Encounter with Christ in the Eucharist led VMI graduate to formation
“The Lord knows me so well. He knew that I was going to be a priest from the moment he was forming me in my mother’s womb,” said Deacon Armando Herrera. “He knew. This is what he made me for.”
The Lord’s wish for Deacon Herrera will come true on Saturday, Dec. 10, 2022, when Bishop Barry C. Knestout ordains him a priest for the Diocese of Richmond at the 10:30 a.m. Mass at the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, Richmond. Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio of the Military Services will be in attendance.
Deacon Herrera is co-sponsored by the U.S. Archdiocese for the Military Services. After ordination, he will serve in the Richmond Diocese for three years. Then, the bishop will release him for military service under the auspices of the Military Archdiocese.
The Army will commission him as a captain, and he will begin his service as a chaplain.
The oldest of Armando and Lizette Herrera’s three children, Deacon Herrera, 29, was born in New Jersey and moved with his family to the Diocese of Richmond in 2009. He has two younger sisters, Bianca, who is married and has a son, and Ariana.
He had a variety of educational experiences growing up, including public and Catholic schools. He was homeschooled for some of elementary and middle school, which he said had a positive impact on his faith formation.
“We did this really intentional Catholic homeschooling, and I learned about the lives of the saints, and the faith was integrated in all of that,” he said.
He graduated in 2012 from Roanoke Catholic School, which he attended since the ninth grade.
Desire for military service
Along with an appreciation for the faith, his family helped plant the seeds of a desire to serve in the military at a young age as well.
Deacon Herrera said he became interested in the military when he accompanied his father to work at Picatinny Arsenal in New Jersey.
“I would see all these men in uniform, and I was very inspired by them,” he said. “And then, the desire to go to VMI and serve our country and be in the Army (grew from there).”
Deacon Herrera earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from the Virginia Military Institute in 2016.
His involvement with Army ROTC required various trainings, including one during which he learned about the shortage of priests in the military and about the soldiers on deployment who go months without the sacraments.
The realization had an impact on Deacon Herrera.
“I felt this burning in my heart, and I was like, ‘OK, Lord. I think this is what you want me to do,’” he said, describing the call he feels to minister to the men and women who serve the country. “It’s just a big desire of my heart… to go out there and be with them in sometimes very difficult situations.”
He was also a member of VMI’s wrestling team, which involved traveling on the weekends. He said he stopped going to Sunday Mass and started straying from his faith.
“But then I just felt this restlessness in my heart and a desire for something more from life,” he said.
Encounter with the Lord
During his sophomore year, he participated in a non-denominational mission trip to New York City. While on the trip, he attended a Protestant worship service, which had “great music and lively preaching,” but he felt something was still missing.
When he returned to VMI, he got involved with Newman Club, the school’s Catholic campus ministry.
He also went on an Encounter with Christ retreat that same year. As he sat before the Eucharist during Sunday adoration, his life was forever changed.
“I was telling the Lord, ‘I don’t know why I’m here. I would never go on a retreat willingly. But if you’re real, just let me know. If this is worth it, let me know,’” the deacon said. “And the Lord spoke to me in my heart in that moment, and he said, ‘Armando, I love you. Just come back. I love you.’”
Deacon Herrera said he was visibly moved and said, “OK.” “I just, right there, gave my life to Jesus,” he recalled. “My life was never the same again, and I just really fell in love with Jesus, and I really fell in love with him in the Eucharist, in particular.”
With a renewed interest in the faith and return to the Church, Deacon Herrera said he was “on fire.”
He became more involved with Newman Club, and he committed to praying for at least 10 minutes each day. His prayer life continued to grow.
He joined the Encounter with Christ team to put on retreats for other college students, which he did his junior year. That experience, he said, made him feel “full of life.”
“I was like, ‘Lord, this is amazing. If this is what it’s like following you, just let me know what else you want me to do, and I’ll do it,’” he said. “I was just so open to whatever the Lord wanted me to do.”
Except, he realized, becoming a priest.
“He said, ‘Be my priest,’ and I was like, ‘No, Lord, I don’t want to do that. Anything but that.’ I tried to push it away…” he said. “I just kept praying, and it just kept coming up.”
