May 19, 2023

‘I want to share my life with others’

Deacon José Neri travels a challenging and joyful journey to the priesthood

Then-seminarian José Neri, left, kneels in prayer on Aug. 9, 2021, in the chapel of Our Lady of Fatima Retreat House in Indianapolis. Neri. who was ordained a transitional deacon in 2022, will be ordained a priest for the archdiocese on June 3 at SS. Peter and Paul Cathedral in Indianapolis. (Criterion file photo by Sean Gallagher)

Then-seminarian José Neri, left, kneels in prayer on Aug. 9, 2021, in the chapel of Our Lady of Fatima Retreat House in Indianapolis. Neri. who was ordained a transitional deacon in 2022, will be ordained a priest for the archdiocese on June 3 at SS. Peter and Paul Cathedral in Indianapolis. (Criterion file photo by Sean Gallagher)

By Sean Gallagher

ST. MEINRAD—Transitional Deacon José Neri’s road to the priesthood has been a long and arduous one—geographically, culturally and spiritually.

Born in southern Mexico, he moved with his parents and five siblings to Indianapolis in 2004 when he was 12.

Deacon Neri traveled culturally from what he described as an “Hispanic bubble” in which he lived for the first 18 years of his life, including his first six years in Indianapolis, to one dominated by English speakers.

And spiritually, he went from living in a town in Mexico where a priest would only come occasionally to celebrate Mass and the sacraments to Indianapolis where the sacraments were readily available, and he soon fell in love with the faith.

This long and challenging journey will culminate at 10 a.m. on June 3 at SS. Peter and Paul Cathedral when Archbishop Charles C. Thompson will ordain Deacon Neri and transitional Deacon Jack Wright as priests for the Church in central and southern Indiana.

As he has approached this pivotal day through years of priestly formation, Deacon Neri hasn’t allowed himself to imagine too much what it will be like for him to celebrate the Eucharist and the sacraments for the first time.

“It comes to mind every now and then,” he said in an interview with The Criterion at Saint Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology in St. Meinrad, where he has been a seminarian for the past five years.

“I try not to think too much about it. It can be overwhelming. It’s going to be awesome.”

‘You began this’

When Deacon Neri was a boy growing up in the southern Mexican state of Guerrero, his family was not very active in their Catholic faith.

He received the sacraments of initiation—baptism, confirmation and the Eucharist—but he rarely went to Mass.

That was in part because there was such a priest shortage in the region that one only came to his town occasionally.

Lay-led prayer services would be held at his parish’s church on Sundays, but his parents rarely took Deacon Neri and his siblings to them.

His maternal grandmother Angela was a bedrock model of faith for him, though.

“I learned from her what it means to be a Christian,” Deacon Neri recalled. “She has a calm demeanor. She’s always nice to people. She’s humble. She’s poor, but whatever she had, she would contribute it to the Church. I remember going to her house and she’d be on the front porch reading her Bible.”

He enjoyed going from time to time with her to the Sunday prayer services in the town church.

“Even then, I had an interest in the Church,” Deacon Neri said.

That interest grew over time to the point where he discerned that God was calling him to be a priest. Through it all, he never forgot his grandmother, who still lives in Mexico, and the role she played in his life.

“When I was ordained a deacon last year, I wrote to her and sent her a picture of me being ordained,” he said. “I told her, ‘You began this.’ ”

‘A whole new world’

When Deacon Neri was 12, his parents and five siblings moved to Indianapolis where he had relatives living.

Nearly overnight, he went from living in a town where the Mass was hardly ever available to a city where multiple Masses were celebrated daily only a short drive from home.

His family soon became members of St. Monica Parish in Indianapolis.

Shortly afterward, Deacon Neri saw a friend from the public school he attended assisting as an altar server at a Mass celebrated in Spanish at St. Monica.

“That caught my attention,” he recalled. “I thought it was cool.”

He soon became an altar server himself. This led him to want to be involved in the parish in other ways.

“I joined the choir, even though I’m a horrible singer,” Deacon Neri said. “I was looking for a different way to serve. I enjoyed it.”

Six years after moving to Indianapolis, Deacon Neri’s faith had grown enough that he became an archdiocesan seminarian and entered into priestly formation as a freshman at Bishop Simon Bruté College Seminary and Marian University, both in Indianapolis.

At the same time, his knowledge of the vocation to the priesthood was limited.

“What I knew about the priesthood was that priests say Mass on the weekend,” Deacon Neri said. “That was it.”

The hurdle of his limited knowledge of the vocation he was discerning combined with cultural and linguistic obstacles he faced when he moved into Bishop Bruté made life as a seminarian difficult initially.

“I had been learning English, but I was in a Hispanic bubble,” Deacon Neri explained. “At home, we’d only speak Spanish. Most of my friends were Hispanic, and we’d only speak Spanish. My family and I were going only to a Spanish Mass. I was going to an Hispanic youth group.”

Bishop Bruté “was a whole new world.”

“I was living with ‘Anglo’ people,” Deacon Neri said. “I was praying in English. That was new to me. I had to learn the responses in English because I didn’t know them. It was a lot of learning.”

