Below is the cover story from the July/August issue of The Long Island Catholic Magazine. The issue also included columns and features on a wide range of topics. To get it all, subscribe to the magazine here.
Meet the diocese’s newly ordained priests:
‘Everything you are is centered in Christ’
By Rick Hinshaw
The journeys to priesthood of the Diocese of Rockville Centre’s newest clergy — ordained by Bishop Murphy in St. Agnes Cathedral June 20 — offer a striking witness to the wide variety of influences — from family, to educators, to priests, parish life and other faith experiences — that can play a vital role in a young person’s discernment of a priestly or religious vocation.
For Father Sean Magaldi, the first such influence was a faith-filled family that early on made him “always comfortable around priests.”
Having moved from Queens to St. Aidan’s Parish in Williston Park when he was 10, Father Sean said he grew up, with his younger brother, in a “Catholic, church-going family,” where “faith was always important, a regular part of our lives.” He had a great uncle who was a priest, and “my dad always had priests over for dinner.”
As a junior at Chaminade High School in Mineola, he began to think “in a very early, preliminary” way about the priesthood. Then at Adelphi University, he got to know Father Brian Barr, then-diocesan director of campus ministry and soon to be vocations director for the diocese.
“He encouraged me to get involved in starting a Newman Club” at Adelphi, Father Sean recalled. Going from a Catholic high school to a secular college, he said, “I didn’t find many people similar to me in faith.” Father Barr encouraged him to go on a mission trip to Kentucky, serving the region’s rural poor. He met and worked with members of Catholic campus ministry groups from other schools. “I realized I was not alone, there were other Catholic young people who thought the same way I did.”
Still, as he studied video and film production at Adelphi, he “pushed away thoughts of a vocation.” After graduation, however, he applied through the diocese to become campus minister at Hofstra, and soon realized that his true calling was to ministry.
“The March after I graduated, in 2010, I called Father Brian and said that I need to enter the seminary. That was the fastest he ever called me back,” he laughed, noting “the impact that Father Brian Barr has had in getting to where I am. He was very influential at a time when I needed a priest’s presence the most.” He also cited his pastor at St. Aidan’s, Msgr. James McDonald — former rector of Immaculate Conception Seminary in Huntington — as someone who “always encouraged me, a great support.”
And his family’s support was crucial.
“I told my mom right before I called Father Brian, and then afterward I told my dad and my brother,” he recounted. “They were all supportive. It was just a big decision; they wanted to be sure I had thought it through. My parents would have encouraged me in whatever I chose,” he reflected, “but coming from a Catholic family, there was no negative spin. The support my family has given me has made the journey a lot easier.”
A Holy Thursday experience
Father Alessandro da Luz, 25, grew up in East Northport and was educated in “Catholic schools all the way” — beginning with Trinity Regional in East Northport when his family belonged to St. Anthony of Padua Parish there, Holy Family Regional in Commack in seventh grade, when his family joined Christ the King Parish there, then graduating from St. John the Baptist Diocesan High School in West Islip.
“My mom tells me that I first talked about being a priest when I was in kindergarten,” he said. “I don’t remember that,” but does remember an experience in seventh grade that had a profound effect on him.
“I was an altar server, and the priest asked me to serve Holy Thursday Mass,” he recalled. “It was the first time I had ever been to Holy Thursday. I was really moved by it, being at the altar, watching the priests celebrate the Eucharist. From then on, the priesthood was something I’d been giving consideration to.” He continued his parish involvement, becoming sacristan, and “I got to see a little more of what was going on, seeing the priests behind the scenes.
“I was really intense,” he said. “I wanted to learn as much as I could about the faith, the traditions of the Church, the liturgy.”
A Catholic Scouting experience further strengthened his interest in the priesthood.
“The St. George Trek,” he explained, is a summer backpacking trek at a scout camp in New Mexico that he went on after his junior year in high school. Also participating was Father (now Msgr.) Tom Coogan, then-diocesan director of vocations.