Influenced by priests
Deacon Herrera had a conversation with God in which he realized the need to be open to God’s will. He agreed to go to seminary even though he did not want to be a priest.
He entered formation at Theological College in Washington in 2016, where he earned a Bachelor of Sacred Theology and a Master of Divinity.
He said he had been considering leaving formation when he had the opportunity to attend the Institute for Priestly Formation in summer 2018.
There, Deacon Herrera met Father Jim Rafferty, who became his spiritual director and who helped him through challenges in his life and discernment.
“I experienced a lot of healing and a lot of conversion there, especially with this priest in the confessional. The way that he loved me and the way that he brought healing into my life was powerful and convinced me to stay,” he said.
Deacon Herrera said Father Jaime Robledo, his formator at Theological College, and Father Brian Capuano, director of the Office of Vocations, were also influential in helping him discern his vocation.
“I discovered in seminary a deep desire in my heart to be a priest, which I didn’t even know was there, so thanks be to God,” he said.
Loving like Jesus loves
Deacon Herrera completed his pastoral year at St. Benedict, Richmond, during the COVID pandemic. He was struck by the way the faithful desired “the presence of God” and wanted “the Church and the clergy, the people who represent the Church” to be there for them in a time of need. He said the demonstrations of faith reminded him that being present to people is a huge and important part of priestly ministry.
“I fell more in love with the Church during that pastoral year,” he said. “Still to this day, that was probably one of the best years of formation, just a lot of joy even in the midst of COVID.”
When he is ordained a priest, Deacon Herrera said the faithful will get “a priest who belongs to Jesus Christ and who belongs to them, to serve them, to love them like Jesus does.”
“They will get a sinful man as well, but a man who wants to love them with the heart of Jesus,” he added, noting that the love of a priest is unique because his heart is configured to Christ during ordination.
The desire to bring the love of Jesus to the people of God has been modeled by priests the deacon has encountered and also by a saint and an Army chaplain on the path to sainthood. (See sidebar below.)
“Jesus really wants to restore my heart and bring healing, and he wants to use me to bring healing to other people as well,” Deacon Herrera said.
He expressed an excitement to bless people and bring them the sacraments, particularly the Eucharist and confession.
“Only a priest can absolve sins and bring people healing in that way, in that very intimate moment of the confessional,” he said. “I’m very much looking forward to that.”
Inspired by examples of holiness
Two models of holiness – one a saint and the other on the path to canonization – have inspired Deacon Armando Herrera’s priestly formation.
“For me, St. Therese (of Lisieux) very much emphasizes the interior life that I need to have,” Deacon Herrera said.
The Carmelite nun, who the future priest said has helped him with his own discouragement and sinfulness, gave him a desire to be “a missionary of God’s mercy to the world.”
Deacon Herrera noted that the saint’s “big thing” is inspiring confidence in God and his merciful love.
“She taught me a lot about God’s mercy, and she really changed my whole image of God,” he said. “The way that she loves God and experiences love really transformed my spiritual life.”
He emphasized St. Therese’s understanding of God as a merciful father who desires the holiness of his children, and the importance of having a relationship with him.
Deacon Herrera credits the witness of Servant of God Father Emil Kapaun’s life for inspiring him to pursue the priesthood and Army chaplaincy.
“(He) is a demonstration of holiness and the particular vocation that I feel called to as a priest,” said Deacon Herrera.
Father Kapaun, an Army chaplain during the Korean War, was captured by North Korean forces and detained as a prisoner of war in November 1950. He died in the POW camp seven months later.
“What they say about him is ‘Father Kapaun was all man and all priest,’ which is pretty cool,” Deacon Herrera said. “I hope people say that about me someday.”
He described Father Kapaun as “a servant” who bathed his fellow POWs, washed their clothes, gave them clean water or his own food rations. And when the priest had nothing else, “he would just give them a blessing.”
Deacon Herrera said Father Kapaun brought hope and light to a very dark place by proclaiming the Gospel and never allowing himself to be phased by his captors.
“His whole life was just about others, about those men,” he said, “and that’s how I want to live my life – for other people.”
— Janna Reynolds