A Gift to Carmel: The Ordination of Father Marlon Mateo

May 3, 2010 |

“It’s like opening your gifts before Christmas,” was how one member of Our Lady of Mount Carmel parish in Tenafly, New Jersey, described the December 19, 2009 ordination at which one man committed himself to God, to his Carmelite family and to the people of God.

Here, in the very space where hundreds step forward each weekend to receive the Eucharist, was the young, diminutive and visibly nervous Marlon Mateo, his face buried in his hands, his arms and body sunk into the carpet, while three-score Carmelite priests, brothers and novices, and twice that number of laity chanted the Litany of the Saints and dabbed their eyes as the incense, the song and the joy of this day that the Lord had made known ascended higher and higher.

Those close enough to Marlon’s parents and his younger brothers could see an occasional handkerchief being tugged from a pocket or purse. After the ceremony, when asked if this had been the best day of his life, his father, Basilio, replied: “Absolutely,” tears still dampening his face. His mother, Teresita, her right arm raised in a victory salute, acknowledged: “Yes, I raised him right.”

Earlier Marlon-not yet Father Mateo-lay before the altar, and before Toronto Auxiliary Bishop John Boissonneau, who said the words of ordination.

Two days later a much calmer Father Marlon sat down in Mount Carmel rectory to talk about his ordination. He wanted to be ordained in Tenafly, because it was close to Jersey City, where his family had emigrated four years ago.

He also chose the suburban parish because its pastor, Father Leonard Gilman, had been the Carmelites’ vocations director when Marlon expressed interest in the priesthood. The two met in the Toronto Cathedral in 2003. At the time Marlon was a Third Order Carmelite and said he had met “not a lot, but enough Carmelites” to know they were “such normal guys.” He wanted to learn more.

He called his vocation “a gift from God,” though he admitted: “It probably helped growing up in a very Catholic home.” Prayer and daily Mass were staples of his Filipino upbringing. When asked if “Marlon” was a Filipino saint, he laughed: “No, my mother was in love with Marlon Brando when I was born.”

Marlon left Manila at age 24, destined for Canada after he answered an ad seeking Filipino Catholics who wished to train as lay ministers for the Canadian church. “My intention was to stay in Canada and work for the Toronto Archdiocese.”

But God had other plans for Brando’s namesake. While studying at the Saint Augustine Seminary in Toronto, he met its rector, Father John Boissonneau, who became his mentor over the next decade. Soon Marlon was pursuing a Master’s of Divinity degree at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, working in parish ministry at Saint Boniface in Scarborough, Ontario, and serving at the Newman Center in Toronto.

After choosing Carmelite studies, Marlon was off to Texas for pre-novitiate training in Houston, followed by a year of novitiate in Middletown, New York, and studies at Washington (DC) Theological Union. He also served at Sacred Heart parish in Tucson, Arizona.

Recently Father Marlon discovered his vocation within a vocation while teaching religion and serving as a campus minister at Mount Carmel High School in Chicago, and in Tucson, where he is in his second semester teaching at Salpointe Catholic High School.

Though not trained as a teacher, he now has a Master’s in Education from Loyola University in Chicago. Along the way he learned Spanish-an asset at Salpointe where half the student body is Spanish-speaking. “I love the energy and the passion of the kids,” said Father Marlon, who at 34 could at times “pass” for a teenager. “They challenge me on how to teach religion in a way that reaches them on their level. Their questions make me rethink my theology.”

Father Marlon offers a freshman course on the foundations of Catholic Christianity and a senior seminar on Confirmation. In both classes he has found his pupils interested in spiritual growth and in prayer. He introduces prayer at the start of the semester. By mid-term students are composing their own prayers, which he called “beautiful, profound and pure… Never underestimate the faith of youngsters.”

The new priest’s own 10-year journey to ordination, his daily interaction with youth and his years of working with mentors in three countries gives him much hope for the future of the priesthood and of the Carmelites. Despite coming from a deeply religious family, his parents doubted he could survive as a priest, because the profession offers “no financial security.” Father Marlon said his parents’ fears did not indicate a lack of faith, but owed rather to their business background. In business-unlike with the vow of poverty-“you need to show financial gain.”

Taking life-long vows of poverty, chastity and obedience requires trust in God, said the priest, who is putting his security in God’s fidelity, providence and mercy.

The newest Carmelite does not know whether future priests will come from Salpointe, where 99 percent of graduates go on to college, but he is happy that six men are preparing for the Carmelites in this nation and several more in Peru. He is glad too to share his vocation with students “at an age when they’re asking important questions about themselves.”

Father Marlon called the laying on of hands by his fellow Carmelites the highlight of his ordination. “That was so powerful,” he said two days later, rubbing his palms above his ears as if still feeling the gesture. “It was so symbolic. I didn’t know how powerful the brotherhood of Carmel could be.”

Patricia Lefevre, Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parishioner, Tenafly, New Jersey

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