“During the trek, we had Mass every day, spent time talking about the faith and spiritual things, and I was also impressed by his joy and enthusiasm for the priesthood,” Father Alessandro said of Father Coogan. “And he maintained a connection afterward.”
Like Father Sean, Father Alessandro’s experience with his college Newman Club — at St. Joseph’s College in Patchogue — played a key role in his discernment.
“I was interested in teaching, and I was kind of encouraged to try college first, and afterward enter the seminary,” he said. So, while working toward a degree in math and computer science, he joined the Newman Club shortly after it had formed at St. Joseph in the fall of his junior year. “We had retreats, weekly meetings, we were a group of young men and women all very enthusiastic about the faith, sharing what we believe, standing up for what we believe in. So getting to know all these people, they kind of encouraged me to think about the priesthood. They said you’d really be a good priest, you know the faith, you love the Mass, you have what it takes. So I started thinking about the priesthood again, more seriously.”
And again, a Holy Thursday experience solidified his sense of that calling.
“Every year after that first Holy Thursday, I asked to serve at that Mass,” he said. “Holy Thursday is my favorite day of the year.” Then while in college, he attended the Holy Thursday Chrism Mass at St. Agnes Cathedral. “As I saw the seminarians process in, I got the sense — kind of an interior voice, the Holy Spirit — telling me I should have been with them. After that, I kind of knew it was time to sign up.” So during his junior year he did some more discernment, then “finally made my application to Cathedral Seminary in Douglaston,” enrolling and living there while completing his senior year of academic requirements at St. Joseph’s College.
His family, too, “has been very open to it, very supportive,” he said. “I feel very blessed in that regard, both family and friends have been very supportive.” In fact, he said, while his family have always been practicing Catholics and always interested in promoting vocations, he believes this experience “has given them more fervor in the faith, more desire to share the faith.”
Teacher an inspiration
Father Jeffrey Yildirmaz, whose family emigrated to Long Island from Turkey (he was born here in 1985, about five years after their arrival), began to discern a vocation “by the end of sixth grade” while a student at the Brother Fox Latin School at Kellenberg Memorial High School.
“When I was about 12, it really hit me,” he said. “I had gone to public elementary school and did not know much about the faith. At the Latin School, I was very drawn to it. From sixth through 12th grade, religion was my favorite class.”
He was inspired, he said, by Mr. James Krug, a religion teacher and guidance counselor at Kellenberg whom Father Jeff called “a great man, a holy man.
“He inspired in me a devotion to the Sacred Heart and to Padre Pio, the first saint I really got to know. I have a real devotion to him, through the witness of Mr. James Krug,” he said. When he was confirmed, “Jim Krug was my sponsor,” and “to this day we’re very close friends. He still helps me. I look up to him a lot.”
A parishioner of St. Rose of Lima in Massapequa and later St. Edward the Confessor in Syosset, Jeff continued discernment “off and on” through high school, but during college — at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, where he achieved a degree in business administration, planning to work with his father in the family’s small business — the call to priesthood “kind of wore off.” After college, however, he “started to pray more, focus on being a disciple,” and the calling “came back, much stronger than in high school. So I decided to enter the seminary. I talked to Jim about the priesthood, I didn’t have too much knowledge about what to do, and he helped me with that.”
As he moved into seminary formation, Father Jeff said, “What helped me a lot was being with good and holy priests. I have deep admiration for the good priests” at St. Joseph Seminary in Dunwoodie, he said. “They are great examples of priesthood. To see their deep holiness day in and day out — and also to receive their spiritual direction — if I didn’t have that, I think it would have been much harder.”
“Also the prayer life,” he said. “We had the Blessed Sacrament on every floor, always a place to pray, always quiet; adoration almost every night. It has definitely been a sacred place to pray.” Seminary studies, he said, while “very challenging,” were “at the same time very enlightening.” And he also appreciated “the camaraderie among the guys — good close friendships among the seminarians.”
