By Jeff Grant, The Catholic Sun 

PHOENIX — Four men who made the ultimate commitment to serve God are now among those leading the faithful in their pursuit of the Lord as Catholic priests in the Diocese of Phoenix.

Fr. Anthony Dang, Fr. Harold Escarcega, Fr. Marvin Soto, and Fr. John of the Cross Costantino, FHS, were ordained before a full congregation that spilled into the outer aisles and included families, friends, laity and dozens of clergy and women religious at Ss. Simon and Jude Cathedral on June 4.

The ordinations bring to 228 the number of priests serving throughout the Diocese, 306 if one includes extern priests — those ordained in another diocese who are serving here temporarily. The number reflects 130 diocesan priests and 98 religious-order priests, according to the Diocesan website.

A year ago, the Diocese ordained a single individual, Fr. Ian Wintering. Four new priests were added in 2020. 

Frs. Dang, Escarcega, Soto, and John of the Cross were part of a rite marked by ceremony and Church tradition.

As the ordinands sat with their families among the Cathedral’s first several pews, Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted called each forward for the Election of the Candidates, inquiring of their worthiness. Following the homily, the men were directed to rise, stand before the bishop, and, for the first time during the Rite, each spoke for himself, affirming his willingness to be ordained and obey his bishop.

Anthony Dang pledges his obedience to Bishop Olmsted and his successors as he is ordained a priest on June 4, 2022, at Ss. Simon and Jude Cathedral.

What came next is considered by many the most moving sequence, in which the congregation, at the bishop’s call, asked intercession from the saints on behalf of the ordinands. As the congregation sang out to the saints, each ordinand prostrated himself before the altar – a powerful gesture, symbolic of the individual’s total surrender to the will and guidance of God; handing his life over to the Lord.

Minutes later, the four rose and, one at a time, went to Bishop Olmsted and knelt before him. The bishop laid his hands on each man and, putting aside his miter, offered the Prayer of Ordination.

The four were then vested in the priest’s stole and chasuble, and again knelt before the bishop, who anointed the palms of their hands with the Sacred Chrism.

Finally, each was embraced by the bishop, Aux. Bishop Eduardo A. Nevares and the other priests.

In his Homily, Bishop Olmsted urged the ordinands to constantly be aware of their humanness and seek to emulate Christ. “May you strive to put to death whatever is sinful within you and walk in newness of life.”

“Always remember that you have been taken from among the people, and appointed on their behalf to those things that pertain to God. Fulfill the ministry of Christ the priest with abiding joy and genuine love. Seek not your own concerns but those of Jesus Christ,” he counseled.

“May you never lose a sense of wonder and awe as you celebrate the Eucharist, as you spend time with the Lord in Adoration and seek, with God’s grace, to awaken in the faithful a lively spirit of Eucharistic amazement,” he continued.

“You will exercise in Christ the teacher, the sacred office of teaching. Impart to everyone the Word of God that you, yourselves, have received with joy… See that you believe what you read, teach what you believe and practice what you teach.”

“Let your teaching be nourishment for the people of God. Let the holiness of your life be a pleasing fragrance for Christ’s faithful. So, you may build up by word and example that house, which is the Church of God.”

The bishop also reminded the four of their role as evangelists. He urged them to reflect God’s unconditional love as they act as Christ, the “Good Shepherd.”

“It will be your duty to go and search for the lost sheep. Remember, there is more joy in heaven over one repentant sinner than over the other ninety-nine who have no need to repent,” he said, referencing Jesus’ words to his disciples recorded in the Gospel of Luke (15:4-7).

As he concluded the Mass, the Bishop thanked the families; calling their support a “major contribution to this day.”

“Above all, I’m thankful to the four men who answered God’s call and now are new priests in the Church.”

For Dang, Escarcega, Soto and John of the Cross, the day capped several years of preparation, including a period of discernment and formation, the latter involving seminary and service. Diocesan seminarians begin that process at Nazareth House, a local, 2-year college-level seminary before moving on to St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver.

