By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published June 8, 2022
ATLANTA—The Cathedral of Christ the King echoed with rousing applause moments before four new priests took on their first duty of quiet prayer.
In offering their first blessings to hundreds of people, the newly ordained shared intimate moments, at times huddled head-to-head as people sought their prayers. The new priests raised their hands gesturing the sign of the cross over families as parents held squirming children. Religious sisters in habits kneeled.
Father Avery Daniel was told by his parish priest at Sts. Peter and Paul Church at 10 years old that he’d be a priest someday. The Decatur native laughed at the idea.
Father Juan Carlos Villota Viteri left his native country of Colombia to pursue his service to the church in the Archdiocese of Atlanta.
Father Joe Wagner’s studying and early ministry was shaped by the COVID pandemic, where he witnessed creative energy from priests in finding new ways to reach believers, but also watched many people stop attending church.
Father Ben Thomsen was a criminal prosecutor until he felt a desire to enter the priesthood. While working for justice is important, Thomsen said now he’ll be focused “more on the side of mercy.”
The pews in the Peachtree Road cathedral were filled with people holding tickets to witness the ordination of the four new priests on Saturday, May 28, along with scores of priests, deacons and religious women in habits.
Catie Ely, 36, one of Father Wagner’s sisters, said she saw “the fire burning in his heart” as her brother prepared to enter seminary. Ely, a mother of three and a tax analyst, wrote in an email she was “ecstatic to have someone like Joe be a light in the darkness spreading the word of the Lord.”
Phyllis Edwards-Daniel, 65, called her son’s vocation an “unbelievable blessing.” The retired school administrator said she’s seen how family and friends have deepened their spiritual commitment from his words and advice even before his ordination. Father Daniel is “unafraid and unapologetic to profess his faith” but always respectful of those with diverse beliefs, she said.
A childhood friend of Father Thomsen, Mohammed Nagda, 34, flew from California where he works in a financial technology startup company to attend the ordination.
“He is someone who has a strong moral compass and can be relied on to understand and hear out challenges, but provide guidance and advice in a way that is direct, measured and well thought out,” said Nagda, who is Muslim, about his friend. The two met as fourth graders at DeKalb County’s Vanderlyn Elementary School.
At the ordination, Archbishop Gregory J. Hartmayer, OFM Conv., who was joined by Bishop Joel M. Konzen, SM, and Bishop Bernard E. Shlesinger III, presided at the Mass.
In his homily, Archbishop Hartmayer echoed the words from St. John’s Gospel, “You did not choose me, I chose you and commissioned you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last.”
“This morning, Jesus says the same words to Joseph and Avery, to Juan Carlos and Benjamin. I hope and pray that each one of you hears these words in the depths of your heart and that you allow yourself to hear that over and over again as your priestly life unfolds,” he said.
A priest is to listen with “attentiveness and humility and respond with courage,” he said. “You are called to serve in the trenches, bearing the burden of the day, confronting an endless variety of situations in your effort to care for and accompany God’s people.”
Serving the church means being close to people, honoring their gifts and “making sense of seeing the face of Christ as the driving force of everything we do,” said the archbishop. He encouraged them to shape their ministry modeled after the father in the Gospel story of the Prodigal Son: “never judgmental or condemnatory, always respectful of (God’s) children and their dignity, always seeking to persuade, to appeal to do what is best for our people and to be ready with open arms to welcome people home.”
Encouraging the four men, the archbishop said, “With the same hope which led you into the seminary, with the same hope that helped you through the difficult and challenging moments, With the same hope that brought you to your ordination as deacons, now, step forward again and once more with all your heart, give your yes to the Lord.”
As part of ancient ordination rite, the four men promised the archbishop service, prayer and obedience. They laid face down in front of the altar while the congregation chanted the Litany of the Saints. Archbishop Hartmayer laid his hands on each of their heads as he prayed silently–conferring the Holy Spirit.
Each man was helped into his vestments of stole and chasuble by a brother priest. Their hands were anointed with sacred chrism before receiving a chalice and paten, sacred objects for their ministry. Then they joined the archbishop with other priests around the altar for the consecration.
After the final blessing with the fanfare of the organ music, the four men with broad smiles made their way to waiting crowds, eager for their blessings.