L to R: Rev. Sam Conforti, Bishop Ronald A. Hicks, Rev. John Ronaldo Gabutan Abulag
Two Men Ordained as Priests in the Diocese of Joliet
Two men were ordained on May 22 at the Cathedral of St. Raymond Nonnatus in Joliet. They answered the call to give up their lives in services of others. Here are their stories:
No way. You’re crazy. You’ve got the wrong guy. I am not priest material at all.
That’s how Sam Conforti would have reacted if you had asked him back in the day if he was going to be a priest one day.
Well, Sam, what do you say now — now that you are scheduled to be ordained in May 2021?
“All things are possible with God,” he said. “He can take a sinner and turn him around.”
Conforti’s journey to becoming a priest is not a conventional one. Before his calling, he was a corporate lawyer in Chicago. He eventually became a solo practitioner. He never married. He is now 64 years old. The usual age a priest is ordained, on average, is 34.
He credits the Holy Spirit, along with the prayers of his late mother, to his late vocation.
Growing up, family was important to him. His extended family — aunts, uncles, grandparents, along with friends and neighbors — always got together during holidays, family picnics and weekends, with the hub usually being one of his grandparent’s homes.
He was a cradle Catholic. The biggest influence on his faith life was his mother, who had a strong devotion to the Blessed Mother. His mom arranged for a statue of the Virgin Mary, known as the Pilgrim Virgin, to visit the home once a year for a week. His mom also invited friends and family to recite the rosary with her and her family every night.
Regarding spiritual matters, Conforti went to Mass, but not on a regular basis. His relationship with God was based on fearing Him, rather than loving Him. He admits he was more interested in his career and in making money.
He was engaged once, but the marriage never happened.
“Every so often, I would look at my mother,” he said, “and tell her, ‘Mom I’m 30 years old, and I’m not married yet.’ And she would look at me and say, ‘Ah, don’t worry about it.’ In another five years, I would look at her and say, ‘Ma, I’m 35, and I’m not married yet.’ She would look at me and say, ‘Ah, don’t worry about it.’ I think she knew something I didn’t know.”
What Conforti was alluding to was that he believes his mom, because of her great faith, wanted him to become a priest, but she never specifically told him that. Even he didn’t know he wanted to become a priest, but that mindset changed after his tax accountant called and invited him to a Cursillo retreat.
These retreats aim to help participants encounter Christ through the Eucharist, prayer, discussion, reflections, and community.
Following the retreat, Cursillo provides an ongoing, small-group experience to support discipleship in all aspects and interactions of people’s lives, such as family, church, work, and community.
“The retreat ended on a Sunday evening,” Conforti recalled. “I went home, and, on Monday morning, the way I describe it, I didn’t know what was really happening to me. On Monday morning, the Holy Spirit just descended upon me and grabbed me and filled me with what I came to find out was an immense amount of joy.”
There’s something you need to understand about Conforti. If you had asked him to describe how he was feeling, he might say sad. Or happy. Or angry. Or indifferent.
“But I usually didn’t use the word joy,” he said.
The first thing he did on that Monday, he said, was to call his pastor. Confessing his sins was never easy for him, but that day, after having been struck by a “thunderbolt” from the Holy Spirit, he felt a great urge to go to the sacrament of reconciliation. The last time he had gone, he said, was about 20 years ago at the time.
“I had a lot to talk about,” he said. “The feeling you get after that is just amazing. All kinds of worries and concerns and anxieties that you have because you haven’t been true to God and the faith, it’s just relieved. God just forgives you, which is a marvelous, wonderful thing.”
For the next two years, as Conforti felt the day-to-day guidance of the Holy Spirit, he came to a realization: he was being called to be a priest. The fact that he was attending daily Mass, had read the Bible from cover-to-cover twice, and was attending Eucharistic Adoration on a weekly basis indicated that something — or, rather, Someone — was drawing him to God.
He entered the seminary at age 59. As Conforti found out, nothing is impossible for God.
“I firmly believe that everything is on God’s time schedule,” Conforti said. “I have done nothing special except answer ‘Yes’ to a call from God. All of my prayers are simply centered on handing my will over to God. There is no ‘I want’ involved in my vocation other than I want what God wants.”
JOHN RONALDO GABUTAN ABULAG
Mothers have always played an important part of John Ronaldo Gabutan Abulag’s life. His mom was a faithful Catholic who had a special devotion to Our Lady of Lourdes, which is the title given to the Blessed Virgin Mary in honor of the Marian apparitions that occurred in 1858 in Lourdes, France. The family often prayed the rosary at home. As a consequence, the Blessed Mother also has an important place in Abulag’s heart, as he has made it his mission to pray all four mysteries of the rosary every day.
Growing up in the Philippines in a home full of faith — his dad was devoted to St. Joseph, and he and his six siblings were expected to make the sign of the cross or genuflect every time any of them passed by a Catholic church — Abulag has many fond memories of how present God was in his life.
He remembers being a small boy and waking up at 4 a.m. with some of his brothers and his mother and participating in a devotion to Our Lady of Fatima, which included people in the neighborhood walking, singing, carrying candles and praying the rosary. Even as young as six years old, he recalls going to Mass in the evening, despite his friends telling him not to go in the dark because “monsters” would eat him. He still went.
He felt a faint stirring to the priesthood when he was in high school. He was an altar server and a church choir member, and one of his fellow choir members shared that he was going to another city to take an exam to enter the seminary.
“I didn’t want to go to the seminary,” Abulag said. “I wanted to go to college.” He ended up taking a bus to go to the seminary to check it out. Ironically, his friend didn’t show up. Abulag promptly withdrew his interest.
Several of his relatives were priests, all on his mother’s side.
“I didn’t want to be an addendum,” he said. “We already had priests in the family.”
He went to college, where he studied business. “I wanted to be a businessman,” Abulag said. He went to Makati City, a suburb of Manila, where he worked after college, making good money.
“But something was lacking in me,” he said. “I felt empty.”
He shared these thoughts with an aunt, who told him to contact one of his uncles, who was a priest. He suggested that Abulag go on a retreat. At this point, the call to the priesthood became louder. Abulag tried to resist it, saying to himself that he was too old. (He was only 26 years old at the time.) That he wasn’t intelligent enough and might not be able to pass the classes.
He was able to overcome all those doubts, and when he entered the seminary, he felt a shift in his life.
“I felt satisfied,” he said.
The empty feeling was gone.
He became part of the Dominican Missionaries for the Deaf Apostolate, which sent him to San Antonio, where he studied sign language in order to minister to deaf people. His superior then sent him to the Diocese of Joliet, where he lived without a Dominican community. But, in observing diocesan priests, he felt that God was calling him to become a priest in the Diocese of Joliet.
A big influence in his life to become a diocesan priest was the example of Saint John Vianney, who is the patron saint of parish priests. Although he learned how to recite the rosary through the Fatima dawn processions and May flower devotions from his childhood, Abulag said St. Vianney taught him how to love the Blessed Virgin Mary by praying the rosary daily; taught him how to love the Miraculous Medal of Mary; and to have recourse to Saint Philomena, whom St. Vianney had a special devotion to. He also added that he’s proud, ever since he was a teen, to be a member of the Legion of Mary.
“I really believe that Mama Mary — as Filipino people fondly call her — is working on my behalf,” Abulag said. “If we want to befriend Jesus, let us come to Mama Mary. She will lead us to Jesus.”
With his devotion to the Blessed Mother and love for Jesus, Abulag hopes he will be a holy priest.
“I want God to be the center of my ministry, not myself,” he said.