TOM TRACY, Florida Catholic correspondent
HIALEAH | 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 in the seminary and how I will be ordained a priest very soon, God willing, is a miracle — because I shouldn’t be here,” said the 30-year-old Deacon Pierce, who recently talked with the Florida Catholic about his vocation and long road to the Neocatechumenal Way’s Redemptoris Mater Seminary in the Archdiocese of Miami.
Opened in 2011, Redemptoris Mater is situated in Hialeah, adjacent to St. Cecilia Parish. It serves as a Florida-based international seminary for the Neocatechumenal Way under the auspices of the Archdiocese of Miami.
A decade ago, Deacon 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, Deacon 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, in particular, was long searching for a spiritual home which took her on a journey of widely divergent paths over the course of his youth.
“I was living my life like any normal guy from the island,” Deacon Pierce recalled.
‘HELL OF SELFISHNESS’
But a subsequent separation of his mother and father triggered a traumatic and difficult period for the youngster. He had always desired to be in a family with brothers and sisters but now he found it difficult to experience family love and purpose. 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.”
Remarkably, his mother’s yoga teacher at the time directed her to a local community of the Neocatechumenal Way, which hosted weekly talks and liturgies in Maui.
Begun in Spain in 1964 by two lay people — Kiko Argüello and Carmen Hernandez — the Neocatechumenal Way — also known as the Neocatechumenate, NCW, or colloquially “The Way” — developed a system of evangelizing the residents of one of Madrid’s poorest slums.
Over the years, The Way 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.
Pope John Paul II hailed the Neocatechumenate as “an itinerary of Christian formation valid for our society and for our time.” Members generally attend study sessions on Wednesdays and Mass in small groups on Saturdays.
Deacon Pierce was about 12 years old when his mother started going to the group’s catechesis. She entered the 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 and out of deference to his mother, Deacon Pierce began to tear himself away from playing video games and from his private interests and to sit quietly at the weekly Neocatechumenate talks. He started observing the transformative power the group was having on its culturally diverse members, imbuing them with a sense of Christian charity and forgiveness.
He also observed that the group had an open-door policy and never pressured guests to be baptized, join the Church or even speak. Deacon Pierce said 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, adding that he never said a word publicly for the first four years of attendance.
“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.
TAKING A RISK
Eventually, he followed the example of a friend in the Neocatechumenate, taking a risk and “offering” himself for mission, which set in motion a series of events leading to his baptism, confirmation and first Communion in 2010 at the age of 19.
He was invited to go on retreat in New York and then sent to New Mexico, where he formed 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 recalled the experience of finding pleasure in doing the little things in life and being a part of something bigger than himself: weeding in the garden, catechizing, being part of a mission and living in a Christian community.
He also got the opportunity to travel to World Youth Day events held in Germany in 2005 and Australia in 2008. Then came his life-changing experience of World Youth Day in Madrid with Pope Benedict in 2011. During down time, the Neocatechumenate members from around the world gathered for 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,” Deacon 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,” Deacon 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 of 2011. During that time, 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.
Archbishop Thomas Wenski ordained him and one other Neocatechumenal seminarian, Alberto Chávez, to the transitional diaconate in Miami on April 26, 2020. If all goes as planned, they will be ordained priests next May. They will serve in assignments locally at the direction of Archbishop Wenski but with the door open to work elsewhere or internationally in conjunction with the Neocatechumenal Way.
“There are groups of families who volunteer to go on mission and a priest accompanies them: They go and make a house church among the people,” Deacon Pierce said. ”That is our impulse, and when I think of my vocation it is a zeal for evangelization.”