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JOURNEYS TO THE PRIESTHOOD LEFT: The four men to be ordained priests this spring pose for a picture during a hike. From left to right, Ismael Valenzuela-Salazar, Andres Rivera, Michael Arịnze Ezeoke and Jorge Tellez. RIGHT (clockwise from top left): Andres Rivera prepares for the opening procession of the closing Mass for the Year of Mercy at Queen of Angels Church in Riverside in November 2016. Jorge Tellez portrays the Angel Gabriel at the Nativity Celebration at St. Junipero House of Formation in December 2017. Michael Arinze Ezeoke leads the Rosary at a Peace Walk against racism in July 2020. Ismael Valenzuela Salazar proclaims the Word during Mass at St. John Seminary in Camarillo in January 2022.

By Natalie Romano

From helping the poor to creating a united Catholic Church, four seminarians head to the priesthood with big ambitions. Bishop Alberto Rojas will ordain Michael Arinze Ezeoke, Andres Rivera, Jorge Tellez and Ismael Valenzuela-Salazar on May 28 at Sacred Heart, Rancho Cucamonga.

Deacon Andres Rivera

This isn’t the first priest Ordination Andres Rivera has attended, but this time, he’ll be taking vows instead of taking notes: Deacon Rivera used to be a reporter for the BYTE. He will be the first former Diocesan Pastoral Center employee to become a diocesan priest.

Deacon Rivera remembers the first time he saw priestly candidates lying prostrate and the impact it had on him. “It was my first assignment as a photographer for the BYTE. I just remember tearing up and recognizing that’s a total act of surrendering to God,” said Deacon Andres Rivera. “I had to take a moment to compose myself.”

At the time, Rivera thought he could best serve the Church by working for the Diocese and volunteering at his home parish of St. Joseph in Fontana. Yet as the years went by, he found himself thinking more about ministry than media.

“When interviewing priests during stories, I would occasionally drop little questions that were just for me, like, ‘What’s priest life like?’” admits Deacon Rivera. “It was a way for me to be discerning while working. My work at the Diocese helped me to solidify that priestly life was truly my calling.”

Now, seven years later, Deacon Rivera is wrapping up his studies at Assumption Seminary in San Antonio. He says the seminarians are getting final advice on how to navigate the first year of priesthood, like how to retain their spiritual life while dealing with the administrative aspects of parish life.

“We’re no longer going to be in that seminary environment and there’s a little bit of nervousness,” explained the Los Angeles native. “But it’s also exciting because we’re going to be in the parish environment and that’s what our hearts are yearning for.”

Deacon Rivera says he was able to utilize his communication skills during his internship at St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta in Winchester and plans to do the same at his future parish by writing in the church bulletin or starting a blog. He admires St. Francis de Sales, the patron saint of Catholic writers, whose work brought people to the faith. The future priest also wants to promote the act of confession, though he knows that’s a tough sell.

“I think the Sacrament of Reconciliation is a beautiful encounter with Christ; it’s a healing encounter,” said Deacon Rivera. “I would love to be able to make it more available and more popular.”

With Ordination just next month, the question always comes: ‘Am I ready?’ The 35 year old remembers what he was told on a canonical retreat: no one is ever totally ready, but the real question is, ‘are you ready to begin?’ Deacon Rivera says ‘yes.’

“I am very excited to begin this new journey. My love for God and my love for his people has brought me here. I’m ready to devote my entire self to His people and I hope that it will be the joy of my life to serve this Diocese,” he said.

Deacon Michael Arinze Ezeoke

Michael Arịnze Ezeoke’s life was completely uprooted when he left his home in Nigeria for a new start in America at age 16. With determination, he went from culture shock to having friends of many cultures.

“It was a whole different world in every way possible,” said Deacon Ezeoke. “I had to continually learn how to adapt, how to listen to people, how to understand people.”

The experience, however challenging, made him aware that all points of view deserve to be heard.

“In ministry, it is always important for me to know where I am coming from and also pay attention to where other people are coming from,” said the 28-year-old. “That doesn’t mean we can’t work together, can’t listen to each other, can’t relate to each other.”

Deacon Ezeoke says people of different races or cultures are not always understood by the larger society. That’s something he’s dealt with firsthand, especially when he’s the only black man in the room.

“That carries a lot of responsibility and carries a lot of expectations,” said Deacon Ezeoke. “You experience people’s ignorance. They say so many wrong things.”

During his seven years as a seminarian, Deacon Ezeoke wanted to better understand the African American experience. So during his time at Assumption Seminary, he studied at the Sankofa Institute at the Oblate School of Theology. Students there learn the faith history of African Americans as well as pastoral leadership. Arinze said he would like to see more black people in the pews.

“Our Church is beautiful. We have so many resources and riches that are for everybody,” Deacon Arịnze said. “When we have an interest in welcoming everybody to this table, it will happen through the Grace of God.”

In addition to being inclusive, Deacon Ezeoke wants to be a priest that accepts God’s will. He said he learned the importance of that during his internship at St. Peter and St. Paul parish in Alta Loma.

