A 30-year-old accountant. A 60-year-old dairy farmer/chiropractor/family man/widower. A 49-year-old former gang member/paraplegic/religious brother/hospital chaplain.

Their stories could not be more different, and yet their common destination will bring them together on Saturday, May 28, when these men and five others are ordained transitional deacons for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles by Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.

The eight men will begin a year of service in LA parishes as deacons, while completing their theological studies at St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo. Recently, several of them spoke with Angelus about the experiences that have prepared them for a life of ministry.

The beauty of the process

Born and raised in Pasadena, the sixth of eight children in an active Catholic family, Michael DiPietro attended St. Philip the Apostle School, St. Francis High School in La Cañada, and Hillsdale College, a small liberal arts school in Michigan, where he earned degrees in accounting and philosophy.

Priesthood? He thought of it in seventh grade, again in high school, and more seriously in his junior year of college. “But after graduation,” he said, “I didn’t know what would be in store for me — priesthood or marriage.”

So he earned his CPA license, worked in accounting for “some real world work experience,” and paid off student loans. And then, with the support of his family, he entered St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo where he admitted his formation process “hasn’t always been pretty.”

“I tend to be kind of intense sometimes, even a little abrasive, and here you rub against different personalities and situations that challenge you to throw off your old self and put on Christ more fully, to take what the seminary has to offer.”

DiPietro said that life, including the time in the seminary, has shown him that “there is some suffering, but that’s the beauty of the process. Because only through the cross do we see the beauty that’s before us.”

He has drawn inspiration by the words and examples of two saints, St. Paul, and the newly canonized St. Charles de Foucauld. These words from the latter’s famous “Prayer of Abandonment” has inspired DiPietro: “As soon as I believed there was a God, I could do nothing else but live for him.”

Having served his internship at St. Cornelius in Long Beach and St. Rita in Sierra Madre, DiPietro looks forward to serving his transitional diaconate at his home parish, and to “keeping the fire alive.”

“I want to be on guard against letting the most sacred and holy parts of our faith — like the celebration of the Eucharist — become ordinary or mundane, to make sure I’m not just going through the motions,” he said.

‘It’s about surrendering to God’

There are challenges to living in a wheelchair — like steps.

“Yeah, the steps are not my friend,” chuckles Brother Cesar John Paul Galan, a wheelchair user since he was shot and left paralyzed 21 years ago in a gang-related incident that took the life of his brother. “I have to remind myself not to give up, to push past steps or whatever obstacle there might be so I can serve the Lord as he wants me to.”

But there are blessings as well. “Here at St John’s,” said Brother Galan, “my situation gives my brother seminarians the opportunity to be charitable — and to understand and appreciate differences.”

Brother Galan said that experiencing the universality of the Church through the diversity he found at St. John’s has been key. 

“When we get to know each other, we can do great things. That’s a lesson and a blessing for me, to accept people where they are at.”

It was a lesson Brother Galan learned the hard way. Born in Torrance and raised in Artesia, he fell into gang life as a teen, which ended when he was shot by a rival gang member. While recovering at St. Francis Medical Center in Lynwood, he found his way out of bitterness and despair with the help of Brother Richard Hirbe, minister general of the Friars of the Sick Poor and a St. Francis chaplain.

Brother Galan eventually forgave the man who shot him, became a hospital chaplain, and in 2015 professed his vows as a religious brother with the Friars. “But the idea of being a priest had been knocking at my door,” he said. “I said, ‘Hey, God, I’m already serving you as a chaplain.’ The thing is, it’s not about you; it’s about surrendering to God.”

He entered St. John’s, where steps were the least of his challenges. “Study has never been easy for me,” he admitted. “I’ve always had to work extra hard. Coming here was a huge leap of faith.”

But the leap has paid off. Brother Galan has completed his internship at St. Mary Magdalen Church in Camarillo, where he will also serve as a transitional deacon. A year from now, God willing, he will be ordained as the first paraplegic priest in the history of the archdiocese.

“I just pray that God always gives me a heart for service,” he said. “In my darkest days, I couldn’t imagine myself doing this. But here I am. And to those discerning a vocation, I encourage them to look forward, and pay attention to what the Lord is telling you.”

A doctor of souls

In all likelihood, few dairy farmers in the village of Sainte-Croix, Switzerland, can imagine themselves as priests. Nor can many race-walkers on the Swiss national team, nor many chiropractors in the Mid-Wilshire area. And certainly not many husbands or fathers, wherever they live.

Rene Haarpaintner, though, fits all of the above descriptions. And a year from now, when he is 61, he will be a father in more ways than one. Surprising? Yes, and no.

“I never expected the call to priesthood,” he said with a wry smile. “But God calls us in different ways and at different times, right? Because nothing is impossible with God.”

Haarpaintner remembers first hearing that “call” at age 18, when he was living close to a monastery, and was attracted to “the peaceful lifestyle and spirit’ of the religious who lived there.

While competing for the Swiss race walking team, he met Lauren Feder, a primary-care doctor and founder of the Center for Natural Family Medicine in Los Angeles. They became friends and then sweethearts, were married in 1991, and raised two sons, now adults.

Haarpaintner also graduated from UCLA with a degree in art history, and in 2002 became a chiropractor, joining his wife in her practice and becoming active at St. Brendan Church. Then in 2014, she was diagnosed with cancer and died that November.

Before that, however, Lauren — aware of her husband’s deep faith and desire to serve God — asked him, “Are you going to become a priest?”

“I said, ‘No, I’ll take care of the boys and keep the medical office going,” he said. “But after Lauren died, I lost my heart for working in the office.” He sold the practice and took a year off to care for his younger son, who attended Loyola High School. “But I also asked myself, ‘What should I do?’ And the priesthood kept calling.”

He spoke with his pastor, Msgr. Terrance Fleming, and with Father Steve Davoren, then heading the Office of Vocations. 

“I wondered if I was too old for priesthood. They said, just look into it and see what happens. I entered St John’s, and by the grace of God, it’s all happened very smoothly.”

His internship year at St. Mary’s Church in Palmdale, Haarpaintner said, “was very eye-opening, especially during COVID-19 and the challenges it presented. I was able to assist in counseling couples whose faith was suffering, and to help them rediscover Christ and bring real light into lives. I thought, this is what God wants me to do because, ultimately, Christ has to be in the midst of the domestic church.”

And as a dairy farmer, the image of guiding a flock resonates with this former chiropractor. “I have cared for the body; now I care for the soul.”

Where they’re going next

Here are the new transitional deaconsparish assignments for the next year (their home parishes, except where noted):

Michael DiPietro — St. Philip the Apostle Church, Pasadena

Brother Cesar Galan, FSP St. Mary Magdalen Church, Camarillo (home parish: Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels)

Rene Haarpaintner — St. Brendan Church, Hancock Park

Hieu Nguyen — Incarnation Church, Glendale

Enrique Piceno — St. Pius X Church, Santa Fe Springs

Luis Gerardo Peña — St. Martin of Tours Church, Brentwood

Emmanuel Sanchez — St. Kateri Tekakwitha Church, Santa Clarita

Sergio Sandoval — St. Joseph the Worker Church, Winnetka