John of the Cross Costantino, Anthony Dang, Harold Escarcega, and Marvin Soto lie prostrate as the congregation prays the Litany of the Saints during their ordination to the priesthood on June 4, 2022, at Ss. Simon and Jude Cathedral.

The four newly ordained had scant time to reflect on what just happened.

Less than 10 minutes after leaving the cathedral, they were in the cafetorium of Ss. Simon and Jude Elementary School, blessing the faithful who had witnessed the Rite.

Their families, on the other hand, had time to soak it all in.

Brimming with pride, they joyfully watched their sons carry out their first official acts as priests.

“It’s a blessing to have him finish and reach his dreams. I’m happy for what he’s done. We always have supported him, done anything he needs us to do,” smiled Fr. Soto’s father, Marcelino, his beaming wife next to him. The Glendale residents attend Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish.

Fr. John of the Cross’ parents traveled much farther.

Mike and Patty Costantino and their daughter were accompanied by several priests from the area of the family’s home in Canonsburg, Pa., a town in Western Pennsylvania coal-mining country of about 9,000, located 18 miles southwest of Pittsburgh.

“We’re very proud; full of gratitude for all those people who prayed for him, supported him, made sacrifices for him — gratitude for the priests here who offered prayers. It was an extraordinarily powerful experience,” said Mike, a high school computer teacher.

Pride, gratitude and joy flowed as well from those who helped oversee the four on their journey to the priesthood, led by Diocesan Director of Vocations and rector of Nazareth House, Fr. Paul Sullivan, whose office coordinates recruitment and formation of diocesan priests.

“I’m just so happy for them,” he said. “We’re blessed by these four.”

Laity, too, were joyful.

“It’s a very exciting day,” said Brenda Halpin, parishioner at St. Timothy in Mesa who along with her husband, Sean, sponsor young men of the diocese in discernment and formation to the priesthood, through the parish’s Adopt-a-Seminarian program. Participants are assigned a seminarian and send him letters, cards and care packages 2-3 times a year. They also pray regularly for him.

Learn more about St. Timothy’s Adopt-A-Seminarian program

“A lot of our parishes throughout Arizona have one priest or, in many cases, have a “mission priest” who serves 3-4 parishes. That’s part of why we need to support seminarians and formation; young men and young women considering sacred life,” explained Sean Halpin.

“We could always use more priests,” acknowledged Fr. Sullivan, the Vocations Office director, “…but we’re doing pretty well. We have more seminarians in our Diocese than we have ever had before.”

The need for priests is not unique to the Southwest.

The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), the nonprofit Georgetown University affiliated research center that conducts social-scientific studies of the Catholic Church, uses Church data to track the number of priests across the United States. CARA also handles numerous inquiries from Church agencies and the media over numbers for vocations, seminary enrollments; priests and vowed religious, parishes; Mass attendance, schools and the Catholic population. The center reports a total of 34,293 priests – 24,204 diocesan and 10,709 religious order — were serving 16,579 parishes across the U.S. last year. That compares with 37,578 priests – 25,868 diocesan and 11,710 religious order — in 2015.

The overall number of priests has dropped from 45,054 in 2000 across 19,236 parishes.
Yet, the amount of ordinands has stayed relatively steady: at least 427 nationally this year compared with 441 in 2021, 511 in 2015, and 442 in 2000.

CARA reports the nation’s Catholic population has grown from 59.9 million in 2000 to 66.8 million last year, according to The Official Catholic Directory, the reference resource used by the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops. 

Bishop Olmsted lays hands on Harold Escarcega, ordaining him a priest on June 4, 2022, at Ss. Simon and Jude Cathedral.

What is specific to the Southwest and the Diocese of Phoenix is the diversity, notably growth of Hispanic membership. The trend was detailed in a 2020 Associated Press article posted on the Diocese’s website.

Fr. Sullivan noted the Diocese’s newest priests are helping meet that need.

