Ordination Class of 2021: Deacon Fernando Ayala

This is the third in a series of articles profiling the five men who will be ordained to the priesthood for the Archdiocese of Boston at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross on May 22.

BRIGHTON -- Deacon Fernando Ayala grew up in El Salvador, the eldest of seven children in a Catholic family. They always went to Sunday Mass and made a weekly Holy Hour, and his father used to quiz him and his siblings with questions about the Scriptures.

When he was 16, Deacon Ayala came to the U.S. to live with his mother in Chelsea. He attended public high school and studied English as a second language. To maintain his immigration status, he had to remain a full-time student, so as graduation approached, he started exploring colleges. But in the middle of that process, some of his friends from St. Rose of Lima Parish invited him to attend some discernment retreats.

It was not the first time the idea of becoming a priest had been presented to him. He had considered it when he was very young, and as a teenager someone in his parish had made the suggestion to him, but he had ignored the idea.

"I thought I'd left the question behind in El Salvador, but I guess it followed me here to the United States," Deacon Ayala said.

As he discerned, he was greatly influenced by St. Francis of Assisi and the Franciscan Order. He had originally come to the U.S. to help his mother financially and send money to the rest of his family. The lifestyle of the Franciscans of the Primitive Observance that came to St. Rose of Lima Parish contrasted sharply with his mentality, challenging him to focus on spiritual needs rather than material needs.

"I came to this country because I wanted to get stuff, and then suddenly I see this group of people who want just to get rid of stuff. They don't own anything. So there is something radical that I saw there, and something that was pushing me to examine exactly what I'm doing in my life," Deacon Ayala said.

At first, he thought he might be called to the Franciscans of the Primitive Observance. Then he considered becoming a Capuchin Franciscan and participated in a discernment retreat with them in Washington, D.C. Finally, he looked into the diocesan priesthood, and after a retreat with them, he "felt moved and called to at least give it a try."

He attended St. John's Seminary, and for his diaconate year, he was assigned to St. Mary of the Assumption Parish in Brookline. He said that during his time there, he has been "challenged to grow in leadership" and learned "what a father is and what a shepherd is."

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, some of the seminarians' formation had to be conducted online. Deacon Ayala said this has had "a huge toll on formation, mainly because the whole idea of formation for us is to be in a community."

"You miss the sense of community (and) being in the same house with other men discerning the same vocation that you are pursuing," he said.

At the same time, he said, the pandemic has been "a good challenge" in that it made them "look at other means of keeping in touch, and still being accountable to other people."

"The pandemic has allowed many of us, including me, to see that relationship is not just being together but also learning how to stay in touch with other people," he said.

When asked what advice he would give to someone considering the priesthood, Deacon Ayala said he would tell them to give it a chance, even if they are unsure or do not feel ready or worthy.

"If you do feel that there is a question about God calling you, I think it deserves a try," he said.

He explained that while God moves people, it is up to the individual to take the first step.

"The devil will try to make us think that we're not worthy, that our sins are too many, or that we're not ready. But it's not us who need to make ourselves ready, or it's not us that need to be worthy to enter this process, but it's God himself who makes you worthy. It's God himself who makes you ready," Deacon Ayala said.