BY ANGELA CAVE
AND CHRISTOPHER D. RINGWALD
On the eve of their ordination as priests of the Albany Diocese, The Evangelist spoke with each of the five members of the Diocese's largest "graduating class" since 1982.
Deacon David Hammond first assisted with a sacrament when he was six. At his cousin's baptism, the priest asked him to stand next to him as he poured the water over the infant's head.
The experience stuck with Deacon Hammond -- who, with classmates Deacons Daniel Ryan, Rendell Torres, Quy Vo and Matthew Wetsel -- will be ordained a priest of the Albany Diocese this weekend.
"It just felt very special," he told The Evangelist. "It had a great impact on me."
By eight or 10 years old, he remembers considering the priesthood. It was either that or playing the trumpet, but a musical career "just seemed empty" to him after a while.
"There was a mystery to it that attracted me" to the priesthood, he explained.
God kept calling him -- at a youth conference in high school; at a visit to Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio. He saw that the Catholic faith was larger than his hometown of West Winfield, and it inspired him.
He attended Franciscan University, earning a bachelor's degree in philosophy and completing the pre-theologate program, during which he lived with other students considering the priesthood. Then he attended Mundelein Seminary in Mundelein, Ill.
At 26, Deacon Hammond is the youngest in the Diocese's ordination class, but he worries less about about his age than the challenges of living up to expectations and pacing himself as a priest.
"It's a challenge sometimes to be prudent and say, 'I don't have time,'" he remarked. "I need to watch out that I don't just become a functionary. The key is to try to have a balance: to engage fully in ministry, but remain rooted in prayer."
Deacon Hammond believes God called him specifically to become a Navy chaplain. His time in the Boy Scouts, his perfectionist personality and his admiration for the military all contributed to the decision. He will enter active duty after three years of service in the Diocese.
Last Easter, he spent Holy Week assisting a chaplain at Naval Station Great Lakes in Illinois.
"It was much like a missionary going into a new culture," he recalled. Two summers of training "pushed my limits. I felt a real sense of accomplishment when I graduated from chaplain school."
Deacon Hammond is no stranger to adventure: He enjoys hiking, camping and water sports. He also likes working with his hands and fixing things.
As a priest, Deacon Hammond most looks forward to celebrating Mass and administering sacraments, like baptism and penance, though he hasn't had much experience with the latter.
"I know the science, but the art takes time," he said. "But I'm really excited about that, because you have to trust the Holy Spirit to lead you."
He learned to trust God in many ways during his formation: for instance, when he planned a homily last Christmas Eve for the wrong Gospel, he called on God to help him "wing it."
In college and the seminary, he saw professors interacting with their children and struggled with giving up the desire to be a father. "It was an attraction to two good things: the vocation of being a husband and a father or the vocation of the priesthood," he explained.
Eventually, this was reconciled: "God was assuring me. He was saying, 'You will be a father to many.'"
NEW LIFE, INSURED
The work of an insurance claims adjuster and of a priest may not appear to have much in common, but both fields involve ultimate matters of life, death and accountability.
Indeed, 12 years of investigating and settling auto accidents helped prepare Deacon Daniel Ryan, 40, for the priesthood.
"You realize how fragile life is," he noted. "People [are] coming home from a wedding or a party and there's an accident, and it all changes."
He learned about perspective: "Sometimes the trivial things we worry about aren't as important as the relationships we have with others. Something as simple as a car accident can take that away."
Speaking from Wisconsin just before his ordination, Deacon Ryan traced the arc of his calling.
He grew up with seven siblings in Ballwin, Mo., and Medford, N.J. They attended Mass and said the Rosary: "Faith guided the family."
Baseball, swimming and a house full of siblings and pals kept life busy. "Poor Mom and Dad -- they never knew how many there would be for dinner," Deacon Ryan joked.
As an altar boy, he said, "I remember holding the Sacramentary for our pastor at St. Joseph [parish] in Manchester, Missouri, and wondering what it would be like as a priest."
For the most part, however, his idea of his vocation was as a father raising a family. "I wrestled with that until my formation began in 2003," he noted.
Deacon Ryan studied finance at Clarion College, outside Pittsburgh, and, in 2001, moved to Glens Falls. There, he met Rev. Joseph O'Brien, then pastor in Lake George, who also came to religious life after a career in business.
"He was a gentle soul and we became friends," Deacon Ryan recalled. "Through him, I saw the joy of the priesthood."
As he discerned, his mother expressed her inclination: "She told me, 'I've always seen you in that life,' but she wanted it to be my decision. My father was with her."
It also resolved a long-running bet with his brothers: "We realized that God was calling one of us, but we always pointed the finger at each other."
Deacon Ryan attended Blessed John XXIII National Seminary in Weston, Mass., where he learned that "God only wants for you peace, happiness and joy; and if you trust, wherever He takes you, you will have those."
