Deacon McAllister said.
“He had that servant’s heart,” Vicki McAllister said.
During the ordination, Riley’s uncle, the late Father Greg Hart who died in 2107, was on his mind.
“He showed me how beautiful serving the Lord can be and what the life of a priest is meant to be,” Riley said.
Cundall didn’t begin to discern his calling until he was a junior at Catholic High and his chemistry teacher, Patrick Friend, who is now a priest, told him he thought he thought he would be a good priest.
“That was definitely the Holy Spirit speaking through him and that first planted in my mind to start thinking about vocations and thinking about what I was called to do, whether that was marriage or priesthood,” Cundall said.
Cundall’s mother Rose said when her son returned from his first year of seminary she sensed the peace he was experiencing.
“I just saw the peace and joy. You just continue to see it grow each year and see that connection to the Lord, and you know (he is in the right place),” she said.
Both men served in Fort Smith this summer – Riley at Immaculate Conception and Cundall at Christ the King. They will travel back to St. Meinrad Seminary this month to finish their studies.
Maryanne Meyerriecks, Dwain Hebda and Malea Hargett contributed to this article.
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