The group – one Vietnamese, two Hispanics and one Anglo – “kind of represents where the Church is at,” he said. “It’s great to see that those seminarians coming forth are matching the proportions of the faithful, The Vietnamese are an especially strong community, it’s beautiful to see a Vietnamese (become a priest).The other three all speak Spanish, so they’ll be a great blessing to the communities they serve,” he added.

Fr. John of the Cross, FHS, will have a significant impact on his order – the Franciscan Friars of the Holy Spirit – in their ability to serve the Native American community on the Gila River Indian Reservation. Founded by five priests and two religious brothers, the Franciscan Friars of the Holy Spirit were established in the Diocese of Phoenix in July 2016 with Bishop Olmsted as their superior.

Fr. John of the Cross, who joined the Friars that year as a postulate, will serve as Parochial Vicar, based at the friary at St. John the Baptist Parish in Laveen, where he will assist the Community Servant, Fr. Antony Tinker, FHS.

Fr. John of the Cross’ ordination gives the Friars enough priests to cover their Sunday Masses.

“Our school, St. Peter (in Bapchule), serves about 220 Native kids,” explained Fr. Antony. “He’ll help there; the youth group at St. Peter and St. John, religious education, ministry to the homebound, funerals, Anointing of the Sick; Gila River and Salt River reservations, we have people going to hospitals all over the city. We have a lot of anointings,” he said.

“It’s a huge, momentous day for us. It’s a great blessing, a great gift, a great relief all at the same time.”

Fr. John’s colleagues also will serve as parochial vicars in appointments announced April 9 by Bishop Olmsted.

Fr. Dang will serve as parochial vicar of Holy Trinity Newman Center at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. Fr. Escarcega will fill the same role at Ss. Simon and Jude Cathedral. And Fr. Soto will serve as parochial vicar at Immaculate Conception Parish in Cottonwood.

Parochial vicars are assigned by the bishop to assist the pastor of a parish in the care of the faithful. The Code of Canon Law defines the office as: “…priests who render their services in pastoral ministry as co-workers with the pastor in common counsel and endeavor with him and also under his authority” (545.1). Given the size of some parishes, parochial vicars are essential in helping the pastor fulfill his obligations for the spiritual and temporal welfare of the parish.

In an interview following Mass, the bishop acknowledged the four enter the priesthood at a spiritually challenging time.

Bishop Olmsted kisses the freshly anointed hands of Fr. Marvin Soto after receiving his blessing. A newly ordained priest’s first blessing can be obtained throughout his first year of priesthood and promises extra graces.

“It is a very secularized world today. God is still present. His graces are still there, but there are more obstacles out there. They know that. It is the world in which they’ve been raised. So, they’re ready to enter into it,” he said.

Fr. Matt Lowry, chaplain of the Northern Arizona University Newman Center and associate director of the Office of Vocations, said priests must tailor their approach today to help connect people to the Lord.

“That’s the challenge — to step into a world that’s post-Christian and recognize the mission, as opposed to the previous ages, when you opened the door and welcomed people into the church. Now, we have to go get them, build a relationship, and lead them step-by-step to the Lord. (Priests) have to be willing to get out of their comfort zone and build relationships with people that aren’t just in the pews,” he explained.

It also is key for priests, especially newer ones, to seek out colleagues as mentors. Fr. Lowry noted priests can fellowship with one another through fraternity groups, and more today are taking advantage of them.

However, this was a day to focus not so much on a priest’s external challenges, but celebrate God’s gift of four young men, fulfilling a decision born in the quietness of their hearts but now on full display before the Catholic brethren from which they were called to a lifetime of service in the Lord’s vineyard, working for “treasures in heaven” and the glory of God.

“I’m full of joy and gratitude to God,” smiled Bishop Olmsted.

Added Patty Costantino, Fr. John of the Cross’ mother, “it’s such an overwhelming thing — My son is what God created him to be. He created him for this. And he’s answered the call.”