By John Andrews
GRAND TERRACE—One arrived straight from high school.
Another left an established career in engineering.
One is launching a second attempt at priestly formation.
Another brings a wealth of experience in parish youth ministry.
The journey in seminary life for Luis Angeles, Antony Assaf, Martin Pantoja and Thomas Davis began a month ago when they arrived at St. Junipero Serra House of Formation.
“It’s a mixed group,” observes Father Jorge Garcia, Rector of Serra House. “They bring a lot of gifts.”
Each man admits that leaving behind the life they knew for a more communal yet reflective atmosphere was initially a difficult adjustment.
“I was completely uprooted from what I was accustomed to and the first week was tough,” says Davis. “God is giving me the strength to do this and every day is getting better.”
Fr. Garcia said the feeling of being a fish out of water is normal and even healthy for seminarians in their first weeks at Serra House.
“I want them to grieve the life that they left behind so that they can embrace this new journey,” he says.
“I was very homesick,” admits Angeles, who graduated from high school in June.
The 18-year-old Hesperia man, who comes from Holy Family Parish, says his vocational call to the priesthood is rooted in his family and their embracing of the Catholic faith during difficult times in his boyhood years. “They believed in me so much. They took me to vocational retreats.”
Assaf, 36, grew up in Lebanon, was raised Catholic and attended parochial school. In his early adult years he earned a college degree, established a successful career in engineering and bought a home, “all the little check marks that people do,” he says. But he had drifted from his faith. Then came his 33rd birthday, and the beginning of God’s call to the priesthood.
“I thought, Jesus died when he was 33 and He changed the world. What am I doing to change the world? And why am I thinking about [Jesus]?”
Following what he calls a profound religious experience, Assaf immersed himself in several ministries at his parish, The Holy Name of Jesus in Redlands. He said ‘yes’ to God’s call, he says. Once he tied up career and family loose ends, he was ready to enter Serra House.
For Pantoja, 26, it was a powerful experience at World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro in 2013 that made him believe he wanted to be a priest. Specifically, it came during Adoration at Copacabana Beach.
“Everything went silent. I didn’t have anywhere else to go,” he remembers. “That really transformed me. I felt the call to help young people become closer to God.”
With that in mind, Pantoja began priestly formation with the Salesian Order, known for its charism in youth ministry. After two years, and too many changes in his formators, he said he left the order in disappointment. He continued on in youth ministry at his parish, Holy Innocents, Victorville. “The kids gave me hope to return back,” Pantoja said of his decision to apply to Serra House.
Davis, 23, thought he had answered his vocational call as a layman in youth ministry at St. Christopher Parish in Moreno Valley. Then, at a Christmas Eve Mass, when he was serving as a Eucharistic Minister for the first time, he felt something different.
“When I got up on that altar and the priest said, ‘behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world,’ at that moment I knew something was right,” Davis recalls. “God was calling me to something more.”
The path to the priesthood for these four new seminarians will take the better part of a decade. They will spend their first years at Serra House, focusing on prayer, discernment and meeting academic requirements before heading off to seminary in Camarillo or San Antonio.
“I don’t think about it,” Assaf says of the significant number of years of formation ahead of him. “If this is the will of God, I don’t care how long it takes.”
With this year’s class, there are now 14 men in formation at Serra House and 35 total diocesan seminarians.