With laughter, joy, three new priests ordained

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(Updated 6/11/12) - The three men stood grouped together at the front of the Cathedral of St. Thomas More in Arlington last Saturday, a triangle of fraternity with arms embracing and faces shining, clearly overcome with joy. Around them, laughter and applause - somewhat unusual in the middle of a Mass of Ordination to the Priesthood - broke out, a sign of approbation and appreciation of newly ordained Fathers Joe Bergida, Keith Cummings and Tom Yehl.

The spur-of-the-moment gesture demonstrated the close bond of the "class of 2012," which also includes Father Richard Dyer, ordained last December to accommodate his father's ailing health.

Despite their differences in background and age, and their attendance of three (or four, counting Father Dyer) separate seminaries, the new priests maintained a close bond throughout their years of formation.

Most recently, at a retreat in the days leading up to Saturday's ordination, the men discussed how they would continue to rely on each other for support as they take this next step in their priestly lives.

"We spent some time together just as brothers talking casually about how we want to continue to foster that fraternity in the months and years to come," Father Cummings said in an interview last week. "These are really three fantastic men for whom I have just the highest esteem. The opportunity to be ordained with all of them at one point … it's just been such a gift."

Throughout the solemn ordination Mass, celebrated by Arlington Bishop Paul S. Loverde, the inner delight of the men kept seeping through - like in the look on Father Bergida's face as he was vested by his grandfather, Father Robert F. Hamel, who became a priest later in life; or in the high-five Father Yehl gave to fellow Youth Apostle Father Peter Nassetta as the new priest processed out of the cathedral.

"We are joining that fraternity, which I've sort of looked at from afar for a long, long time," Father Yehl said. "It's a day unlike any other day in our lives."

This day included all the age-old moments of ordination: Father Brian Bashista, vocations director, declared the men to be worthy of the responsibility of the priesthood. One by one the soon-to-be priests promised respect to the office of the bishop and, together, the three men lay prostrate on the cathedral floor symbolizing dying to the old self and rising to the new. Following the laying on of hands by all present clergy, Bishop Loverde recited the prayer of consecration, officially elevating the men to their new roles in the Church.

"There is something very special for a bishop to ordain priests at any moment in his life, but for me it's a very special occasion and experience because I've been here long enough to have accepted these new priests and to have watched them grow through the years of formation," Bishop Loverde said in remarks at the end of Mass. "It's somewhat like being the father, the parent who saw the little one grow and become an adult. So I'm very proud."

In a special role, Father Dyer served as one of the major concelebrants of the Mass as he watched his classmates join him in the fraternity of the priesthood.

"I'm just so proud of these men," said Father Bashista, adding that this year was an "extremely special" opportunity to watch the men he had counseled from first discernment become ordained.

Father Bashista recognizes that the class has a special bond - one first exemplified by the Twelve Apostles.

"They're all so different, yet they all came together because (Jesus) called," Father Bashista said. Relying on one another "is going to bode very well for them as they enter the presbyterate."

Many priests, Father Bashista added, gather in May or June to celebrate the anniversary of their ordination with Mass and a meal.

After the Mass, as Fathers Bergida, Cummings and Yehl took photos on the cathedral steps with Bishop Loverde and family members, Father Yehl said he felt "exhilarated, awestruck and amazed."

"I was shaking the whole time," he said. "Every moment was, 'Oh my goodness, this is happening.'"

Huddled in a group outside the cathedral, Father Yehl offered his second priestly blessing (his first had been to the bishop) to his immediate family.

"They've been watching me since I grew up," he said. "To be here at this moment with me and to walk with me, it's amazing."

Father Bergida, moments before receiving a huge hug from his mother, Theresa, said his ordination to the priesthood was what he'd been waiting three-fourths of his life for.

"I've been waiting since my waking moments, thinking about the priesthood," he said. "And finally the priesthood has come. It's really the beginning. Praise God."

As Father Cummings was adjusting his vestments following the rite of ordination, he said he felt "awesome."

"It's the most important day of my life," he said. "Nothing is really going to compare to it."

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2012