“I had plenty of dreams of what was going to happen during my internship but of course none of them happened because of the pandemic,” said Deacon Ezeoke. “From my experience ... I feel that I have become more open and dependent on God.”

The deacon said he’s thankful for the priests like Father Benedict Nwachukwu-Udaku and Father Cletus Imo who guided him, the parishioners at Sacred Heart in Rancho Cucamonga who encouraged him and his mother who shared with him her joy of service and love of music.

“Growing up, my mom always took me to her choir practices. She always served in the music ministry,” recalled Deacon Ezeoke. “Music has become for me an important instrument for prayer and an avenue for bringing people together in prayer.”

With Ordination just weeks away, Deacon Ezeoke said he’s preparing for his role as both priest and parish leader. And while it’s a position he takes seriously, the youngest of six can also see the humor.

“I was always the baby of the family and now I’m going to be called ‘Father.’ ”

Deacon Ismael Valenzuela-Salazar

With equal parts happiness and humbleness, Ismael Valenzuela-Salazar is ready to take his vows.

“I’m really excited about being there present in front of the Bishop and the community because we are being ordained for the community,” said Deacon Valenzuela-Salazar. “I will do my best for the people of the Diocese of San Bernardino.”

It’s been a long journey getting to this point. Valenzuela-Salazar has been a seminarian for 13 years, starting in his native Ensenada, Mexico. When he moved to the U.S. he had to learn English before finishing his education at St. John Seminary in Camarillo. Once a priest, the 36-year-old said he’ll continue to look to Jesus for guidance, but also feels a special devotion to St. Joseph.

“I believe as a future priest, St. Joseph is a great example of how to be righteous and merciful,” said Deacon Valenzuela-Salazar. “Most of the time he’s off the radar because of his simple life and quiet demeanor. I identify with St. Joseph because I’m an introvert.”

While Valenzuela-Salazar may prefer to be “behind the scenes,” he wants to be a strong and joyful presence in his new parish. He also says helping the needy is a top priority.

“I came from a poor family and I know how it is to suffer,” said Deacon Valenzuela-Salazar. “I’m drawn to work with the most vulnerable in all its forms.”

His home parish is Christ the Redeemer in Grand Terrace but he’s equally connected to his internship parish at St. Kateri Tekakwitha in Banning/Beaumont. He calls the time he spent there an “amazing experience” because of kind parishioners and committed priests.

“The thing that surprised me the most was that the three priests are very different in their approaches to theology,” said the deacon. “Yet they relate very well and respect each other ... They work together in their shared mission.”

As Ordination approaches, Valenzuela-Salazar is on his own mission to be a good shepherd for his future parishioners. He says he feels that responsibility with the humility he admires in St. Joseph.

“I’m conscious that as I will be helping others on their individual journeys, I’m still journeying with Christ. I’m still working on my person ... We are all in the same boat.”

Deacon Jorge Tellez

To be a priest among the people: that’s the aim of Deacon Jorge Tellez. After 10 years in seminary, he’s convinced parishioners want to see their clergy in the community.

“I want people to say, ‘Look at him, he’s so joyful. He’s at the gym, he’s at the movies, but he’s also praying,’” said Deacon Jorge Tellez. “’He’s different from me but the same as me.’”

The 32-year-old says he was influenced by his own parish priest, Father Javier Gonzalez, was assigned to Our Lady of Guadalupe Shrine in Riverside at the time.

“I was kind of lost in my life. I was trying to find my way by going to Mass more, by praying more,” said Deacon Tellez. “Fr. Javier was someone who made the priesthood very attractive and something I wanted. He had this supernatural joy. He had what my soul was looking for.”

The St. John’s seminarian says he later drew inspiration from Father Michael Miller and St. Margaret Mary Church in Chino, where he did his internship. Tellez says he witnessed with awe the endless hours that the priest and parishioners devoted.

“That really spoke to me ... their generosity of heart and their service to the parish,’’ said Deacon Tellez. “They affected my life in such a way. I didn’t expect it to happen.”

The Mexico native says he’s a little nervous about his new ministry, but he’s looking forward to celebrating Mass and like Deacon Rivera, hearing confessions. He also wants to encourage young people to put down their phones and pick up their faith.

“It’s part of our responsibility to say this is what you are looking for, this is what your heart is telling you,” said Deacon Tellez. “I think young people are looking for authenticity and sincerity. I understand that how our faith is articulated to them makes a difference.”

Deacon Tellez says his grandma was the one who made the difference for him, showing him the basics like how to pray before meals and how to pray the Rosary. Now he wants to teach people to be Catholics, too, and become fans of their own faith and each other. Think Los Angeles Angels Baseball.

“The (Angels) fans are like one big family. I think that’s what we need in our faith. We tend to focus on differences in language and culture. We miss that we’re all Catholics. We share the same faith. We need to follow Christ together. This is our mission.”

Natalie Romano is a freelance writer and a parishioner of The Holy Name of Jesus in Redlands.