These challenges led Deacon Neri to discern out of the seminary after his sophomore year. Two years later, he earned a bachelor’s degree at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI).

“I got overwhelmed by the whole thing,” he remembered. “But I never ruled the priesthood out, even when I left.”

From ‘if’ to ‘how’

While a student at IUPUI, Deacon Neri went on a retreat. There, he experienced a turning point while praying.

“I heard God saying in the back of my mind, ‘Be a priest,’ ” Deacon Neri said. “It’s always been those words: be a priest, be a priest, be a priest. Those words were so loud in my mind.”

So, after a year of working in a business owned by an uncle, Deacon Neri became an archdiocesan seminarian again and entered priestly formation at Saint Meinrad.

For his first three years there, he still wasn’t sure if the priesthood was his vocation.

“During those three years, I would tell people, ‘If God wants me to be a priest, I’ll be a priest,’ ” Deacon Neri said. “There was always a question mark.”

That changed by the end of that third year, when ordination as a transitional deacon was a year away.

“I went from, ‘If God wants me to be a priest,’ to ‘How am I going to be as a priest, because God wants me to do this?’ ” he said. “It wasn’t a question of ‘if,’ but a question of ‘how.’ ”

After overcoming cultural and linguistic challenges at Bishop Bruté as a teenager, Deacon Neri at Saint Meinrad has helped his fellow seminarians whose first language is English prepare to minister in Spanish.

One of those seminarians is Aaron Noll, in his second year of formation at Saint Meinrad.

“I’ve been practicing my Spanish with José, either in random small conversations or on Tuesdays here at Spanish tables where we have conversations in Spanish while we eat lunch,” said Noll, a member of St. Bartholomew Parish in Columbus. “He’s helping form me for ministry in that way, to continue to broaden how I can do ministry by knowing Spanish.”

Transitional Deacon Bobby Vogel, a member of St. Mary Parish in North Vernon who expects to be ordained a priest for the archdiocese next year, has grown in his proficiency in Spanish with Deacon Neri’s help. He also appreciates his friend’s happiness in his vocation.

“He’s one of the most joyful men here,” said Deacon Vogel. “You can tell his laugh from across the room. And it’s very common to hear it. He’s a very genuine person, very agreeable, amiable. He’s willing to talk with anybody. He makes you feel welcome.”

“He’s just continually going outside of himself in the community to help people,” Noll said. “He doesn’t have to help people with their Spanish. He’s not the Spanish professor. It’s not his job. But he does it anyway.”

‘I want to share my life with others’

Building relationships in Christ and in service has attracted Deacon Neri to the priesthood more and more as he has progressed in seminary.

“I want to share my life with others and allow others to share their lives with me—in Christ,” he said. “Sharing our lives in Christ gets me excited.”

As enthused as Deacon Neri is about his faith, he knows that isn’t the case with everyone.

“I’ve seen people who have faith but struggle to understand and to be fed spiritually,” he said. “Knowing that God is using who I am and my talents to help these people—that excites me.”

Deacon Neri has grown in his understanding and love of the priesthood through having summer ministry assignments where he has served alongside a variety of archdiocesan priests.

One was Father Todd Goodson, who leads Our Lady of the Greenwood Parish in Greenwood, where Deacon Neri will serve as parochial vicar beginning in July.

“He cares for what he does, and he cares for people,” Deacon Neri said of Father Goodson. “He gave me the freedom to do things and respected what I did.”

Deacon Neri also lived for a summer with archdiocesan vocations director Father Michael Keucher at St. Joseph Parish in Shelbyville, where Father Keucher serves as pastor.

“He allowed me to see what a priestly life is really like,” recalled Deacon Neri. “It was really helpful. Whatever he did, he would take me with him—visiting friends, going to a hospital, going to a store to get something for the parish.”

As he approaches being ordained a priest, Deacon Neri encourages young men to prayerfully consider the priestly vocation to which God has called him.

“I’d say what Jesus says so many times in the Gospels: Do not be afraid,” Deacon Neri said. “Give it a try. I’ve been through it. There are so many questions. And we want the answers before we go to the seminary. But you don’t need them. Just go and give it a try.”

(The public is invited to attend the priestly ordination of Deacon José Neri and Deacon Jack Wright, which will be at 10 a.m. on June 3 at SS. Peter and Paul Cathedral, 1347 N. Meridian St., in Indianapolis. For more information on a vocation to the priesthood in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, visit

About Transitional Deacon José Neri

Age: 31

Parents: Apolinar Neri and Maria Lopez

Home Parish: St. Monica Parish in Indianapolis

Education: North Central High School, Marian University and Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, all in Indianapolis; Saint Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology in St. Meinrad

Favorite Scripture verse/passage: John 3:16

Favorite saint: St. Augustine of Hippo and St. Teresa of Calcutta

Favorite prayer/devotion: adoration of the Blessed Sacrament

Favorite movie: For Greater Glory

Favorite authors: St. Augustine of Hippo and Thomas Merton

Hobbies: Reading biographies and history, watching TV, outdoor activities such as camping, hiking, bonfires and swimming, spending time with friends.

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