Becoming ‘Father Asiel’

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Photo by Michael Scanlan

Asiel Maria Rodriguez, a Benedictine monk of Newark Abbey, is ordained a priest by the Most Rev. Manuel Cruz, Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Newark.

In a serene ceremony replete with sacred traditions, some traceable to the Apostles, Asiel Maria Rodriguez, O.S.B. was ordained a Roman Catholic priest Tuesday night in the Benedictine Abbey of Newark’s St. Mary’s Church, becoming “Father Asiel.” 

With dozens in attendance, all socially distanced and wearing masks due to stringent pandemic-induced safety precautions, the 29-year-old Benedictine monk, wearing white and gold vestments, was blessed and anointed, achieving his life’s dream of joining the ranks of the priesthood. The Rite of Ordination to the Priesthood was performed by the Most Reverend Manuel A. Cruz, Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Newark. 

“The priesthood is a gift,” Bishop Cruz said, “it is not for us receiving first but rather in our serving first, and then receiving much more than ever dreamed of. Therefore we are constantly reminded that everything we have and we receive is ultimately a gift.”

The Rite of Ordination to the Priesthood, which always takes place during the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, is the ritual – full of ancient prayers and symbolism – by which a man receives the Sacrament of Holy Orders, becoming a priest. 

The Ordination Mass began with a procession that included Bishop Cruz, Fr. Asiel, Abbot Melvin Valvano ‘56, O.S.B., every monk of Newark Abbey, monks from St. Mary’s Abbey in Morristown, and Augustinian friars from St. Augustine Parish in Union City, Fr. Asiel’s home parish.

Deacon Asiel Rodriguez is called forward and presented to Bishop Manuel Cruz at the beginning of the Rite of Ordination. Photo by Michael Scanlan.

After some opening prayers, a number of Bible passages were read aloud by both lay people and monks. Each reading was chosen specifically for the Rite of Ordination and touched upon themes of divine election and the importance carrying on the work of Jesus within the Church. Honoring Fr. Asiel’s Cuban heritage and his family members present, the readings and prayers of the Mass alternated between English and Spanish. 

The Rite of Ordination itself began after the Gospel reading with the “Calling of the Candidate.” In this part of the liturgy, Br. Asiel was called by name to approach the bishop. Bishop Cruz then inquired of Abbot Melvin whether or not Br. Asiel had been found worthy and competent to fulfill the office of priest. Upon the Abbot’s positive response and the Bishop’s acceptance of Br. Asiel, the assembly inside St. Mary’s Church erupted in applause.

 Bishop Cruz then offered a homily, in both English and Spanish, to both Br. Asiel and the assembled throng. Bishop Cruz remarked that both he and Br. Asiel are refugees from Cuba who restarted their lives in Union City. He noted the similarities of their lives and said, while it might be looked upon as a coincidence, “when it comes to the Good Lord, there are no coincidences.” 

The Most Reverend Manuel Cruz addresses his homily directly to the man about to be ordained. Photo by Michael Scanlan.

Following the homily, Bishop Cruz asked Br. Asiel a series of questions, inquiring into his willingness to take on the responsibilities of a priest. Br. Asiel conveyed his willingness, responding “I am [willing]” to each inquiry. 

Br. Asiel then knelt before Bishop Cruz and, in an ancient symbol of submission, placed his folded hands inside the folded hands of Bishop Cruz while promising obedience to the bishop, the bishop’s successors, and his own monastic superiors.

 As the moment of ordination drew near, Br. Asiel prostrated himself on a carpet before the altar. Science Department Chair Dennis Lansang sang the “Litany of Saints,” a prayer that invokes the mercy of God, begs for the intercession of the saints, and asks for particular blessings upon the man to be ordained. 

 The gesture of prostration (lying facedown on the ground) symbolizes the candidate’s submission to the will of God. Beyond Dr. Lansang’s singing, the church was hushed during this powerful moment as Br. Asiel handed over his life to God.

In the actual moments of ordination, Bishop Cruz prayed silently while placing his hands on Br. Asiel’s head. This gesture, known as the “laying on of hands,” is found in the Bible and has been used by Christians as a sign of ordination since the time of the Apostles. After the Bishop laid his hands on Br. Asiel, all the priests present took turns laying their hands on him as well, showing that they, too, shared the same gift of priesthood.

 After all priests present had prayed silently over Br. Asiel, Bishop Cruz extended his arms and the other priests raised their hands in blessing as the bishop prayed the Prayer of Consecration, offering Br. Asiel’s life to God and dedicating him as a Priest of Jesus Christ forever. The assembly responded “Amen” to the bishop’s prayer, showing their assent to the sacred action.

Fr. Philip Waters ’63, O.S.B. assists the newly-ordained Fr. Asiel Rodriguez to put on the vestments of a priest. Photo by Michael Scanlan.

Now a priest, the newly ordained Fr. Asiel removed his deacon’s stole and with the assistance of Fr. Philip Waters ‘63, O.S.B., was vested with a priest’s stole and a chasuble, a vestment worn for the celebration of Mass. 

Fr. Asiel then again knelt before Bishop Cruz, who anointed the palms of his hands with chrism, a mixture of oil and balsam, preparing him to quite literally be the hands of Christ at work in the world today. Fr. Asiel was then presented a paten and chalice, gold vessels that are used during Mass, as a sign of his priestly privilege and responsibility to perform the sacraments.

 The Rite of Ordination concluded with the Sign of Peace. Having been given the gifts to exercise his new office, Fr. Asiel was welcomed into the Order of Priest, first by Bishop Cruz and then his brother priests. The Liturgy of the Eucharist was then celebrated by Bishop Cruz with the newly ordained taking a prominent role in his first celebration of the Eucharist as a priest.

The importance of being ordained in Fr. Asiel’s life cannot be overstated. For the rest of his existence, Fr. Asiel will be defined by the great gift that God gave him on Tuesday night.  

According to St. Benedict’s Prep Religion Teacher Stephen Adubato, a priest has a sacred mission and is called to be a man who “carries out Jesus’ ministry on earth in a concrete, tangible way. Through the sacraments, the Eucharist, Confession, he is literally doing what Jesus did while he was on earth.”

To continue Jesus Christ’s ministry on Earth in such a unique way is a huge privilege for Fr. Asiel. “I think this is why it is a reason to celebrate,” Mr. Adubato said, “because Fr. Asiel was chosen for this very particular, very special gift. And he is very aware that this gift is really for the sake of everyone. This isn’t a celebration just for him. This is him being called to offer something to the whole community, the whole wide world.”

Bishop Manuel Cruz anoints Fr. Asiel Rodriguez’s hands with sacred chrism. Photo by Michael Scanlan

Three major religious events for Fr. Asiel — his profession of solemn vows, his ordination as a deacon, and Tuesday’s priestly ordination — have occurred during intensive periods of the COVID-19 pandemic. This has led to cancellations of celebrations in his honor for all three events, the most recent occurring on the eve of a citywide lockdown to curb the disease’s spread.

 While disappointed that events he had dreamt of would not pan out the way he had hoped, Fr. Asiel is a witness to the true meaning of religious celebrations. According to Br. Bruno Mello, nO.S.B., Fr. Asiel has shown the entire community, through his example, that his vocation to the priesthood is “not about the way I imagined it. It’s about what’s happening to me, the work that God is going to do in me. God does that [work], whether I have a huge party after it or not, whether the church is full or empty.”

Candace Bradsher, Annual Giving Officer at St. Benedict’s Prep, found the service very beautiful and moving. She has known Fr. Asiel since he first joined the monastery. “I am really excited about what God is going to do in his life,” she said.

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