That was something that surprised Father Sean. Having finished college before entering Cathedral in Douglaston, he said, it was “kind of a shock to the system” to be “moving in with people just entering college — people younger than my brother. I was surprised how quickly I became friends with people. I have very good friends outside the seminary, but we’re not all on the same track. In the seminary, having a bond, knowing we’re all going to be doing the same thing throughout life, we became friends quickly. Seminary is like a family in a sense.”
Father Sean said it was “a big adjustment but a bigger blessing” when — after they had spent one year at Immaculate Conception Seminary in Huntington — the priest formation programs for the three dioceses of Brooklyn, Rockville Centre and the Archdiocese of New York transitioned together at St. Joseph Seminary in Dunwoodie.
“Once the dust settled, and everyone got used to things, dioceses disappeared, we came together,” and the “bigger group of faculty members” gave the seminarians more expansive learning opportunities, he said. He cited “the leadership of Msgr. (Peter) Vaccari,” seminary rector, as among the most positive aspects of the seminarians’ formation.
“Knowing how much he cares about us made the transition so much easier,” he said. “He let us know that he was always there when we needed him. You could tell the most important thing to him was us. That helped with any difficulties.”
Summers in parishes
“A great joy” of their seminary years, said Father Alessandro, were the “summer pastoral assignments, being immersed in parish life. We experienced the day-to-day life of the priests, and it was great to meet parishioners, work with them, get to know them.” Assigned in succeeding summers to SS. Cyril & Methodius in Deer Park, St. Kilian in Farmingdale and Our Lady of the Assumption in Copiague, he said, he encountered “different people in different situations,” helping him to gain familiarity with diverse parts of the diocese. He got to teach an adult education course on liturgy and the sacraments at St. Kilian, and Our Lady of the Assumption provided him with “an immersion experience” with the Spanish-speaking community.
“My Spanish improved during the course of that,” he said. The people “were very kind and very welcoming, very enthusiastic to have a seminarian at the parish.”
Father Jeff, who was assigned to St. Hugh of Lincoln in Huntington Station and Christ the King in Commack, said the pastoral ministry time in the parishes lets the seminarian “know if the priesthood is for you or not. If not, it will be evident. For me,” he said, “it became very clear that I am going to be happy in this ministry.” He was particularly gratified by the opportunity to minister to the sick.
“I was really touched, loved being with them,” he said. “You can tell you are another Christ for them. Giving them the Blessed Sacrament, these are truly grace-filled moments you are sharing with them.”
One of Father Sean’s most inspiring parish assignments, at Our Lady of Fatima in Scarsdale, was working with children with special needs, “ranging from slight disabilities to students who were non-verbal.
“I had never really talked to or worked with children with special needs before,” he said. “It was a tremendous experience,” including the opportunity to get to know the parents. One boy he had helped prepare for First Communion was just able to make the sacrament this past spring, he said.
Mass and the sacraments
As they begin their priesthood, they all are looking forward, first and foremost, to celebrating Mass and hearing confessions.
“For so long, Mass has been such an important part of my life, such an important part of my day,” said Father Alessandro.
“It’s so immense, the anticipation of knowing you will be celebrating Mass every single day,” Father Jeff commented. “And hearing confessions — entering into a person’s soul, sharing with them their most difficult experiences, being Christ to them, an instrument of His mercy and love.”
“The sacrament of confession is really a sacrament that in my ministry I want to promote,” said Father Alessandro. “In recent years there’s much more interest in confession among the faithful, with Pope Francis speaking so much about mercy. To be able to give people the sacrament of mercy, the forgiveness of God, bring souls to heaven — that’s something I hope I can offer to people.”
“I look forward to getting out there, being with the people of God, celebrating Mass and all the sacraments,” Father Sean said. “This is just the beginning. It’s been a special time working toward ordination, but the best part of ordination is when it’s over, everything’s just beginning. All the apostolic work we’ve been doing in the seminary, being able to do it full time is just so exciting.”
