‘Thanks be to God’: Two are ordained to priesthood

RALEIGH - Deacon Dave Wulff stood at the ambo and said, “Let those to be ordained priests come forward.” Upon hearing his name, Cong Viet Le rose from a wooden chair and stepped forward. Ross Thomas Williams did the same.

They stood with their families and friends in pews behind them. Priests who have been part of their journeys sat near the altar in front of them, and to their left in a transept. Visitors hailed from countries such as Vietnam and the United Kingdom, and states such as Hawaii, Georgia, New York, Arkansas and Wisconsin.

Next, Father Jeffrey Bowker approached the ambo and asked the bishop to ordain them.

The actions, known formally as the presentation of the candidate and election by the bishop, are part of the Rite of Ordination, which was held Saturday, June 1 at Holy Name of Jesus Cathedral.

The rite included the promises of the elect, litany of supplication, laying on of hands, prayer of ordination and anointing of hands. Both Father Cong and Father Ross were vested with a stole and chasuble, clothing given to newly ordained priests to wear for the celebration of the Eucharist.

Father Ross chose Father Vic Gournas to assist with his vesting. Father Vic, pastor of Infant of Prague Parish in Jacksonville, was a mentor to Father Ross during his pastoral year there.

“With Ross … it’s not a job, it’s your life and a vocation,” said Father Vic. “Where, really, I saw the growth and just the joy of seeing what this vocation is was seeing that other side, from the teaching and the interaction with the parishioners.”

Father Vic said the experience was an honor. Father Duy Peter Nguyen, who vested Father Cong, had similar feelings. A priest of the Diocese of Tulsa in Oklahoma, Father Duy is part of Father Cong’s spiritual family, a tradition in Vietnamese culture.

“He is a joyful man, and he has a lot of energy. It’s a great way to inspire others and it’s very contagious,” said Father Duy about Father Cong. “The people he serves will gain a lot … the joy of knowing the Lord.”

The Mass was bilingual, with a reading in Vietnamese, Father Cong’s first language. It was shared by his niece, Nguyễn Lê phương Trinh. The choir from Raleigh’s Our Lady of La Vang Church, a Vietnamese parish on Leesville Road, offered the gift of music.

Another choir, which included vocalists from St. Michael the Archangel Church, shared their gifts as well. The parish, located in Cary, has strong ties to Father Ross, as he grew up in the faith community and his mother, Diane Williams, works in the Office of Music & Liturgy.

“It was the culmination of a lot of hard work. To see your child doing what makes them happy is just perfect,” she said of ordination day, adding that the musicians touched her heart.

During Mass the gifts were presented by Carole Lewandowski, maternal grandmother of Father Ross and Tri Luu, mother of Father Cong.

“In terms of the care and love that a Christian is supposed to show … she represented to me that sort of care,” said Father Ross.

Father Cong’s decision had similar reasoning. “I have this [vocation] today because she guided me,” he said. “She’s a super woman to me. It’s a special time for me and I want to give a special time back to my mom.”  

Through an interpreter, Luu told NC Catholics that she believes her son will make a good priest because of his kindness, long-time dedication to the Church and prayer life.

Father Cong, who will serve at St. Mark in Wilmington, said he’s looking forward to visiting people in nursing homes and celebrating the sacraments, such as reconciliation.

Father Ross will serve at St. Bernadette Parish in Fuquay-Varina, and said he’s ready to celebrate Mass, hear confessions and live out the complete ministry he first felt called to years ago. 

“God is always waiting for us,” said Father Cong, who came to the United States and learned English as an adult. “Without God, I cannot do anything. English is [my] second language … I see how God worked on that. I prayed, ‘God, if you’re calling me, please help me.’ I’m here and you see how he worked on that.”

For each new priest, graduation from St. Vincent De Paul Regional Seminary in Florida and ordination to the priesthood has been a time for reflection.

“When I entered the seminary, the cathedral was being built,” said Father Ross. “When I was first accepted as a seminarian we were between Bishop [Michael] Burbidge and Bishop [Luis Rafael] Zarama. I was accepted by the administrator; there was no bishop of Raleigh.”

The very first event he attended as a seminarian was the dedication of the cathedral in 2017.

“Over the course of these years, I see my own progression … seeing how we get used to the environment of cathedral and seeing how Bishop Zarama becomes not just our new bishop, but our bishop. How all these things fit together over time,” he added.

Father Ross is a graduate of N.C. State University in Raleigh. He studied computer engineering and remembered how cathedral was built when he was a student.

“The thing you have to remember about cathedral is it’s built basically right between the two main campuses of N.C. State,” he smiled. “Whenever I was going from my dorm to my classes, I was watching the cathedral being built … there’s been that connection this entire time. And now, when am I being ordained but the centenary of the diocese?” 

Milestones were present, and so were firsts. For example, the new priests were the first from the Diocese of Raleigh to graduate from St. Vincent De Paul. And their reception was the first priestly ordination event held in the new parish hall at Holy Name of Jesus Cathedral.