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Sunday, June 16, 2024

“God likes to get His little jokes in”: Seminarian Aaron Alford Ordained to the Diaconate


On April 5th, 2024, Bishop James Wall ordained seminarian Aaron Alford to the transitional diaconate. Unlike the permanent diaconate, where a man serves as a deacon for the rest of his life, the transitional diaconate refers to the period of time – usually about a year – when a seminarian serves as a cleric before finally being ordained as a priest.

Priesthood in the Diocese of Gallup seems like an unlikely fit at first glance for Alford, who is originally from Ontario, Canada, and was raised Protestant.

“While I was in Canada, I worked with a group called Youth With a Mission, YWAM for short, which is a mostly evangelical Protestant, ecumenical missionary organization,” Deacon Alford recalls.

“And at the time, I thought I was going to transition out of YWAM. I was starting to pursue stuff with the Second City in Toronto, which is like a comedy and improv institution. I had no dreams of becoming a star on Saturday Night Live or anything like that, but you can make a living.”

But he sensed God was calling him to move to Modesto, California to help with a friend’s homeless ministry program, and in following that call, he met a fellow volunteer who was Catholic.

“We just had some really great conversations. And I was especially trying to process what I was seeing in the poor and what seemed like this dichotomy between good church folks and the poor and how they very rarely ever met each other, at least in those circles at the time…I began to see the beautiful dynamic of the Church’s social teaching and God’s preferential option for the poor and care for the poor as seen in scripture. And it was really beautiful to me.”

One day, when his friend took him to an Adoration chapel, Deacon Alford was struck with a revelation.

“I remember just standing in that little chapel, feeling the presence of Jesus and looking at what looked like a little cracker there. Just thinking, wow, I don’t think that’s bread, you know?”

Even before exploring Catholicism, Deacon Alford felt a pull towards the priesthood – although at the time, he thought it was a calling to some kind of leadership. In a prayer group, one Christian friend told Alford there was something special about his first name, because Aaron in the Old Testament was a leader and priest of the people of Israel.

Eventually, Deacon Alford was going both to Mass and to the services of the small Protestant church that supported his group’s ministry. On one day in particular, he credits God with playing a bit of a joke and finally crystallizing his direction in life.

“So one Sunday in October, I went to Mass, and the reading for the day was from Hebrews Chapter Five, which says about Christ’s priesthood that no one chooses this for himself: ‘He is called by God, as Aaron was’. And I felt like, I don’t know, like Jackie Chan just punched me in the chest.”

Feeling shaken, he then attended the later morning Protestant service.

“Pastor Ken gets up there to preach and he’s like, ‘and the other passage I want to look at is this – Aaron, could you read this passage for us from Hebrews Chapter Five?’ Yeah, the Lord was coming on strong with this stuff.”

Soon, Deacon Alford was received into the Catholic Church, certain that he was called to be a priest.

But it wasn’t until he met Fr. Josh Mayer of the Gallup diocese that he knew where he was meant to be. Fr. Mayer, in Modesto for a mission appeal, described the people and mission of his diocese in a way that resonated with Deacon Alford.

“I introduced myself and we kind of hit it off. And then it was about a year later that Father Josh asked if I’d like to come out and do a Theology on Tap talk about our ministry. Because there were these, you know, touch points of similarity between what I was doing with my community in Modesto and what was happening in Gallup.”

Deacon Alford, who had considered the priesthood with an order like the Franciscans or the Capuchins, saw “how beautiful” it was to serve as a diocesan priest.

“And then just the beauty of Gallup itself, this incredible, unique culture that’s there between the Native American and Hispanic and Anglo culture, each of which I’d experienced in different places, but never all three together like that before. And of course just the beauty of the land as well helped to really sell it. When I was leaving, flying out of Albuquerque to go back to Modesto,  I just had this sense of like, ‘I think this is it. I’m leaving home right now.’”

After more prayer and consultation with close friends, Deacon Alford applied and was accepted as a seminarian for the Diocese of Gallup. He will serve as a deacon for about a year, and be ordained a priest in June 2025.

His assignment this summer will be St. Teresa parish in Grants, NM, where he looks forward to anything and everything that might come with the assignment.

“Last summer at my assignment in Farmington, I remember going with Deacon Jim Betts there to do hospital visits. What an honor it is to be invited into these really intimate moments with people, because it might be going to bless someone who just had a baby [or] there to give Communion to somebody who is very, very ill or has had an accident.”

Deacon Alford, who entered the seminary at age 43, wants to encourage other men of all ages to discern and follow their vocational call, no matter their age or status in life.

“You don’t have to be overwhelmed with all the things that you have to do, or even just about how big the priesthood or whatever calling you might be feeling drawn to looks. If you are in someone’s life as they are discerning that, just encourage them to take it a day at a time. You don’t have to have it all figured out now. And if it looks like it’s too big a thing to try to pursue, don’t worry about that. Just worry about: am I listening to the Lord today? And what is He asking me to do today?”

The Diocese of Gallup will also fit Deacon Alford well because, in his spare time, he loves to be in nature.

“I am into the outdoors, but not in the Denver way,” he says with a laugh, referencing the city where his seminary is located. “I’m a little more ‘hobbity’, I guess – the gentleman smoking his pipe and strolling through the countryside. My room here, the windows look out on this big tree and there’s always squirrel drama going on here. I’m delighted to watch what these squirrels are up to, you know? So I love being around nature and it speaks to my soul in a lot of ways.”

He’s also a big reader, and  makes rosaries, a skill he picked up from Fr. Matthew Keller, pastor at St. Teresa in Grants.

Most of all, he feels a great deal of gratitude.

“I’m thankful for the Lord bringing the Diocese of Gallup into my life. I’m thankful for each of the people that has helped me discern this and just supported me along the way. I’ve often been overwhelmed just thinking about all the people that I’ve met along this path. It’s just a really beautiful thing.”

Suzanne Hammons
Suzanne Hammonshttp://dioceseofgallup.org
Suzanne Hammons is the editor of the Voice of the Southwest and the media coordinator for the Diocese of Gallup. A graduate of Benedictine College in Kansas, she joined the Diocesan staff in 2012.


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