He spoke of activities like youth ministry and campus ministry as things he’s “really enjoyed” and would welcome the opportunity to do more of. “But really, I’ll be open to whatever comes my way,” he said. “In the seminary, I’d be comfortable with certain things, but then when you’re asked to do something else you realize how nice it is to learn and do new things. So anything that comes my way, I will love doing.”
Father Alessandro, too, said he hopes to “engage young adults, to find some way to take my experience with the Newman Club at St. Joseph’s College and offer it to them, inspire them. The faith our group had at St. Joseph,” he said, “it would be nice to have that in a parish setting.”
He also anticipates trying to engage those who have been away from the faith. “I don’t know the answers,” he said, “we might have to be more creative in developing ways of reaching people. We can’t expect people to just come to the Church. We have to reach out.”
Among the challenges he will face as a priest, Father Jeff noted, is the call to be celibate — something that is “immensely difficult for people to understand, especially in the modern world.” But understood as part of the priest’s total love for Christ, total giving of self to Christ and His Church, “it is worth sacrificing for that greater good.”
“The identity of the priest is truly so foundational,” he explained. “It has taken over one’s entire life. Just to be configured with Christ through the sacraments — everything you are is centered in Christ.
“The good priests I know understand that. Their zeal and fire with doing God’s work really inspires me.”
Formed in Rome, ordained to serve on Long Island
For Fathers James Hansen and Andrew Garnett, their journeys to priesthood began much like those of the three other priests they were ordained with June 20.
Like Fathers Sean Magaldi, Alessandro da Luz and Jeff Yildirmaz, they were born on Long Island, grew up in parishes of the Diocese of Rockville Centre, graduated from local Catholic high schools and began their studies for the priesthood at Cathedral Seminary in Douglaston.
But then James’ and Andrew’s priestly formation took a different turn: they were called to study at the North American College in Rome, in what became a most exciting and historic time for the Church.
Father Andrew Garnett grew up in Oyster Bay in a “church-going Catholic family” who have been a strong support as his vocation developed, he said. He was an altar server, attended St. Dominic Elementary School, and began working in the parish rectory when he was in eighth grade. He benefited, he said, from the example of priests who served at St. Dominic’s, like Father Malcolm Burns and Msgr. John Alessandro, and especially Father Dariusz Koszyk, who as a seminarian served his pastoral year at St. Dominic.
He also developed a “unique friendship” at St. Dominic’s — one that has now culminated in his joining his lifelong friend, Father Joseph Scolaro, in the priesthood. Father Joe, currently associate pastor at St. Joseph in Garden City, was ordained in June of last year.
“We’ve literally been best friends since kindergarten,” Father Andrew said. “We made all the sacraments at the same time in the same place,” and now “the idea of two priests coming out of that friendship is pretty special.”
Attending Chaminade High School, he was also influenced by the witness of the Marianist priests. But he really started thinking about the priesthood, he said, when he began attending diocesan vocations retreats while in high school, and was challenged by the question, “What are you going to give back to God for all he’s done for you?” The witness of then-diocesan vocations director Father Tom Coogan, “a Chaminade guy” who Andrew encountered on those retreats, further strengthened his interest, he said.
Father James Hansen’s family, who “have been supportive of me throughout my years of seminary, have also helped me to see the joys of life and how good God is, by simply being genuine,” he said. In addition to his immediate family, his aunt, uncle and cousins “have lived next door to me every summer since I was a boy,” and “have been a great support to me by being their happy and joyful selves.”
James grew up in Franklin Square, but spent summers in Oakdale on the Great South Bay, and considers Oakdale to be “home.” Still, his pastor at St. Catherine of Sienna Parish in Franklin Square, the late Msgr. Thomas Groenewold, was instrumental in encouraging him to think about the priesthood. Now, he said, Msgr. Groenewold’s chalice — “the chalice I used to prepare for him when I was a sacristan — has become my chalice.”
“He was a wonderful priest who loved the priestly vocation and loved serving the people of God,” Father James said. “I was in high school when he first asked me if I had ever thought about becoming a priest.
