The diocese's three newest 'men in black'

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Here is a glimpse of Fathers Joe Bergida, Keith Cummings and Tom Yehl who were ordained priests June 9, at the Cathedral of St. Thomas More in Arlington.

Deacon Joe Bergida grew up witnessing the fun and holy sides of priests.


Catholic Herald Senior Staff Writer

On his journey to the priesthood, Deacon Joe Bergida often was inspired by the clergy around him. At a young age, he would watch priests celebrate liturgies, then would go home and "play Mass." As he grew, he witnessed the camaraderie and the holiness exhibited by young priests at the parishes he attended. And while many future priests grow up not automatically gravitating toward the priesthood, Deacon Bergida was different: From a young age he ached for the sacrament of holy orders.

"There came a point in high school when I thought that maybe the Lord wasn't calling me to it, but I still wanted it," Deacon Bergida said in a recent interview from Rome, where he attends the Pontifical North American College. "I was trying to release that desire. Then the Lord gave it back to me."

It wasn't that he didn't want marriage or a family, Deacon Bergida said, rather, "I always kind of thought it was a greater good to be able to serve all families and to be able to give myself fully to Christ and His bride the Church.

"Seeing the beauty of family life actually strengthened my desire to be a priest," he added. "I saw what beautiful families were like, and I wanted that, yet at the same time I knew in my heart that God was calling me to be a priest."

Deacon Bergida, who is scheduled to be ordained to the priesthood June 9 at the Cathedral of St. Thomas More in Arlington, was born Sept. 28, 1983, in Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minn., to Michael and Theresa Bergida. The family, which later would have seven children, of whom Deacon Bergida is the oldest, moved to Virginia when he was 2. They lived in both Herndon and Centreville before settling in Front Royal during the deacon's high-school years.

Growing up, Deacon Bergida said his family did its best to get to daily Mass, outings that had a "huge impact" on his faith.

"The first thing I remember is going home and setting up and playing Mass," he said. "That was where the first intuitions or movements of grace began."

As he got older, Deacon Bergida joined the Junior Legion of Mary, an organization that helped him to seek God's will and holiness in his life. As the family moved around Northern Virginia, Deacon Bergida got to know many priests on whom he began to model his life, he said, including Fathers John H. Melmer, Matthew H. Zuberbueler, Cornelius O'Brien, Alexander R. Drummond, Brian G. Bashista and the late William Ruehl.

"Here they were, young men, and they were giving their lives to the Church, to Christ and they had this great joy about them," he said. "They were funny and you could interact with them … and at the same time they had a great respect for the Eucharist."

Deacon Bergida was home-schooled through high school, after which he attended Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio, from 2002-06, where he participated in a pre-theology program. After much discernment, he applied to the seminary his senior year and was accepted, entering St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Wynnewood, Pa., in the fall of 2006.

In 2008, Deacon Bergida transferred to Rome, where he has studied for the last four years.

"It's been great," Deacon Bergida said. "You really get an experience of the Church universal because there are students from all over, not only Europe, but Asia, Africa. And the ability to be so close to the Holy Father and the martyrs who gave their lives for the Faith here in Rome … has been great."

As a seminarian, Deacon Bergida served at St. Philip Parish in Falls Church, St. Teresa Parish in Ashburn and All Saints Parish in Manassas. After his ordination, Deacon Bergida will return to Rome to finish up a degree in liturgy, but for the summer he'll be home at St. John the Baptist Church in Front Royal.

Now, almost a priest himself, Deacon Bergida looks back on the clergy who influenced his life in the hopes of someday having that same influence on others.

Being a priest "really is bringing people to Christ," Deacon Bergida said. And, after all, who would know better than him?

After a long road back to the Church, Deacon Keith Cummings is joyfully awaiting his ordination to the priesthood.


Catholic Herald Staff Writer

Deacon Keith Cummings knows the importance of a smile. With only weeks left until he is ordained to the priesthood, he is quick to laugh and make jokes - especially about himself - and he said he feels more fulfilled and satisfied than ever before.

"The joy I've had from the past 10 years, … I've come to understand how much God loves each of us individually and it's made me so happy and content and at peace for where I'm going," he said.

Of course, he was not always this way. For Deacon Cummings, the road to ordination has been a long one, with many detours and U-turns.

Deacon Cummings was born Dec. 9, 1964, in Richmond. The 10th of 11 children, he grew up in a family that moved around a lot. He lived in Detroit, Memphis and Pittsburgh before returning to Virginia, where he graduated from Woodbridge High School in 1983.

Though his family attended Mass every Sunday while he was growing up, Deacon Cummings didn't fully appreciate the Faith. He began skipping Mass almost as soon as he had his driver's license and he didn't seriously return until he was a college student in Richmond in his early 20s. At that time, he learned a lot about Church teaching, but stopped praying entirely when he began to get an inkling of a vocation.

After that, he took a new approach - "a self-centered, self-driven approach to my life." His first job out of college was working on Wall Street in New York. Within a few weeks, his father was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Six weeks later, he died.

"During that time, I got a much stronger window into the depth and breadth of my father's faith and the peace and comfort that he received from his relationship with God and the Faith and the sacraments," Deacon Cummings said.

"(My brothers and I) always said, our father taught us as we were growing up how to live as men, and in his last six weeks he taught us how to die as men, as men who trust in the Lord."

Though he was moved, Deacon Cummings still was not practicing his faith. Instead, he focused on earning money and having fun, even moving to Denver in 1997 to be close to the ski slopes.

All that changed in 2002, when Deacon Cummings' mother died. Her death left him reeling and resulted in a devastating downward spiral during which time he lost his job in Denver and was forced to bounce from one menial job to another. Eventually, Deacon Cummings moved back to Virginia, where he could stay with his siblings while he got on his feet.