Along the way, he relinquished his dream of being a father; he said that having two nieces and two nephews helps.
Deacon Ryan's year as a transitional deacon, spent at Our Lady of Victory parish in Troy, was the best of his seven in formation: participating in sacraments, visiting the sick and being in a parish.
"I loved baptism," he enthused. "Bringing a newborn infant into the Church is a beautiful thing."
Deacon Ryan looks forward to celebrating Mass, hearing confessions and offering the other sacraments. "You're giving people a chance at life, and knowing how precious life is, and that God loves them," he said.
He also hopes to continue a life outdoors: hiking, skiing, time in the Adirondacks.
The soon-to-be priest acknowledged difficulties in the institution he will serve. "This is a tough time for the Church," Deacon Ryan said. "We're all accountable -- but God's work goes on."
As a priest, he expects he will be able to "be present, to walk with people and let them know they are not alone. I think I'll be a good collaborator and healer, from my work in insurance."
He counts it all a gift. "None of us feel worthy of the priesthood. God has chosen us and we can only do it with His guidance and inspiration."
CELLIST, PROF, PRIEST
When he was a 10-year-old growing up in Los An-geles, Rendell Torres stood up one day in the back of his mom's 1970 Dodge Challenger and announced, "I think maybe I want to be a priest."
His mother answered, "Okay; then someone will always be praying for me."
Even then, Deacon Torres was following along with the eucharistic prayers, which only the priest recites, in the missal. But as an altar server, he said, he was terrible. A priest once compared him and two fellow servers to the "Three Stooges."
He remained fascinated with priesthood, but the all-boys setting at his Jesuit high school made him all the more interested in girls. Then came college at University of California in Berkeley, where a priest told him he would make a good father. So he dated, played the cello and studied.
Deacon Torres earned college degrees, asked a woman to marry him and taught in Troy. But, seven years ago, he answered God's call -- and, after living in Los Angeles and Sweden, the 39-year-old wants nothing more than to stay in the Capital Region as a priest.
"This is where I feel at peace," he said of the Albany Diocese, describing the people as down-to-earth. "I once thought if I wouldn't be a priest in Albany, I almost don't know if I'd want to be a priest."
Deacon Torres' journey was a long one. He considered being a professional cellist, but wanted a more reliable job in case he had a family. He turned to concert hall design, earning a bachelor's degree from UC-Berkeley in civil engineering; a master's in acoustical engineering from Penn State; and a doctorate in engineering acoustics from Chalmers University in Sweden.
At the latter, Deacon Torres met a girlfriend, Macarena. He said his faith developed during this time; but, at the same time, he was happy with Macarena.
"I remember thinking, 'What more could I want than this?'" he recalled. "At that moment, this question entered my head: 'Is there more for you?' And I knew it had nothing to do with finding another woman, but it had something to do with God."
This would become a recurring theme in relationships. Thinking about the Church is "like thinking about another woman," he said. "One really has to think about what's best for the other person."
After five years, Deacon Torres returned to the U.S. and took breaks from dating. Eventually, he stopped altogether. He landed a professorship at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy and helped start a graduate program in architectural acoustics.
In 2002, he began consulting with a spiritual director, attending daily Mass and meeting with other men thinking about the priesthood. But he still wondered about marriage.
A retreat helped him reconcile the conflict. When he studied Scripture from the perspective of a priest, it came alive; but, from that of a father and husband, "the Gospel was totally dry, like reading a novel."
He latched onto his vocation with conviction. The Diocese accepted him as a candidate for the priesthood within just six weeks.
Deacon Torres attended Blessed John XXIII National Seminary in Weston, Mass., spent his diaconate summer in Herkimer and Little Falls and his diaconate year in North Andover, Mass.
He fondly remembered a woman who approached him about validating her marriage in the Church: "It wasn't just a new couple, but it was a couple in a way who wanted to come home."
As a deacon, he said, "I felt like a channel to God for people." He baptized 97 babies that year. "This ministry is all about Christ. It's about making Him present to people."
As far as his old career, he's content with serving on the Diocese's Architecture and Building Commission if asked and using his knowledge as fodder for preaching.
For men struggling with the desire to marry and a call to religious life, Deacon Torres advised a break from dating.
"Just give it a shot," he urged. "If Christ calls you to become a priest, you will be at peace."
NOT MEANT FOR MUSIC
Before Quy Vo decided to become a priest, his piano instructors told him he could be a professional pian-ist. But he'd been drawn to the priesthood since he was nine.
"It's something about the altar, something about the Mass," he mused. "It just kept inviting."
Deacon Vo and his three sisters were born in Vietnam. He became an altar server in sixth grade. He remembered feeling nervous serving at a Mass celebrated by a bishop, but "as the Mass went on and I got up on the altar, I felt peace."