“I made it clear that the priesthood was not on my radar screen,” Father James recalled. But “Msgr. Groenewold faithfully mentioned the possibility of priesthood through the years, and wisely had me involved in many parish activities — working at the front desk, sacristan on Sundays, maintenance work in the summers,” and as an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion. That exposure to parish life “helped me see the joys of priesthood,” he said, “and I sometimes pondered that maybe the Lord was in fact calling me.” He was also influenced by the example of the Marianist brothers at Kellenberg Memorial High School, but “it was not until my second year at Manhattan College” that he decided to “see what the seminary was all about.” That desire, he believes, was “fostered by the sacrament of Reconciliation and reception of the Eucharist three or four times a week.”
Catholic University in Washington
After two years at Cathedral in Douglaston — while attending St. John’s University — Father Andrew was asked by Bishop Murphy to take part in a scholarship program at the Theological College at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. “I was doing well in philosophy at St. John’s,” Father Andrew explained, and the three-year scholarship seminary formation program would lead to a licentiate in philosophy.
He was one of 12 classmates in the program, hailing from all over the country, and the experience “began to broaden my horizons in terms of Church,” he said: “what it’s like to be a Catholic not only on Long Island, but throughout the United States.”
As he completed the program, he was asked by Catholic University to study at the North American College in Rome.
“Our four years in Rome were wild,” he said. “We got there in July 2011,” and coincidently, 2011 was the year of ad limina visits to Rome for the U.S. bishops. During their first Thanksgiving there, they were joined by “all the bishops from Long Island. It was nice,” he said, “to see familiar faces during that first year away from home.”
Then in their second year, while he was taking finals, word came that Pope Benedict had resigned.
“It was a crazy time. None of the bishops had arrived yet” in Rome, he said, so American media, looking for comment from Americans in Rome, interviewed some of the seminarians. “James and I were on CNN with Chris Cuomo,” as well as quoted in Newsday and other outlets, he recalled.
Then came the conclave, and “when the white smoke went up,” announcing the election of a new pope, “I was in the first barricaded area” in St. Peter’s Square, he said. “It was just a great night. I’ll never forget it, especially the hush that came over the crowd” as Pope Francis asked the world for prayers.
Proximity to popes
For Father James, the opportunity to study in Rome was presented to him as he completed his philosophy degree at Manhattan and his time at Cathedral.
“I was a little hesitant,” he said, knowing it would be more than two years before he could see family and friends again if he accepted. But through prayer and discernment, “it seemed like God was inviting me to be part of a great adventure, a great opportunity.” His four years in Rome, he said, have been “a wonderful opportunity to see the universal Church and be close to the Holy Father.
“The proximity to both Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and Pope Francis” has fostered in him “a true sense of gratitude to God for the gift of the papacy.” The “example, preaching and writings” of both popes, he said, “have greatly shaped my formation,” and he has “seen through their examples the beautiful hearts of shepherds that love the flock.”
His Rome experience has also increased his devotion to the saints, he said. “It has been a true gift to pray regularly at the tombs of the saints, especially St. Catherine of Siena,” patroness of his home parish, “and St. Ignatius of Loyola.”
Now, Father James is “very much looking forward to once again belonging to a faith community here on Long Island. My time in Rome,” he said, “has helped me realize how much I love Long Island, and how grateful I am to be a part of the Diocese of Rockville Centre.” He looks forward to being able to administer the sacraments, he said, “especially the sacrament of Reconciliation. God has been very merciful to me, and I am humbled by the thought that the Lord wishes to use me as an instrument of His forgiveness.”
Father Andrew said he is excited to now have the opportunity of “going out to people, to really try to invite people back” to an active faith life.
The reality in the world today, he said, “is not so much a rigid atheism,” but rather a kind of apathy toward religious faith. He looks forward to following Pope Francis’ example of preaching a joy-filled faith, one that he said “really opens the door to the new evangelization,” helping people see that the Church is not primarily “about rules, or saying ‘No!’ It’s about a relationship with Christ.”