MIAMI | If Joshua Martin had any doubts about his calling to the priesthood, they were calmed when he saw the face of Jesus as he stood on a sidewalk in Miami.
It happened when he and other students from St. John Vianney College Seminary were ministering to homeless people in the depressed area of Overtown. He handed someone a ham-and-cheese sandwich, then stopped to talk to him.
“You don’t know what this means to me,” said the man, who turned out to be a Latino Catholic. “Just having someone to talk to.”
The memory burns fresh in Martin’s mind, three years later. “I felt overwhelmed, like crying,” he said. “There were people sleeping on the streets and I saw people walk past them, not even looking. But it’s clear that you can see Jesus in the face of the poor.”
Martin, 21, is a beneficiary of the Diocesan Services Appeal of the Diocese of Palm Beach. The diocese invests in Martin in several ways. It pays for 75 percent of his tuition and defers the other 25 percent. It covers his health care and dental care. It even gives him a stipend each month for incidental expenses.
It also looks after his spiritual and vocational needs. Once a month, he has a talk with Father Brian Lehnert, director of the Office of Vocations/Seminarians for the Diocese of Palm Beach. How are his grades? Is he comfortable in his situation? Is he willing to continue? Is he coping with any bad habits? Is he successfully integrating celibacy into his daily life?
“Am I first and foremost a man of God? We are meant to become Christ-like figures, cooperating with God’s grace to spread the Gospel,” he said. “A lot of people think our goal is heaven, but it’s not. It’s to have a personal relationship with Christ. Heaven is what we get from that.”
Martin’s journey toward that relationship was a gradual process. Born in Guayaquil, Ecuador, he came to the U.S. with his mother at the age of 3. First living in Hallandale, then Palm City, he began a partying lifestyle as a teen. But in 11th grade, his mother said it was “time for a true conversion,” and she prodded him to attend church more steadily.
He joined a youth group at St. Joseph Parish in Stuart and a deacon gave him his first Bible, which he still treasures. Once he began to read, he devoured the Bible, shunning TV, taking notes, collecting favorite verses. He fell in love with Matthew’s Gospel and took up the contemplative devotional practice of lectio divina.
By his senior year, Martin was also going to daily Mass and praying the mysteries of the rosary. He also began viewing priests differently. They weren’t just doing a job; they could save souls. Martin began viewing the Church from a different perspective.
“I saw people who didn’t know how Jesus established the Catholic Church. I saw how people lacked concern for the poor and homeless, and children who were living their lives with drinking and partying and didn’t know Christ loves them,” he said.
His own personal change of heart peaked when he was 18 and visited the diocesan Vocations Office. Within a month, he had decided to discern a vocation to the priesthood. As part of the seminary entry process, he took medical and psychological examinations and filled out an application.
“It was like something had built up, then just burst,” Martin said. “I wanted to be a tool to build a bridge that people would walk on to get to Christ.”
Now in his third year, Martin said he’s “thriving” in seminary life that includes free time during which he can play sports like soccer and basketball. Off campus, he and fellow seminarians go to local sporting events. He also enjoys getting acquainted with the Haitian, Cuban, Colombian and other cultures that make up the area.
Seminarians also help maintain the school and its grounds. As worklist assistant coordinator, Martin helps supply crews for jobs like vacuuming, cleaning toilets, mopping the dining hall and staffing the campus bookstore.
The students also volunteer often for street ministry, which is how Martin first witnessed the face of Jesus. He and fellow seminarians linked up with a group from Our Lady of Charity Shrine to hand out sandwiches in Overtown where he met a man who confirmed his ministry.
“I gave him my scapular and asked him to pray,” he said. “He got us all, the seminarians and two or three volunteers from the shrine, in a circle. Then he led the group in a long prayer. It was awesome, humbling.” n