In 2004, at his lowest point, Deacon Cummings gave in to what he had been avoiding since college. One late night, he found himself in St. Bridget Church in Richmond - which, for some reason, had been left unlocked. There he prayed for the first time since his mother had died.

"I went and I said, basically, 'I made a mess of my life. If you help me, I'll do whatever you want,'" Deacon Cummings said. "And that started the slow process of me returning to the Faith. I started going to Mass every Sunday, I went to confession for the first time in 20 years and it was the greatest experience of my life. I felt three inches taller, like I was floating on a cloud."

Soon Deacon Cummings enrolled in adult confirmation classes. He was confirmed in June 2005 and joined the church choir. He began attending Mass several times a week and doing weekly Holy Hours.

"My friends and family noticed a real change in me," he said. "I was not grumpy, not selfish, I tended to be happy a lot more, and, of course I had gotten my life back."

Then, things intensified. On Easter Sunday 2006, Deacon Cummings was singing in the choir during Mass at St. Joseph Parish in Richmond when he had a deep sense in his heart that God was telling him something.

"I had a very real sense that I was being told, 'You said you would do anything I asked,'" Deacon Cummings said.

For months following that Mass, Deacon Cummings waffled back and forth with a possible vocation. He got a spiritual adviser and attended a discernment retreat before finally applying to the seminary. In July 2007, he was accepted.

Flash forward nearly five years and Deacon Cummings has just finished his diaconate year- an experience that took some time getting used to.

"The first couple of weeks were surreal," he said. "People were calling me 'Deacon' and, it was like, 'Who are you talking to? Wow, I really am a deacon. That is so … weird.'"

For his diaconate year, Deacon Cummings was assigned to St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Braintree, Mass. While there, he served in more ways than he could have hoped for and enjoyed tremendous amounts of support from the parishioners. 

"People love their priests and their deacons and they have been so fantastic here, so supportive," he said.

Now, Deacon Cummings is excited to take all the experience he has gained and put it to work as a priest. He is most excited about celebrating the sacraments, especially hearing confession, and discovering how God will use him.

"God uses us broken human beings to work amazing wonders," he said. "I'm hoping to bring that love and mercy and tenderness to those people. To be an instrument of that is what I am looking forward to."

Looking back, he said he is grateful for the many positive role models he has had - from his father to the many priests he has worked with, to Arlington Bishop Paul S. Loverde. In his time in the Church, he has come to admire the joy and peace he has seen in many of those men.

"Being under their tutelage, I've seen that they've got something and I want it," he said. "I want the same message to go out from me - 'I don't know what he's got, but I want it.' What I've got is the only thing worth having. It's all grace, a gift from God, but it is a wonderful gift that has made me one of the happiest men I know."

Deacon Thomas Yehl followed a path from youth ministry to the priesthood.


Catholic Herald Staff Writer

"It's thrilling and scary all at once," Deacon Thomas Yehl said about his impending ordination June 9 at the Cathedral of St. Thomas More in Arlington. "It's overwhelming what this great gift means."

Deacon Yehl's journey to priestly ordination started with a love of youth ministry.
He was born Jan. 8, 1978, to Carolyn and Thomas Yehl. His father was a cradle Catholic, his mother a convert.

They were a military family. He and his sisters traveled extensively through Europe with their parents until Deacon Yehl was 10 years old and the family returned to the United States.

They settled in Chantilly and became parishioners of St. Timothy Parish where Deacon Yehl attended the parish school, was active in the Boy Scouts and served as an altar server.

He graduated from Paul VI Catholic High School in Fairfax in 1996 and enrolled at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg to study government. While at William & Mary, he was active in the school's campus ministry.

He also became involved with Youth Apostles. In fact, he was introduced to the group by a girl he was dating.

"(Youth Apostles) was eye-opening," he said. "(They were) young men living their faith in a radical way." He liked the interaction between clerics and married and single members.

This was the seed of his discernment.

"They challenged me to live my faith in a more radical way," he said.

In 1998, as a junior, he attended an "Encounter with Christ" retreat for the Richmond Diocese in Troutsville. He met the diocesan vocations director, Father Michael Renninger.

"Have you ever thought of becoming a priest?" Father Renninger asked Deacon Yehl.

"I never thought of myself as a priest," he said.

Deacon Yehl described his feelings toward the priesthood as a "rollercoaster."

There was resistance, a pushing forward and then a retreat. He was still not ready to commit.

He abandoned any plans for a career in government and after graduating from William & Mary, he took a job as youth minister at St. Mark Parish in Vienna, still staying connected to Youth Apostles.

In 2002, he led a contingent of students from St. Mark to World Youth Day in Toronto and heard Pope John Paul II tell the pilgrims about vocations and to follow Christ. It was a defining moment.

A year later, Deacon Yehl left his job as youth minister and became a consecrated Youth Apostle, committing himself to poverty, chastity and obedience for one year.

He started taking pre-theology classes at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C. At the end of that year, he committed to a three-year consecration.

He entered Catholic University's Theological College in Washington.
Deacon Yehl said that most people think discernment ends at seminary.

"Seminary is where you discern," he said. "We go to seminary to find out."

He said discernment is a process. You dialogue with fellow seminarians. 

Deacon Yehl was ordained a transitional deacon last June. He was assigned to St. Ambrose Parish in Annandale.

After his ordination to the priesthood next month, he said he hopes to serve at a parish for three years before being assigned by Arlington Bishop Paul S. Loverde to a Youth Apostle home.

Youth Apostles and youth ministry, as he put it, were "pretty elemental in the discernment process for me."

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2012