Seminarian Nathan Brooks is embraced by Bishop Robert J. Cunningham following Brooks’ Rite of Candidacy July 30, 2017. (Sun photo | Chuck Wainwright)

By Katherine Long | Editor

UTICA — Sometimes God speaks through quiet whispers and gentle nudges. Sometimes, though, he speaks through blows to the head and standing ovations.

“In response to the Lord’s call, do you resolve to complete your preparation so that in due time through Holy Orders you will be prepared to assume ministry within the Church?” Bishop Robert J. Cunningham asked seminarian Nathan Brooks July 30. With Brooks’ resolve to continue preparation in mind and spirit, Bishop Cunningham announced, “The Church accepts your resolve with joy. May God who has begun the good work in you bring it to fulfillment. Amen.”

Parishioners, clergy, family, and friends at Our Lady of Lourdes Church rose to their feet, applauding as Bishop Cunningham embraced and formally recognized Brooks as a worthy candidate for ordination to the priesthood. Smiling and ducking his head slightly, Brooks waved in appreciation to the congregation.

“It was very moving,” he later said of the show of support. “It was a beautiful moment.”

The Rite of Candidacy capped Brooks’ pastoral year, spent at Lourdes and linked parish Our Lady of the Rosary in New Hartford. After four years of seminary study and his year of pastoral service, the rite also marked an important step on Brooks’ journey toward the priesthood — a point he described as the end of discernment and the beginning of preparation for ordination.

In the weeks before the rite was celebrated, Brooks took some time to look ahead to his final destination — his ordination is anticipated to take place in 2019, after two more years of seminary study — and to reflect on his path so far.

“My mom used to say all the time, ‘One of you is going to be a priest.’ No one thought it was going to be me,” Brooks said with a laugh, sitting in a pew at his home parish of Divine Mercy in Central Square in June.

The second of Patee and Randy Brooks’ three sons, young Nathan didn’t see his future as a priest.

“It always kind of scared me, the thought of that, so I always pushed it away,” he said. With the benefit of hindsight, he now knows, “It was helpful to have that nudging in my life.”

Brooks’ parents kept the faith central in their home, and the family was active in their parish of St. Michael’s. (St. Michael’s in Central Square and St. Agnes Church in Brewerton merged in 2013, becoming Divine Mercy.) It was a true family affair — Patee’s parents, Deacon Leo and Joyce Matzke, were pillars of the parish as well, known for their many contributions, including founding “the Downstairs Scotty,” the parish second-hand shop and pantry.

Despite Patee’s encouragement and his grandfather’s great example, however, it took a piece of drywall to the head to get Brooks to start considering the priesthood seriously.

He had his heart set on becoming a pilot after graduating from Bishop Grimes Jr./Sr. High School in East Syracuse, but a lazy eye dashed those hopes. A devastated Brooks landed at Onondaga Community College with no idea what he wanted to do with his life. He spotted a poster on campus — “come work for Disney,” he recalled — and soon found himself working as a lifeguard at Disney’s Blizzard Beach Water Park in Orlando.

A five-month gig turned into a year-long professional internship during which Brooks learned to run a water park. “That’s when I came back home and I knew I wanted to do business,” he said.

He transferred to SUNY Oswego and started working at Hampton Inn as a guest service agent. He was promoted to operations manager at the hotel after graduation. Then a buddy asked if he’d ever considered working for Target. Brooks made the leap, going on to excel as a logistics team leader. His success in that role led to the offer of a big promotion — complete with a move to Charleston, West Virginia.

“Right around then, Father Chris [Celentano] came into the parish,” Brooks recalled. One day, Brooks’ mom sent him over to the rectory to help the new priest with some renovations at the rectory.

A young man, wearing a Superman t-shirt and swinging a hammer, Father Celentano presented a new image of a priest, Brooks remembered. (Father Celentano also accidentally presented Brooks with a chunk of drywall to the head as he worked away at a closet with said hammer.) The wheels started turning and something Brooks had pushed away pushed forward.

He later went to Father Celentano and said, “‘I think I’m called to be a priest,’” Brooks said. “[He] encouraged me to pray… and said, ‘You may be called to be a priest, but I think you need to go down to Charleston…. Maybe these fears and thoughts are coming up right now purely because you’re nervous about going down there.’”

So Brooks went. He was making good money, living in an apartment in a gated community, driving a brand-new car.

“But I wasn’t happy,” Brooks said. He took Father Celentano’s advice and started praying.

About six months later, Brooks came home for a visit. He had breakfast with Father Celentano and told him about his fears that the priesthood would be a lonely life.

“I had a cup of water. He said, ‘See your glass there? It’s half-full…. When I was ordained, my glass was filled. The joy that was in my life was overwhelming.’ That was powerful. That never left me,” Brooks said.

Back in West Virginia, with the additional support and examples of two priests there, Brooks started spending an hour after work in adoration before the Blessed Sacrament. He ultimately answered the call God put in his heart and entered formation for the priesthood for the Diocese of Syracuse.

“Watching different generations of his family positively impact the Church is pretty humbling and moving,” Father Celentano said. “I’m excited that the Church in Syracuse is going to get another good priest [with] a good heart, a heart for service.”

Five years after Brooks answered God’s call, he was excited to formally and publicly declare his intent to complete his formation. So was his family.

“He’s so happy. You can just see it in him, that he is just so contented,” mom Patee reflected before the July 30 Mass. “I picture him being very humble, approachable, easy to talk with. I think he’s going to be a very good priest.”

Younger brother Neal saw a similar change. “It was a surprise at first, but I was also surprised to see how well it suited him,” he said of Nathan’s vocation. “You could see him become happier and really engaged with what he was doing. Before, he had a lot of ambition but you could see it never really filled him up.”

Just prior to the rite, Bishop Cunningham preached a homily that included some special words for Brooks.

“Today, Nathan in a sense publicly proclaims that he has found the pearl of great price, the treasure buried in the field. He’s trying to give up everything else so that he can devote his life wholly to God and to the things of God, to the kingdom of God,” he said. “We pray, as Solomon did, for an understanding heart for Nathan, a listening heart. We see in Nathan a person of great joy and happiness, a person willing to give his life over to the things of the Lord. We pray for his steadfastness and his courage.”

As Mass concluded, Lourdes pastor Father Joseph Salerno offered words of thanks to Bishop Cunningham and to Fathers Thomas Servatius and John Manno, past and current seminarian formation directors. “I thank all of you for trusting the faith, the hope, and the charity of the people of Our Lady of the Rosary and of Our Lady of Lourdes, that we would contribute to the formation of Nate,” he said. “Maybe I can sum it up this way, in his own words: ‘It’s been awesome.’ We will indeed miss him in both of our parish communities that are now linked and we know that we have an incredible candidate for ordination.”

Brooks offered his thanks as well — for the support of the bishop; priests, especially Fathers Celentano and Salerno, and Chorbishop John Faris, who concelebrated; his fellow seminarians; the parishioners; and his family.

“People ask often what helps bring forth a vocation,” he said. God does, of course, but “it doesn’t hurt to have a family that supports you so lovingly and embraces the possibility of a vocation to the priesthood or religious life.”

And the discerner must be open, listening, as well. “If you’re thinking about it… listen and be open and be ready for it to be scary and be ready for there to be obstacles in front of you,” Brooks said at Divine Mercy. “But know that if God’s truly calling you forth for ministry  — as a deacon, priest, or the religious life — it’ll happen.”

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