LAKE CHARLES — The largest class of transitional deacons in the history of the Diocese of Lake Charles was ordained last summer in the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. Their journey to the priesthood took another historic turn this year as the COVID-19 pandemic gripping the world forced the four seminarians to abruptly end their final semester several months early.
Deacons Andrew DeRouen, Joseph Caraway, and Levi Thompson — all students at the Pontifical North American College in Rome; and Deacon Samuel Bond, a student at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans, returned to the Diocese in mid-March.
They are continuing their studies online ahead of their priestly ordinations scheduled later this year in the Cathedral. Until then, the deacons are assisting in the church parishes where they completed their Summer 2019 internships: Deacon DeRouen at St. Pius X; Deacon Caraway at St. Henry; Deacon Thompson at Our Lady Queen of Heaven; and Deacon Bond at the Cathedral.
Other seminarians are also back in the Diocese assisting in various ways as a number of priests live-stream their private Masses online while public Masses are suspended. The eight young men are continuing their formation at Saint Charles Center which has been temporarily repurposed as a seminary. They remain under the guidance of Father Jeffrey Starkovich, Director of Vocations.
Following is a reflection from each transitional deacon in his own words about the effect the pandemic has had on them as they draw closer to their ordination to the priesthood:
Deacon Andrew DeRouen
Like most transitional deacons studying in Rome, I was looking forward to finishing up my time in Rome this June and returning home in time for our ordinations to the priesthood. A sudden call to return home early out of an abundance of caution has changed that plan, but there’s been no shortage of grace to continue persevering. I find it quite special that my last Lent before ordination has demanded discomfort and detachment in nearly every aspect of life.
At a moment’s notice, I had to part ways with things that didn’t fit in a suitcase. After living with friends for four years, I had to say goodbye in a matter of hours, knowing I wouldn’t see many of them ever again. But entering the world outside the seminary, I began to witness fear overwhelming many people. Even in our own country and diocese, where the faithful have limited access to the Sacraments, despair has creeped into our hearts.
What a time to strive for holiness, and what a time to become a priest! If anything, early entry into a pastoral assignment has affirmed this dire need for fearless and holy priests, and I pray that I can become one among them.
Deacon Joseph Caraway
For nearly the last four years, I have lived and studied Theology in Rome for my formation to the priesthood. The recent COVID-19 circumstances have brought that time to an unexpected end.
I received a phone call at 3:00 p.m. one afternoon to notify me that I would need to depart my home of the last four years by 5:00 a.m. the next morning — and I would not be returning. While my departure from the Eternal City was earlier and more abrupt than expected, I had a two-week quarantine awaiting me when I returned home. This was a blessing to reflect on my time in Rome. Different than most people who think back on their vacation and remember the architecture and art found in the basilicas and museums, I thought of my memories and friendships made during my stay.
I have become friends with many people in Italy, including some in the most affected areas in the north, and it is sad to hear about their struggles. However, amid the circumstances they are going through, I am inspired by their steadfast faith through this crisis. As one Italian said, “All of Italy is on its knees.”
I have frequently found myself joining them in prayer for all of us going through this time of carrying the cross. I recognize that I have been blessed with many gifts, and when they are taken away, it is easy to see the negatives and the unfortunate circumstances. However, I challenge myself each day to see the positives and how much the Lord is still giving me.
We must trust and have faith in Christ. This pandemic is offering us the chance to turn to Him and stand at the cross like His Mother and the disciple whom Jesus loved.
Deacon Samuel Bond
In the Fall of 2014, having graduated from McNeese in Civil Engineering and feeling that God was calling me to serve Him radically, I contacted the Diocese of Lake Charles. I then entered into formation to become a priest. Six years ago, I moved into Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans where I have studied Philosophy and Theology, learned how to pray, and learned how to be a gift to those around me in ways that God has called me to do so.
Having spent six years in the seminary, with about 140 other men, we forge relationships centered on Christ and help to build each other up in our vocation. These are friendships that will last a lifetime, and yet, in the onslaught of the recent developments of the Coronavirus, these connections are seemingly put on hold. Now, my last semester before ordination to the priesthood, there seems to be a dark cloud that hangs over this time.
This time that would typically be marked with joy and anticipation for the culmination of my six years of hard work, fraternity, and dedication, feels lonely and thrown off. The friends I have spent this time with, the Chapel I have spent hours in prayer in, and the professors I studied under, I was unable to give a proper goodbye as I returned to Lake Charles.
What is it that God is trying to say to me at this moment? Despite all this apparent chaos, God is still enough. God can still the roaring seas and cast out the demons of the heart. Even during the times when I (and the rest of the country) feel lonely and detached from those we feel closest to, nothing can come between us and our relationship with Him. Not sickness, not death, and especially not the coronavirus.
Deacon Levi Thompson
I have been in seminary for nearly eight years in preparation for the Holy Priesthood. But these years of formation were cut short overnight. I was in Rome, Italy at the Pontifical North American College studying Theology. The coronavirus had continued to spread extensively, resulting in a complete lockdown of Italy, and forcing us to evacuate the country.
The drastic change happened in a week and was one of the most traumatic events of my life. In the seminary, the primary focus is the spiritual, intellectual, and human formation to the priesthood. In the seminary in Rome, I appreciated the faith of the universal church and the lives of the saints in the Eternal City.
But we were asked to come home as soon as possible, and not to expect a future return to Rome. We would find a solution to finish seminary formation from the Diocese. My entire life and formation in Rome came crashing down. I packed up my entire room and life and caught a flight to the States 14 hours later in order to continue formation from the Diocese.
Due to the coronavirus, my entire seminary formation in Rome ended in a day. I had to let go of the past in the seminary, in order to look forward to future ministry. All I could do in the moments of transition was trust in God’s will. I had my own will and desire for how things should have been, but I learned to let go and trust God. Even in the crazy moments, I can now see God’s presence with me in the journey. He can mysteriously take the difficulties caused by the virus and bear fruit in forming me into a holy priest.
Please keep our seminarians and all those affected by COVID-19 in your prayers.