Father Martin Gonzalez is a millennial and a neophyte priest. He was ordained on June 3 by Archbishop José H. Gomez along with six other men for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. On July 1, the 30-year-old began his first assignment as associate priest of Immaculate Conception Parish in Monrovia. But before starting his active ministry, he took a little road trip with some priest friends to the Grand Canyon and Monument Valley. And in those harsh, rugged landscapes, he had his own desert experience.
“Monument Valley is where all those John Wayne movies were made,” he notes, leaning back in a swivel chair behind a wood desk in his rectory office. “It’s amazing, breathtaking. And in a way it was really spiritual. Looking at nature, you’re seeing God’s beauty right in front of you. And you’re with good friends to share that experience. I don’t want to compare myself to Jesus, but he went to the desert, you know, and then he started his ministry.”
A smile crosses his boyish face, with his black Woody Allen plastic-framed glasses sliding down his nose a bit. “But in my own way, I guess I experienced the desert before I started ministry. It gave me a great perspective of what I’m going to begin in my journey, in my ministry. And it allowed me to reflect a little more that in my ministry I’m not doing it alone. God is there with me. And I have great people around me, too. Other priests’ support. I have other people who are praying for me. So you’re not a Lone Ranger. It reminded me that I’m being guarded by Jesus Christ, all of heaven and all the people who are here with me.
“So,” he adds, “it comforted me.”
Father Martin Gonzalez is part of the leading edge of a new wave of priests Pope Francis has been calling for since becoming the pontiff in 2013. At his first general audience during Holy Week, he encouraged Catholics to go out to the peripheries of society, bringing the love of Jesus to people, especially the poor and persecuted. That week the Holy Father also famously asked priests to “be shepherds, living with the smell of the sheep … as shepherds among your flock.”
And at a plenary assembly of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Clergy on June 1, the pope stressed again the need for priests to be shepherds, who not only welcome their flock, but also help them to know and love Jesus. He also urged priests beginning their ministry to pray always, keep on their pilgrim journey and have hearts filled with compassion.
“My prayer life is everything,” says Father Gonzalez. “Without my prayer life all my ministries are just getting from point A to point B. So it allows me to open up. I’m a little more alert, a little more aware of whatever’s going on. When I’m in the confessional, when I’m at Mass, when I’m preaching. When I’m just reflecting on the Word of God, allowing God to speak to me. So that whatever situation that may come up, it is really God himself who is giving that word of encouragement to the people who come to you, or what the people need to hear that day — that the message that I’m preaching really is the Word of God to them.”
He says Sunday is the highlight of his week. That’s when he feels like he’s really pouring himself out to God while celebrating Mass. He is helping parishioners enter into the presence of God. His role is to get them to connect with Jesus Christ in the Eucharist. In essence, he’s offering himself on behalf of every congregant.
“So for me, it’s been a discovery,” he says. “And I’ve been really enjoying that encounter with God in that way with people.”
Baptisms, weddings, anointings and funerals
There have been other discoveries. Funerals, for one. He’s done maybe eight, including for a 31-year-old man who died in a car accident.
“One of the things I didn’t realize I was going to enjoy, even though it’s quite tragic, is funerals,” he says, smiling a little self-consciously. “I enjoy the fact that I get to walk with people who are in those moments of destitution. Like, it takes a lot out of me because it’s sad to know where they’re at. And yet at the same time, I know that they are eager to listen to God’s Word. So it’s not just me going through the motions. It’s me bringing everything about God’s Word, bringing God’s light to such a terrible and inevitable situation.
“So maybe ‘enjoy’ is not the right word,” he points out. “Maybe it’s more like just journeying with people in their difficult situation. And knowing that, hopefully, they hear some kind of word that can help them in their grieving process. A lot of the time, people are questioning: ‘How could God allow this?’ So I don’t have all the answers for the people. It’s just a humbling experience for me to be there with them.”
Another joy coming out of the blue for the newbie priest has to do with the sacrament of reconciliation.
“Confessions are a healing moment for people — and for me,” he says. “I’m always humbled, because it’s people right there. And people are really there pouring themselves out. Because they know deep down that God has forgiven them. I’m just an instrument. I’m just there to listen. And what they want to hear is that God loves them and that he’s merciful. And that’s really my role as a confessor — I let them know that God is there with them.”
