SAN DIEGO — Four men will be ordained to the priesthood June 2 at Good Shepherd Parish in Mira Mesa.
Cardinal Robert W. McElroy will confer the sacrament of holy orders upon Christopher Bongato, 30; Evan Bui, 25; Marc Andrew Gandolfo, 28; and Matthew Vasquez, 28.
The four men previously were ordained to the transitional diaconate on Dec. 17 of last year at Mater Dei Parish in Chula Vista, the home parish of Bongato.
They are the first class of seminarians to be formed under the diocese’s revamped priestly formation program since it was put in place during the summer of 2019.
Under that program, the seminarians receive human, spiritual, intellectual and pastoral formation at St. Francis Center for Priestly Formation and attend graduate-level theology at the Franciscan School of Theology, both on the campus of the University of San Diego. The program also includes parish placements and internships with various Catholic organizations, designed to familiarize seminarians with the inner workings of the diocese they will be ordained to serve.
As the first class scheduled to begin their theology studies under the new program, the four men were given a choice to attend the Franciscan School of Theology or to be the last diocesan seminarians to be sent to a major seminary outside the Diocese of San Diego. With the exception of Gandolfo, who completed his theology studies at Mount Angel Abbey in Oregon, all of the others remained in San Diego.
Laura Martin-Spencer, who oversaw their pastoral formation at St. Francis Center, noted that this year’s ordination class is not only historic as pioneers under the new formation program, but also are “such a great representation” of the cultural diversity present in the diocese.
Effective July 1, the newly ordained priests will begin their first priestly assignments, as parochial vicars at local parishes: Bongato at St. Martin of Tours Parish, La Mesa; Bui at St. Thomas More Parish, Oceanside; Gandolfo at Our Lady of Grace Parish, El Cajon; and Vasquez at Good Shepherd Parish.
Bongato grew up in a Filipino Catholic family that attended Sunday Mass every week and prayed together regularly.
“We were very dedicated to praying the rosary, although I didn’t like praying it at the time,” admitted Bongato, a graduate of Olympian High School in Chula Vista.
During his youth, he wasn’t much interested in the idea of a priestly vocation. As a student at UC Irvine, he wanted to be a pharmacist, before opting instead to major in English. He later earned an MBA in Film Producing at John Paul the Great Catholic University in Escondido.
He felt the first stirrings of a call to the priesthood during his junior year at UC Irvine. While praying in a Blessed Sacrament chapel, he asked how God wanted him to serve and felt in his heart that the answer was by becoming a priest. After that, he was increasingly drawn to the idea of priesthood, but it took him another four years “to fully commit to it.”
Bongato said it was “the relational aspect” that attracted him to priestly life.
“I simply want to be with people, be with God, and bring people to Christ,” he said. “I want to walk with people through their struggles and their joys, and hopefully through my background, bring people to an understanding of Christ that is comprehensible, consumable, loving, and beautiful.”
During his first year after priestly ordination, he said he hopes “to grow in my craft of the priesthood by taking on the perception of being an apprentice. I want to grow in my craft of writing homilies, walking with people, and bringing people to God.”
Bui is the son of Vietnamese immigrants, who have lived in San Diego since the 1990s. His father is a cradle Catholic, while his mother is a convert from Buddhism.
He described his mother as “probably the most devoted Catholic in the household.”
“My mom is an inspiration for me, as she herself commits to a holy hour and attends Mass every day,” said Bui, who was a member of Holy Family Parish before embarking on his vocational journey.
At one time, Bui had wanted to be a sports agent.
“I love sports, and getting paid to watch sports and babysit professional athletes was a career that was on my mind before priesthood,” he said. “I would have attended law school and then worked for a sports agency.”
But, during his senior year of high school, he began attending vocational discernment events at St. Francis Center for Priestly Formation, the diocesan seminary located on the University of San Diego campus. And he realized that God was leading him in a different direction.
Bui said that he is feeling a combination of nervousness and gratefulness as his ordination day approaches. He believes that his “entire life has (been) shaped and formed for this moment.”
He expressed excitement that God would be using him as “an instrument for the various sacraments” and looks forward to “representing the Church in a way … that heals wounds and changes hearts.”
“To be able to show that holiness is not an abstract ideal, but is a reality, is very special,” said Bui, “and it makes me thank God each day for my vocation.”
Marc Andrew Gandolfo
Gandolfo, who is of Italian and Hispanic ancestry and grew up at St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Vista, credits his parents and the priests at his parish as the strongest Catholic influences in his life.
“My parents showed me how important a faith life is and how they experienced extreme joy when serving the Church,” he said. “The priests at my parish … were able to make the priesthood a realistic possibility by showing how the Lord used their gifts to proclaim the Good News.”
Though he was still in elementary school when he first considered the possibility of a priestly vocation, he didn’t begin seriously discerning priesthood until he was in his early 20s.
“I began discerning a call to priesthood by praying more often and spending more time listening,” he said. “I figured it would be better to listen to what God had planned.”
He was attracted by the opportunity to serve at a deeper level.
“I was working in youth ministry and serving at Mass, which I loved, but I felt like I could do more,” he said. “I fell in love with the Mass and walking with people throughout their lives. … I have always had a deep love of service, and I know the Lord will give me so much joy from serving Him and His people as a priest.”
“I cannot wait to see how the Lord will continue to form me,” he said. “Much like a marriage, things don’t end after the wedding day, but instead, that is just the beginning. I am excited to see where the Lord will take me in this new beginning.”
Vasquez can’t remember a time when his family, which resided first in Brawley and later in La Jolla, wasn’t “church-going.” But around 2014, their faith lives deepened. He and his three siblings attended a Steubenville Youth Conference, and his parents participated in retreats. The entire family became more involved in Church ministry.
“I had a great foundation of love and support within my family and, once faith began to make its way into the center of our lives, it was a very natural thing for me to begin discerning the priesthood and for them to support me throughout the process,” said Vasquez, who was studying Kinesiology at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, with hopes of becoming a physical therapist or sports trainer.
During his sophomore year of college, he got involved with the campus Newman Center, which increased his love for Christ and the Church. By his senior year, he had “a pretty good sense” that God was inviting him to serious discernment and, by winter break of that year, he had decided to apply for the seminary.
Vasquez, whose home parish is Mary Star of the Sea Parish in La Jolla, said that the past six years of formation have increased his love “for not just Jesus in the Eucharist, but for every person sitting in the pews.”
“I may never know the full reason why God called me to the priesthood,” he said, “but what I do know is that I have fallen in love with Christ and His Church, and that what brings me the most joy is being able to give my whole life so that others can know Him.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Christopher Bongato attended Mater Dei Catholic High School. His actual alma mater was Olympian High School, also in located in Chula Vista. The article was revised on May 31, 2023, to reflect this.