By Malie Hudson
The Diocese of San Bernardino welcomed a small but faith-filled group of new seminarians to St. Junipero Serra House of Formation this summer.
Kayden Valencia, Manuel Magdaleno and Blake Thamer entered St. Junipero Serra House of Formation on August 20. The addition of the three new seminarians brings the number of total men in formation for priesthood in the Diocese to 23.
Under normal circumstances, seminarians are permitted to go home to visit with their families on weekends and holidays. However, state and county COVID-19 regulations are keeping them at Serra House full-time. In spite of this, the men expressed acceptance of the sacrifice they needed to make temporarily to pursue God’s call and look forward with faith and hope as they take the next step in their journey toward the priesthood.
Before entering the seminary, Blake Thamer, 18, was actively involved in his home parish, St. Martha in Murrieta. He was an altar server and also assisted his mom with the parish’s Mothers & Others ministry activities. It was during his sophomore year of high school, while attending Eucharistic Adoration at a Confirmation retreat, that his journey to the priesthood began.
“Eucharistic adoration has been a very special thing because that was where I first felt God’s call and felt God’s presence most,” said Thamer.
After leaving the retreat, he began researching information about the priesthood and eventually his family helped him schedule a meeting with their parish priest, Father Gregory Elder.
“We met and talked about what discernment would be and he recommended the book, “To Save A Thousand Souls.” I read it cover to cover once and then a few chapters every once in a while. That book gave me more depth to the prayers that I do,” he said. “There’s a section in the beginning, a chapter called ‘This Is Just What A Priest Does’ that was written in a way to show how special it was [to be a priest] and it was something that made me think ‘I want to be like that.’ ”
Thamer also credits Father Elder for the positive influence in his discernment as well as a great uncle who was also a diocesan priest in the Diocese of San Diego.
Thamer is the oldest of five children in a close-knit family. The age span between him and his youngest sibling is six years. They’ve managed to call each other almost every day since he left home. While churches were closed during quarantine last Spring, his family gathered together every Sunday during the time when they would have celebrated Mass in church, and together prayed the Rosary with his grandmother on the phone. Not being able to receive communion during that time was difficult for him. “But it gave me a chance to work on my prayer life.”
He is a graduate of Temecula Valley High School where he played first violin for the school’s orchestra. He studied French for three years and Spanish during his senior year. He taught himself to speak German and hopes to add another language to the list, specifically one that uses a completely different alphabet system.
Kayden Valencia’s journey began when he was a child. He says he always felt a strong calling to the priesthood. He grew up in Big Bear and was actively involved at his home parish, St. Joseph. He would often tell others that he wanted to be exactly like the priest in his parish.
“My calling grew into something greater than that and I soon began to realize that this is what God was calling me to do,” said Valencia, now 17-years-old. This first step in his journey means a lot to him. “I wanted to further investigate my vocation.”
Valencia was actively involved in his home parish. He was an altar server, lector, eucharistic minister and a catechist teaching fourth grade students. He was also involved in the parish’s youth group and in the community helping to feed the homeless at Mary’s Table in San Bernardino, annually.
His parish priest, Father Paul Smith, provided him with spiritual direction that played a big role in his discernment.
“He helped me to find out what God’s calling was for me,” he said. “One thing that stuck was that he was always there for the people and always showed them God’s love.”
When his church closed its doors last Spring during quarantine, he helped with filming the Mass for parishioners at home. “It was a different way of witnessing the Mass, but I soon began to see the reverence that I could have for the Mass while also filming,” he said.
Valencia also comes from a close-knit family of five children, so entering the seminary during a global pandemic and following the face mask and social distancing requirements was a challenge. “But it’s all about giving that suffering up to God because at the end of the day, He knows what He’s doing with your struggles and will do something great with that.”
Valencia is a graduate of Big Bear High School. After graduating in June, he worked two jobs and continued to work throughout the pandemic until he entered the seminary. In his free time, he enjoys running and exploring in the outdoors.
Manuel Magdaleno, 20, was on a completely different path last year before he began his journey to the priesthood.
Magdaleno was busy training and preparing himself physically to compete in the Redlands Bicycle Classic, originally scheduled for last Spring. The event is a professional five-day, five stage race for competitive cyclists held annually in Redlands.
While on a training ride in Redlands last Fall, he collided with a car, causing major cuts across his face. His cheek, eyelid, nose and shoulder were cut open. His injuries from the accident kept him in the hospital for nearly two weeks.
“It was a life retreat because it made me think about everything in my life,” said Magdaleno. “I’m really glad that happened because if that didn’t happen, I don’t think I’d be on the path I am on right now.”
While in the hospital, friend and Serra House seminarian Oliver Garcia, visited Magdaleno. At the time, Magdaleno says he was beginning to re-think his life up to that point. Garcia invited him to visit the seminary once he recovered. But after Magdaleno was cleared to leave the hospital, he was homebound for another three months. Being in the sun would have damaged his eyes and the skin on his surgery wounds. His injuries also affected his mobility.
“If I wanted to move around my house, my mom would have to help me. I was laying in bed for a few days and then I started pushing myself because I wanted to walk again. So, I walked slowly, and my parents helped me. It was like they had a newborn again,” he recalls. “I could only eat liquid foods. I couldn’t move my mouth because of the surgeries.”
After four months, he was finally able to visit Oliver at Serra House and toured the seminary. By this time, his injuries were still noticeable, he was slowly regaining his strength and God’s call to the priesthood grew stronger. Fast forward to several discernment meetings, interviews and many more prayers later, all while receiving positive affirmations each step of the way, he entered the seminary on August 20.
Like the other seminarians, the social distancing restrictions and not being able to visit his family has been difficult.
“It’s sad but I feel happy being here because I’m doing God’s Will.”
Magdaleno’s accident changed his priorities in life but it hasn’t deterred him from getting back on the bike. He still enjoys long road cycling rides and hopes to be able to compete in the next Redlands Bicycle Classic.
Malie Hudson is a freelance writer based in Riverside.