By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published June 21, 2021 | En Español
ATLANTA–Two men were ordained to serve as priests in the Archdiocese of Atlanta, with a call to share the “gospel of joy and the gospel of justice.”
Rousing applause followed Father Paul Nacey and Father Robert “Robbie” Cotta as they exited the Cathedral of Christ the King, after being ordained Saturday, June 12, by Archbishop Gregory J. Hartmayer, OFM Conv.
Speaking from the pulpit, Archbishop Hartmayer said the two priests take on new roles in the Atlanta Catholic community.
“You are to become ambassadors for Christ, as if God was appealing through you; today you will become missionaries of mercy,” he told them.
Finding faith in the pandemic
In June 2020, the world was just months into the life-altering pandemic when the two men became transitional deacons. The unusual religious ceremony followed strict public health restrictions, with few in the congregation outside of family.
More than 21,000 people in Georgia have died from COVID-19, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center.
The archbishop said the year’s experience should touch their hearts forever as priests. The pandemic left little of life untouched as people suffered job loss, and believers worshipped with Mass online. Many died alone during the pandemic, and it reset how people work and gather.
“We need you to help people rebuild their lives and welcome them back to the sacramental life and the communal life of the church,” said the archbishop.
For Father Nacey, the past year served as a reminder to embrace hope.
“Since COVID started, one consistent thing that has been on my heart and been a part of my faith life is this call to live a life of hope, knowing that the Lord remains faithful to us and to his promises and that no matter how difficult things can become, the Lord remains faithful,” he said in an email.
The restrictions limited Father Cotta from what brings him joy.
“Entering into ordained ministry during the pandemic has been very difficult. One of the great joys of this life is being with the people of God, and we were very restricted in how we could do that this year. I’m so thankful we’re finally opening up again,” he said.
Indeed, the cathedral was filled with family, friends and scores of priests, with many not wearing masks.
In his homily, the archbishop encouraged the new priests to realize they hold a privileged position and the words they use can “touch hearts and rekindle faith in people who may have been away from the church for years.”
He cautioned them never to allow the sacraments to be simply routine ceremonies. Each moment is a special time for families, a chance to receive God’s grace, he said.
Quoting Pope Francis, the archbishop said priests need to reject rigidity that “lacks humanity.” Instead, be men who “allow themselves to be changed by the cry of those who suffer,” said Archbishop Hartmayer. He encouraged them to learn of the lives of fearful immigrants living in the shadows of society and ensure the church is a safe haven for them and their families.
Also in attendance were dozens of priests of the archdiocese, guests from seminaries attended by the priests, Bishop Joel M. Konzen, SM; and Bishop Bernard E. Shlesinger III.
From family life to the priesthood
Father Cotta, 29, grew up in Johns Creek, attending the parishes of St. Benedict and St. Brigid. His father, Norm, worked in finance in a global manufacturing company. His mother, Kathy, taught preschool students. He studied multimedia communications at Georgia Southern University, covering minor league baseball teams, including the then Gwinnett Braves. As a young person before entering the seminary, he worked at a local Chick-fil-A restaurant.
The new priest credited his mother for shaping his faith. But Kathy Cotta said her role was only to nurture the interest he already had. He began talking about the priesthood as young as 7, Cotta said. She turned to a priest for advice, who said to sustain it by attending Mass and when the youngster talks about wanting to be a firefighter or a police officer, bring up being a priest.
“He said just always keep it on the menu,” she recalled.
From participating in mission trips as a young person to competing with his high school wrestling team, the new priest was always outgoing.
Said Cotta, “He’s loving. He’s got a great sense of humor. He’s very empathetic, he’s never met a stranger.”
Knowing her son’s future ministry in the church left her humbled.
“I get emotional just thinking about it. It’s humbling in a way that God would have chosen one of our children to do his work this way. And it just, it also fills my heart with joy, that he’s been really bringing the sacraments to so many people,” she said.
Father Paul Porter, a parochial vicar at St. Peter Chanel, attended Mundelein Seminary in Illinois with Father Cotta, after both studied at Georgia Southern University. Father Porter said his friend has a gift to relate to a variety of people and connect with them. He uses popular culture as a way to engage with people, Father Porter said.
“He is just a people person, through and through. He brings a lot of joy to ministry,” Father Porter said.
A good sounding board
Born in Dallas, Texas, Father Nacey, 30, spent time growing up in Gainesville and LaGrange, Georgia. His parents, Deacon Wayne and Kay Nacey, live in Mount Airy, North Carolina. Before relocating to North Carolina, Deacon Nacey was a permanent deacon for the Archdiocese of Atlanta, serving at St. Peter Church.
Father Nacey attended Dalton State College before transferring to Georgia College and State University in Milledgeville, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology. He studied for the priesthood at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans, Louisiana.
Monica Nacey recalled how she and her older brother prayed the rosary together on the way to college retreats. From the pew at the cathedral, she watched him be ordained.
Growing up in a Catholic household, where the six children were homeschooled, Nacey said it wasn’t a surprise to learn of his interest in the priesthood. She described her brother as quiet, but someone who takes a great interest in others.
People will learn he is a good sounding board.
“He won’t overshadow the conversation. He’ll be a listening ear,” said Monica Nacey.
Kaitlin Houlton, 24, worked alongside then Deacon Nacey at the Georgia Tech Catholic Center in the fall of 2020 where she serves as a missionary. He ate dinner with the team, competed in spike ball games, and fielded students’ faith questions. About a dozen university students attended the ordination.
She told how he’d go out of his way to engage students. Houlton said her friend reserved his Saturdays for a book club of first-year students. It wasn’t an obligation, but something he desired to do, she said.
Once, he returned to the archdiocese from his New Orleans seminary for a student retreat after his time at the university Catholic Center finished. That same weekend, he led a procession as he carried the Eucharist. He purposely stopped in front of praying students, Houlton said.
“You could just tell he was really just being led by the Lord,” she said. “And it was so beautiful because I could see his love for the students he had gotten to know and his desire for them to know God.”