MIAMI — Deacon Paul Pierce, a transitional deacon hoping to be ordained a priest as soon as next year, has been on a long, improbable but faith-filled journey for a young adult.
Born and raised in Maui, Hawaii, he was raised by an agnostic, science-driven father and a New Age-influenced mother steeped in Hindu belief at the time. He was living a typical teen’s life in a tropical paradise — but paradise hadn’t been all that fulfilling, as it turned out.
“How I got to be into the seminary and how I will be ordained a priest very soon, God willing, is a miracle — because I shouldn’t be here,” said Pierce, 30.
He talked about his vocation and long road to the Neocatechumenal Way’s Redemptoris Mater Seminary in the Archdiocese of Miami in an interview with the Florida Catholic, the archdiocesan newspaper.
Opened in 2011, Redemptoris Mater is situated in Hialeah, adjacent to St. Cecilia Church. It serves as a Florida-based international seminary for the Neocatechumenal Way under the auspices of the Miami Archdiocese.
A decade ago, Pierce was chosen as one of its first 12 seminarians: men from different countries who study together and are ordained for the local church. But they also commit themselves to serving in whatever corner of the world they are most needed. In tandem with the Neocatechumenal Way’s missionary thrust, they can serve locally or internationally throughout their lifetime.
In Maui, Pierce recalled a reasonably comfortable upbringing as a well-adjusted student in a household fumbling around for answers to the great questions of life. His parents had moved to Hawaii to be closer to Pierce’s grandmother and neither parent had ever professed any form of Christianity. His mother’s search for a spiritual home took her along widely divergent paths over the course of his youth.
“I was living my life like any normal guy from the island,” Pierce recalled.
But when his mother and father separated, this triggered a traumatic and difficult period for him. He always longed to be in a family with brothers and sisters but found it difficult to experience family love.
As he grew older, he wondered why he couldn’t love his parents more deeply and if he was maybe “living in a hell of selfishness.”
“Even though I was spoiled, given everything, and an only child who lived in Hawaii, in that ‘American Dream,’ I was very unhappy,” he said. “At a certain point I would do everything for myself: I would study for myself, I would go to the beach for myself, I would go to be with my friends for myself — the islands, the beauty — it was all for myself.”
His mother’s yoga teacher at the time directed her to a local Neocatechumenal Way community, which hosted weekly talks and liturgies in Maui.
Begun in Spain in 1964 by two laypeople — Kiko Argüello and Carmen Hernandez — the Neocatechumenal Way developed a system of evangelizing the residents of one of Madrid’s poorest slums.
Over the years the movement expanded into a network of small, parish-based communities of up to 50 people with thousands of parish communities throughout the world, with an estimated million Catholic members.
Today, there are 102 Neocatechumenal seminaries around the world. There are seven in the United States: Miami, Washington, Denver, Boston, Dallas and Newark, New Jersey, and in Guam.
Pierce was about 12 when his mother started going to the group’s catechesis. She entered the Catholic Church several years later. His grandmother also would be baptized eventually.
“It was very providential, very unexpected,” he said. “My mom had been searching for a new religion for some time when she kind of rebelled against the new age Hinduism she was raised with.”
Little by little young Paul began to tear himself away from playing video games and other interests to sit quietly at weekly Neocatechumenate talks. He saw the transformative power the group had on its culturally diverse members, imbuing them with a sense of Christian charity and forgiveness.
He attended the talks for a year, stopped for a year, came back and noticed the community started growing.
“I started seeing things I had never seen anywhere else: unity, love, community, forgiveness,” he said.
“For seven years I started walking like that, little by little, listening to the word of God, being with brothers and sisters, seeing forgiveness and reconciliation in front of our eyes, seeing something that held us together that I know now was the Holy Spirit and the love of Christ,” he said.
Then he offered himself for mission in the Neocatechumenate, leading to his baptism, confirmation and first Communion in 2010 at age 19.
He was invited to go on retreat in New York and then was sent to New Mexico, where he was part of a small team of catechists establishing a community in Albuquerque. “I was there helping in parishes, and for the first time in my life, I started to live for someone else, with freedom from money, and with chastity,” he said.
He traveled to World Youth Day events in Germany in 2005 and Australia in 2008. Then came World Youth Day in Madrid with Pope Benedict XVI in 2011, which was a life-changing experience. During down time, the Neocatechumenate members from around the world held large vocation-forming meetings, inviting members to consider making deeper commitments.
“This time my ear was open. If you had asked me a day or even the moment before I felt called to the priesthood I would have said you are crazy,” Pierce said, adding that he had always envisioned getting married to a Christian girl, starting a family and running a successful entrepreneurial business.
But listening to a talk by Kiko Argüello “announcing the love of God with courage and strength” changed all that.
“In that moment I had a conviction that to do the will of God was my happiness and that I would be happier giving my life as a priest in China or wherever than to do my will and plan for my life,” Pierce said. “It was a certainty and that still helps me today.”
After a period of discernment in Rome, he was invited to move to Miami and help establish the fledgling Neocatechumenate seminary in October 2011. He has studied at both the minor and major seminaries serving the archdiocese — St. John Vianney in Miami and St. Vincent de Paul in Boynton Beach — and has spent additional time in local missionary service.
Miami Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski ordained him and one other Neocatechumenal seminarian, Alberto Chávez, to the transitional diaconate April 26. If all goes as planned, they will be ordained priests next May.
Tracy writes for the Florida Catholic, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Miami.