Again, he has second thoughts about calling it a joy. “I would say it’s more than a joy. I think it’s more like a transformative experience for me — a sinner to another sinner, you know. Just hearing them, walking with them,” he explains.
But there’s no second thoughts about doing marriage prep and weddings.
“I walk with them, I talk to them and prepare them for marriage,” he observes with a half-smile. “That’s beautiful. And the wedding. Just to see two people who are exchanging their vows to one another, and in a way you’re kind of invisible. There’s things I’ve gotten more adapted to when I’m celebrating at a wedding. Like holding the mic right when they’re taking their vows.” And he laughs. “Sometimes you have to repeat them, because when they’re at that moment they’re kind of nervous. I don’t blame them. At my own ordination I was nervous, too.”
Baptisms have also been great — and sacred.
“For the most part, it’s a rite of initiation,” he points out. “It’s like celebrating someone’s birthday. But really at the end of the day, you’re reminding people what is important about baptism. You’re helping to bring a child into the Church. And then you’re instilling the Church’s teachings to them little by little, according to their age. And I see the joy. I see how when you baptize them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit I know that there’s some kind of transformation that just took place. That they’re now a new creation.
“So, yeah, baptisms are beautiful. They’re great. I don’t keep track, but I’ve done my share. And it’s wonderful. Normally, you would think that babies cry. But they don’t. Not in my experience.”
Another sacrament that has touched Father Gonzalez is anointing of the sick. He knows that through the ministry of the priesthood it’s really Jesus touching the ill, healing them from sin and sometimes from their physical ailments as well. Because it is God the Father through his Son who has conquered sin and death by his dying and rising.
Holy Spirit kicks in
The “Catechism of the Catholic Church” clearly states this sacramental role of a priest:
“In the ecclesial service of the ordained minister, it is Christ himself who is present to his Church as head of his body, Shepherd of his flock, high priest of the redemptive sacrifice, teacher of truth. This is what the Church means by saying that the priest, by virtue of the sacrament of holy orders, acts in persona Christi Capitis [in the person of Christ, the head].”
At the Last Supper, Christ ordained the first priests at the same time he instituted the sacrament of the Eucharist. “And he took bread, and when he had given thanks he broke it and gave it to them saying, ‘This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ ” (Luke 22:19)
So why did Our Lord give the apostles a share in his own priesthood? The Catechism explains that it was so future generations could also be present for that upper-room consecrated sacrifice and receive the divine fruits of the paschal mystery. Father Gonzalez grasps this sacred role with its sanctified joys.
The challenges have been much less and more mundane so far.
Just the normal adjustments of living in a different home, a different community takes time, he says. And then there’s getting used to a certain routine, including getting enough sleep and exercise. Schedules between him and the pastor of Immaculate Conception, Father Randy Campos, are made out a month in advance. The two rotate weekly and weekend Masses, confessions and other parish happenings. But, of course, there’s emergencies, with parishioners calling to make sudden appointments.
“So you’re just adapting to the rhythm of the parish,” he says. “It’s a whole life-changing experience. Also, you’re getting used to and adapting, you know, to who you are as a priest. Because not every priest is the same. People who are working with you are getting to know you and you’re getting to know them.”
And then there are more practical matters, like becoming comfortable with the layout of Immaculate Conception Church, which has two transepts or wings, that jut out at right angles from the nave or main body. So when delivering his homily, the priest has to turn from side to side. “I like doing that and I’m getting so used to it,” he says.
Mics can be a problem, too, making sure to turn them on when you’re speaking. Wearing a heavy chasuble on a sweltering day in Monrovia, a hot spot in the San Gabriel Valley, is no fun, either. “It’s intense, man,” says Father Gonzalez. “And you don’t want to be up there sweating. You want to stay as cool as you can, right?”
After a moment, the millennial priest exclaims: “It’s fun! Seriously. I enjoy so much being up there at Mass. That’s really what we’ve been ordained for — to celebrate the Mass, the sacraments.”
And he has mostly gotten over being jittery on the altar at Immaculate Conception. “I mean, I wouldn’t say I’m not ever nervous,” he confides with a quick chuckle. “But then there are times when you feel like the Holy Spirit just kicks in.”