Joyce Coronel, Together Let Us Go Forth Magazine
Father Estevan Wetzel opens his wallet to reveal a yellowed photograph of his great-grandmother.
“Little Nana,” as they called her, is smiling as she leans toward a baby boy holding a blanket. That baby would one day grow up to be a Catholic priest — but not without passing through some struggles along the way.
“I still have that blanket she made me,” Father Wetzel said. The photo, he said, is a tool that helped him get through some tough times.
“When my unfree thoughts would happen, I needed a reminder of ‘you’re fine, you’re safe,’” Father Wetzel said. “I don’t often need to look in my wallet now, but during those initial months, I needed some sort of tangible reminder to keep with me.” The photo, he said, showed him he was a beloved son and that God’s love would never fail him.
While in seminary, Father Wetzel was diagnosed with mild to moderate obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), a mental health condition that affects millions of Americans. According to the National Alliance on Mental Health, one in five Americans experienced a mental illness in 2020. OCD is a condition in which the sufferer has persistent thoughts and impulses that trigger behaviors.
In Father Wetzel’s case, that meant he felt compelled to go to the chapel right after lunch and perform his examination of conscience. That might not seem troubling, but when his seminary duties required him to wash dishes after the midday meal, the inability to go to the chapel immediately and examine his conscience led to distress.
“I was bothered as I was doing dishes,” Father Wetzel said. He understood intellectually that he needed to obey his superiors, but it rankled. “Before I knew my tools, I’d be like, ‘I got to get to the chapel as soon as possible.’”
He’s not really sure how or why OCD developed, but it wasn’t the only challenge he faced in seminary. He had this sense of foreboding, as if the ceiling might cave in at any moment and that something would be taken from him. It was a mental fogginess and heaviness he’d been dealing with since high school and that followed him to formation for the priesthood.
Then, in 2014, Father Wetzel’s brother was run over and killed as he was crossing the street, a horrific, sudden death that stunned. Father Wetzel recalled being at home in Phoenix in the aftermath.
“I remember being in my back yard and just feeling nothing. There was absolutely nothing in my heart. I wasn’t sad. I wasn’t happy. I just felt blank. I remember thinking, ‘why aren’t you sad?’”
After his father passed away in 2016, Father Wetzel realized he needed help. “I just recognized in my heart that something wasn’t good. Something needed to be healed.”
What he learned from the loss and the struggles was that he needed to share everything in his life with Jesus — the sorrow, pain, anger, confusion, joy and numbness; all of it needed to be brought before the Lord.
“God doesn’t force Himself into someone’s life,” Father Wetzel said. “When I’m able to share what’s on my heart, then His grace is able to be incarnated into that. I felt safe once I felt able to share what was going on in a particular fashion in my heart.”
As he began to understand that prayer is really about a relationship with the Lord and not just an activity that needs to be checked off a list, things changed.
Through counseling, prayer and talking with trusted friends, Father Wetzel experienced healing. He cited a quote that has helped him open up about his struggles: “If it’s human, it’s mentionable. If it’s mentionable, it’s manageable.” Sharing his pain with trusted advisers was a huge help. “If we’re going through something, we can talk about it. And if you’re able to talk about it, it becomes less scary.” There are certain graces, he said, that the Lord wants to give us through others.
The beauty of counseling and spiritual direction, Father Wetzel said, is realizing that we are not alone in our pain. “The Lord is not over there. He is right here next to me.” And that realization gives rise to confidence.
“Even though the darkness remains, even though the sadness remains, even though the heaviness remains, to realize you are in a safe space. You are not your brain. You are not your emotional state — there’s more to you. There’s a dignity to you, and the Lord is with you in the midst of that.”
Toward the end of his time in seminary, Father Wetzel experienced healing.
“I remember showing up the last year, showing up day one and thinking, ‘Oh my gosh! The ceiling doesn’t seem like it’s bound to cave in. I actually feel at peace. I feel confident.’”
These days, Father Wetzel is the chaplain at St. John Paul II Catholic High School in Avondale. His office, located in the school’s cafeteria, makes him easily accessible to students for heart-to-heart chats and the sacrament of reconciliation. Father Wetzel remembers his own struggles in high school, hiding out in the bathroom as he battled social anxiety.
On the shelf near his chair is a small stack of holy cards. He likes to give them out to students facing their own struggles. The Surrender Novena and a bilingual Healing of Memory get dished out regularly.
“I prayed that novena for months until it sank in,” Father. Wetzel said. When we think our battles are 50 percent God’s efforts and 50 percent our efforts, the Surrender Novena, prayed faithfully over time, helps us realize it’s 100 percent Jesus, Father Wetzel said.
The Healing of the Memory prayer is also an exercise in passively allowing the Lord to work in our heart. “You ask the Lord to go into your mind as you go to sleep and just say, ‘Lord, I can’t do this. I need You to perform open-heart surgery.’ Both these prayers were just this passive element that really did wonders.”
As a high school chaplain, Father Wetzel said he can share the wisdom he gained through his struggles. “I really do think the Lord wants me in high school ministry,” Father Wetzel said.
“Not as a counselor, but in my own unique way — as a priest, as a father — to bring healing, and just walk with students, talk with them as they need it, and assist them in greater healing and greater wholeness.”