When he was 11, he and his sisters left Vietnam with their father to go as refugees to the Philippines before settling in the U.S. A refugee center in Utica sponsored them.
Deacon Vo attended Onondaga Community College in Syracuse and SUNY-Potsdam. He studied piano and got straight A's. When that didn't click, he got a second degree in general music and tried teaching. But he couldn't see himself doing that forever.
"It's just not there," he told himself. "It's not fulfilling. There's something greater than this."
He thought back to the times when priests inspired him: When his childhood pastor drove half a day, congregation in tow, to say Mass at his home for his mother's funeral; or when his pastor in Utica learned Vietnamese to celebrate Mass for his sister's wedding.
This is the type of priest Deacon Vo realized he wants to be: a community resource. He wants to learn how to manage a parish, to greet parishioners before and after Mass, to be "a bridge for people. I want to connect people to God."
He most looks forward to offering Mass, emphasizing the importance of the Eucharist: "That brings people together."
Deacon Vo said his musical background helped him focus and study at St. Mary's Seminary in Baltimore. He has served as a music director and an organist at parishes in the Albany Diocese.
He also has a penchant for airplanes and wants to learn to be a pilot. He tinkers with flight simulator computer software and, when he gets the chance, watches planes take off at the airport.
At 31, Deacon Vo is nervous about parishioners understanding his homilies or his tone; he noted that Vietnamese can sound harsh. But his father taught college-level English in Vietnam and at the refugee center in Utica, so that has helped his learning process.
He thinks the language challenge is a positive.
"I believe I will become a better priest to the people," he said. "Every time it's come up, it's re-affirmed my vocation to the priesthood."
There will always be a place in Deacon Vo's heart for music. He still likes to listen to Mozart and Debussy, as well as country and traditional Vietnamese music. For his first Mass, he's been rearranging hymns and fiddling with harmonies.
Music is important to the Mass, he noted: "People pray through music. People love hymns."
NURTURING A SEED
Some men can pinpoint the moment they knew they would become a priest, but 29-year-old Deacon Matthew Wetsel has had too many moments to pick just one.
As a child, he felt a connection to Scripture and spirituality. He toted his children's Bible storybook around, repeatedly reading the stories about Noah's ark and Moses and the burning bush.
In faith formation, he enjoyed learning about prayer. He served at the altar starting in fifth grade and taught religious education at his home parish, Our Lady of the Assumption in Rotterdam.
That involvement, he said, planted the seed of a vocation.
Meanwhile, when people asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, his answer was, "A baseball player for the Kansas City Royals." But "my baseball career sort of peaked at about sixth grade. I think God has other plans for me."
After coming to that realization, Deacon Wetsel attended Siena College in Loudonville for religious studies. He recalled God speaking to him at retreats there, when he got to know friars and when he camped out at an event to raise awareness of homelessness.
None of these were dramatic events, he said, but they inspired him to join a discernment group sponsored by the Diocese. He remembered eating pizza and talking about the priesthood with 10 to 20 other men. That answered enough of his questions to convince him to apply to St. Mary's Seminary in Baltimore.
During his formation for the priesthood, Deacon Wetsel has visited sick parishioners and assisted priests at funerals, wakes, burials and baptisms. He's helped at a parish with one pastor, as well as a parish with three pastors and three permanent deacons.
He struggled in the seminary with being away from home, the workload and the idea of sacrificing the vocation of marriage. But with his family's prayers and God's unfailing support, he said he was made stronger.
A priest, he said, is a man of prayer who celebrates a community's joys and commiserates in its sorrows. This appeals to him now more than ever; as his ordination approached, Deacon Wetsel was most looking forward to "being able to say Mass every day. That's going to be awesome. Everything else kind of flows from the Eucharist."
He's happy with some of the homilies he has given as a deacon and looks forward to preparing more. One was inspired by a trip to the papal Mass in Washington, D.C., two years ago: He compared pilgrims from different cultures to the disciples speaking different languages after the Holy Spirit descended on them at Pentecost.
The Church and its sacraments, he preached, are for all people.
Deacon Wetsel tries to connect homilies to pop culture so that young Catholics can relate. "If I can give them something to grab onto," he explained, "that can help them understand the homily."
In his spare time, he enjoys golfing with his father, hiking, rollerblading and biking. He likes country music, the "Star Wars" and the "Lord of the Rings movies" and Michael Crichton novels.
Deacon Wetsel told The Evangelist he worries a little about looking young -- one parishioner at his diaconate assignment in Gloversville called him a "munchkin" -- but finds solace in the fact that he's not the youngest in his ordination class.
David Hammond holds that title. "I'm very grateful that he'll be the 'baby priest,'" Deacon Wetsel joked.