Deacon Johan: Seminarian takes formative step on journey

RALEIGH – He processed into the cathedral in a simple white alb. As the choir sang Jesus Christ is Risen Today, Johan Andrés Salas Restrepo, a seminarian for the Diocese of Raleigh, looked to each side of the aisle and smiled and nodded toward those who had gathered to watch him become a deacon.

The congregation included members of his family, who traveled from Colombia, as well as friends from seminary and priests and deacons from the diocese. Also present were parishioners from his American home parish, St. Mary Magdalene in Apex, and St. Michael the Archangel in Cary, where he is serving a pastoral year. A group of friends had also arrived at the ordination from Paterson, New Jersey, where his brother is a Catholic priest and pastor of St. Therese.  

At about one minute, that walk toward the altar was a short trip, but part of a lifelong journey.  

Johan, 29, was ordained to the diaconate April 6 during a bilingual Mass at Holy Name of Jesus Cathedral. He is a transitional deacon, which means that he is in formation to become a priest in 2025. (Some deacons in the Church are permanent deacons and do not go on to be priests.)   

During the homily at ordination Mass, Bishop Luis Rafael Zarama spoke of Johan’s journey, which began as the fourth of five sons in a northern, coastal town in Córdoba, Colombia called Montelibano.

“God … he chose you from the beginning of creation, and you made your journey to this day,” the bishop said. “Sometimes you take turns in your life. You try to figure out your vocation. You work hard. And look at where you are now! The beautiful journey.”

As a child, Johan was an altar server and observed the role of a priest by watching the priests in his town who served the people and, he said, felt like a part of his family. He liked to play soccer, which was available outdoors year-round thanks to the warm climate. He enjoyed technology and earned good grades at school.

After high school, Johan attended college/seminary in Bogotá, Colombia, where he studied with the Dominican Friars. He was part of the order for six years, before leaving official formation and becoming a philosophy teacher at a Catholic high school.

On breaks, he would often visit his brother, Father Yasid Salas, at his parish in New Jersey. And, while on a retreat, Johan began to consider his vocation again.  

“I went to a retreat during that time and the calling of God was still in my heart … moving me to think more about the priesthood,” he said. “And I have this beautiful memory of helping my brother, he was very busy. And I asked him ‘How can I help you?’ And he said, ‘You cannot do anything else. You cannot hear confessions, you cannot say Mass’ and for me that was big. And I started asking again because I love the Eucharist, the sacraments and the work of the priest. I wanted to be part of that.”

He said there was never an apparition or similar when he knew he wanted to learn more about the priesthood. But what he does remember is how several trusted people with strong prayer lives encouraged him to think about the priesthood.

Johan continued to discern and became a seminarian for the Diocese of Raleigh. He’s been in the United States for three years and is a student at St. Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary in Boynton Beach, Florida.

Father Chris Koehn remembers first meeting Johan, who became a member of St. Mary Magdalene Parish in 2021 and made it his home base when he arrived in the diocese.

“We helped him move into the house, and he brought a ukulele. Anytime you have a guest come in and they bring a musical instrument, I think it just lowers nervousness,” said Father Chris. “Music usually brings to mind a festiveness about someone. It was a great intro to getting to know him.” 

It wasn’t long before Johan began to work with the choir that summer and build relationships with parishioners. For him, it’s living his life in a way that spreads the Gospel.  

“He’s accustomed to be working in both English and Spanish … he brings an ability to connect and a leadership among the seminarians,” Father Chris added.

Johan asked Father Chris to help vest him during ordination in a deacon’s stole and dalmatic, or robe, an outward sign of his new role in the Church.

Nancy Elena Restrepo Oviedo and Ramiro Antonio Salas Blanco, Johan’s parents, presented the gifts. His brother Jaider Salas Restrepo and friend Julie Hoffman each shared a reading.  Johan also selected a hymn he learned in seminary.

“A special one for me will be played for Communion, Eres tú Jesús … for me it is like the simplicity of Jesus. This is you, Jesus, you decided to bring your all being into this bread and wine,” he said.

Now that he is a deacon, Johan said he is looking forward to sharing homilies, doing blessings, baptizing and presiding at weddings and funerals. He said the most important part, though, is knowing that he’s committed.

“My entire life is going to be for Jesus, for God, for the Church and for this diocese,” Johan said. “I think Jesus is always taking over. We need to die to ourselves to let him live. And I think that is a big part of my life and formation … to let Jesus to live in my life.”

Video: NC Catholics NOW