Three young men, separated in age by only 18 months, soon will become the newest members of the diocesan presbyterate.
Bishop Salvatore R. Matano will ordain Deacons Anthony Amato, Michael Merritt and Juan Benitez during a liturgy beginning at 10 a.m. on Saturday, June 3, at Sacred Heart Cathedral, 296 Flower City Park, Rochester. Bishop Matano had ordained the trio as transitional deacons at the cathedral May 28, 2016.
Deacon Amato, who turned 30 years old on April 30, is a native of Our Mother of Sorrows Parish in Greece. He earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and religious studies in 2008 from the University of Rochester and a master’s in systematic theology in 2011 from Boston College School of Theology and Ministry.
In 2012 he entered the seminary at Theological College in Washington, D.C., where he is completing his fourth and final year of theology. Over the past several months, Deacon Amato has performed diaconal duties at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle, where he has been involved in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults and enjoyed frequent interaction with Cardinal Donald Wuerl, archbishop of Washington.
"I’ve had some pretty good opportunities," he said.
Deacon Amato said he first entertained serious thoughts about the priesthood while in graduate school. Although he wasn’t always sure whether he was meant for the priestly life, he has subsequently received assurance through prayer.
"My greatest peace in this whole process came in the time I’ve spent in front of the Blessed Sacrament. That’s when my head is the most clear and I know what God wants for me," Deacon Amato said.
He added that he feels excitement and joy regarding his upcoming ordination, not to mention a sense of awe.
"It’s overwhelming when I think of the magnitude of the job ahead of me," he remarked.
Deacon Merritt, 28, grew up in St. Benedict Parish in Canandaigua and Bloomfield. He graduated from Siena College in 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in religious studies. In 2012 he began studies at St. Mary’s Seminary and University in Baltimore, where he is wrapping up his final year of theology. He also is performing extensive parish ministry in the Catholic Community of South Baltimore where he assists at Mass, preaches occasionally and has officiated "at least 11 or 12 baptisms" plus a few weddings.
"It’s been wonderful," Deacon Merritt said. "It’s been a great foretaste (of the priesthood)."
He said that as a priest, he’s looking forward to celebrating Mass, administering the sacraments and evangelizing. Another area of high importance, he said, is "providing pastoral care to people, being a bridge between the people and God. There’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes on a daily basis that people don’t get to see — visiting people in hospitals, being present for people if they need to talk to someone, praying for them, being the spiritual leader of the parish. It’s a role that I take very seriously."
Deacon Merritt added that he initially thought about a priestly vocation while in high school and is slightly astounded to finally be on the brink of ordination.
"I just can’t believe that the time has gone by, 15 years — over half of my life," he said. "It’s been an amazing journey. It’s hard to describe; so many wonderful things have happened to me."
Whereas experiences in the Rochester Diocese fostered the vocations of Deacons Amato and Merritt, Deacon Benitez, 29, first felt the call some 2,500 miles away in Colombia. He was born and baptized in Frontino, and his home parish is St. John Vianney in Medellin. He said he began exploring the priesthood during high school based on positive experiences with altar serving and in his youth group, which visited poor neighborhoods to feed the hungry and catechize young people.
He began priestly studies in his native country and eventually came to the Diocese of Rochester, joining several other Colombian men who in recent years have pursued the priesthood here. In 2014 he started at St. Mary’s Seminary and University, where he finished up in December 2016. Since then, he has assisted at St. Louis Church in Pittsford, where he enjoys working with youths in the parish and at St. Louis School.
Deacon Benitez noted that his grandparents, mother, brother and a couple of priest friends all plan to travel from Colombia for his priestly ordination. He eagerly awaits living out his priesthood in this diocese, he added.
"I feel a great joy in my heart as the day of ordination is coming so soon," he stated. "I am looking forward to serving the people of God wherever the bishop decides to send me. I think being a priest is the greatest gift one can receive from God."