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(Editor’s note: At 10 a.m. on May 18, three men are scheduled to be ordained priests at SS. Peter and Paul Cathedral in Indianapolis: transitional deacons Doug Marcotte, Martin Rodriguez and John Francis Kamwendo. This week, The Criterion features a profile of Deacon Rodriguez. Next week, we will publish a profile of Deacon Kamwendo. Deacon Marcotte was featured in the April 26 issue.)
Martin Rodriguez sat on the floor of the hospital, his wet clothes still clinging to his skin.
A doctor had just told him that his friend, Anastasio, had died. Devastated, Martin asked God why he was still alive.
Earlier that Easter Sunday afternoon in 2004, Martin, Anastasio and some other members of a young adult group from St. Mary Parish in Indianapolis had visited Eagle Creek Park to celebrate the holiday and the birthdays of three group members.
The friends marking their birthdays were thrown into the park’s reservoir as a joke. In the process, Martin also fell in. Not knowing how to swim, he flailed about and started to sink in the cold water.
Most of the members of the group thought he was joking and walked away.
“The last thing that I saw was my friend, Anastasio, stand there and watch me,” said Martin. “He saw that I wasn’t joking, that I was actually drowning. He took off his sweatshirt and jumped into the water.”
Others came in to help and brought Martin to shore. But Anastasio was nowhere to be found. A 911 call followed. Rescuers found Anastasio in the water. He was rushed to Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis, where he was later pronounced dead.
As Martin pondered the meaning of his life in the face of his friend dying to save him, he remembered a prayer he made to God a month earlier.
It was the spring of his senior year in high school and he was wondering if God might be calling him to the priesthood. He promised God to become a seminarian. But he wasn’t sure if the priesthood was really meant for him.
Now, after seeing his friend’s self-sacrifice, he had more conviction about his future.
“The first thing that came to my mind was the promise that I had made a month before,” recalled Martin. “That was it. That was why I was alive. I was alive to pursue this vocation to the priesthood. From that moment, it became very clear that God probably wanted me to do something with this vocation.”
Nine years ago, Anastasio laid down his life to keep Martin alive. On May 18, transitional Deacon Martin Rodriguez will lay down his life in service to Christ and the Church when he is ordained a priest in SS. Peter and Paul Cathedral in Indianapolis.
He will be the first Latino to be ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis in nearly half a century. And he will be the first person born in Mexico to be ordained a priest for the Church in central and southern Indiana.
Deacon Rodriguez moved to Indianapolis from his native Mexico with his mother and three brothers in 2002 when he was 17. His father had moved to the city in 1999.
At the time of his arrival in Indianapolis, Deacon Martin’s connection to his faith was tenuous. He hardly ever went to Mass, and had not participated in any youth ministry programs in Mexico.
That all changed in Indianapolis. The example of faith of his mother, a cousin his age and a leader of the young adult group led him to go to Mass every Sunday. He also liked the young adult group’s social events.
“That was the hook of it,” Deacon Rodriguez said. “Later on, I went to confession for the first time in a long time. And then I was able to receive Communion again and became really involved in the Church.”
Eliecer de la Cerda was a leader in the young adult group and a member of the parish choir with Deacon Rodriguez. A former seminarian in Mexico, de la Cerda talked to him about what vocation God might have in store for him.
“I asked Martin about considering the priesthood, and he just smiled and told me, ‘Priesthood is not for me,’ ” de la Cerda recalled. “I always saw something special in Martin that would make him a good priest, but he needed a sign from God to decide and listen to God’s call to the priesthood.”
His parents, Martin and Ninfa Rodriguez, admitted that while their oldest of four children—all boys—was growing up, they had no inkling he would pursue a religious vocation.
But now that he is a few weeks from ordination, they are excited because he will be the first priest in their family.
“We’ve been waiting for that moment for four years,” his father said.
The dramatic turn of events of Easter 2004 was part of the sign from God that led Deacon Rodriguez to the seminary. But other factors also opened him up to the possibility of the priesthood—vocations dinners at St. Mary Parish and the priestly life and ministry of the faith community’s longtime pastor, Father Michael O’Mara.
Deacon Rodriguez appreciates how hard Father O’Mara works to serve the people of the parish. And he saw the value of a priest’s compassion when Father O’Mara came to the hospital after Anastasio died to spend time with the members of the young adult group.
“We all ran toward him, the whole group,” said Deacon Rodriguez in a recent interview with The Criterion. “And he just opened his arms. I have that memory in my mind like it was yesterday. I really felt like an angel was opening his wings to comfort us. That moment really, really touched me.”
For his part, Father O’Mara sees a renewal in his own priestly life and ministry as he has watched his parishioner progress through his priestly formation during the past nine years.
“He is authentic in every way,” said Father O’Mara. “When you are with him, you feel energized. I think he’s going to bring that to me and to our entire presbyterate.”
When Deacon Rodriguez is ordained a priest on May 18, Father O’Mara will help put his priestly vestments on him.
“It’s a great honor,” Father O’Mara said. “It’s a great opportunity, because I think during the last nine years I’ve, in a sense, been seeking to vest him in the priesthood.”
His family, too, thinks he will bring many gifts to the priesthood.
“We know he will be a great asset to the Catholic Church, and maybe make a difference in a lot of people’s lives,” his father said. “Hopefully, he will add more faith to the people in the Latino community.”
Deacon Rodriguez will make history in becoming the first person born in Mexico to be ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. He never felt drawn to enter into priestly formation for a diocese in the country of his birth.
“In prayer, I realized that God really never called me in [Mexico],” Deacon Rodriguez said. “He called me here, in Indianapolis. And I took that as a sign that he wanted me to serve in Indianapolis. So very early on, I wanted to join the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.”
He appreciates that he is making history in his ordination, but also sees it as a challenge.
“If I’m the first one in 50 years, I think there’s a lot of work to do to get more vocations,” Deacon Rodriguez said.
Latino Catholics from across central and southern Indiana attended his ordination as a transitional deacon last June in the cathedral. After the liturgy, Deacon Rodriguez spent a long time talking and having his picture taken with them.
“It’s really humbling to have that many people very excited for you,” he said. “I know a lot of them. But many of them I don’t know. They have assured me of their prayers. Who am I to receive all that attention?”
May 18 will be an exciting day for Deacon Rodriguez, his family and so many Latino Catholics across central and southern Indiana. Yet on that historic day, Deacon Rodriguez, even with his heart and mind swirling with so many thoughts and emotions, will return in gratitude to his own historic day in 2004 when his friend laid down his life so that he might live.
“I think there will be a lot of things in my mind and heart at the ordination,” he said. “More than anything, I think I will be very grateful to God for allowing me to be his priest and for sending me an angel who showed me the meaning of true friendship. I think there will be a constant litany in my heart: Thank you God.”
(Editor Mike Krokos contributed to this story. For more information about a vocation to the priesthood in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, log on to www.HearGodsCall.com.) †