Diocese’s jubilarians’ vocations exemplify works of mercy 2023

Mar 30, 2023

ORLANDO | In the final series on the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy, it is appropriate to highlight this year’s jubilarian priests for their lives, through their vocation, exemplify these works. In fulfilling their mission of service, they instruct the faithful through their homilies, counsel those in doubt, accompany others by guiding them to Christ, bear wrongs patiently, offer the Sacrament of Reconciliation, comfort the afflicted – assuring them of God’s love and constant presence, and pray for the living and the dead — especially through the Mass.

Through the ministries borne of their parish and missionary commission to discipleship, they and their flock feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, assist in harboring those without shelter, visit the sick at home and in hospitals, rescue and offer succor to the captives — victims of human trafficking, minister to prisoners, engage the homeless and the lost in conversation, making them know they are seen and loved; physically assist the poor, and more. They bury the dead, celebrating the funeral Mass and blessing the deceased at their burial. It is in gratitude we celebrate the following jubilarians.

60 years:

Monsignor John Bluett

Monsignor Manuel Fernandez

Father Philip Gallerani

Father Howard King

Monsignor James Lichtenthal

Father Thomas McMackin

50 Years:

Father Robert Hoeffner

Father Robert Hoeffner

Father Robert Hoeffner was born in Rochester, New York, and moved to Fort Pierce as a young child, where his family kept citrus groves. In middle school, through the influence of three priests who were friends of the family, Father Hoeffner began considering the priesthood. At 14, when it was time for high school, he chose to enter St. John Vianney College Seminary in Miami. He then attended
St. Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary in Boynton Beach, and was ordained April 28, 1973, by Bishop William D. Borders at St. Anastasia Parish in Fort Pierce for the Diocese of Orlando.

His first assignment was at Good Shepherd Parish in Orlando, followed by teaching at Bishop Moore Catholic High School, and then directing the San Pedro Spiritual Development Center where he ran summer camps and retreats for two years. Then in 1976, he was given a new challenge. “I was asked to come to the chancery as the director of liturgy and ecumenism – neither of which I had a clue about!” laughed Father Hoeffner. “After two years of not knowing what I was doing, I went away to study at the Catholic University of America and got a degree in liturgical studies.”

For the next nine years, Father Hoeffner would serve as the director of liturgy and Bishop Thomas Grady’s master of ceremonies. During this time, he also began celebrating the TV Mass, something he would continue to do for 28 years.

“I enjoyed doing that. I remembered walking into a McDonalds in Georgia on a youth group excursion and someone said, ‘You’re the TV priest!’ The Mass was shown in five dioceses. I’m proud to have been a part of that,” Father Hoeffner said.

In 1987, Bishop Grady approached him with the news of a parish opening up in Orlando.

“I said I’d love to have it and we rode out to look at it together,” Father Hoeffner recalled. “We pulled up to a cow pasture and he said, ‘Here it is! You’ll love it!’ And he was right, I did.”

Starting with 100 families celebrating Mass in a VFW hall, Father Hoeffner would spend the next 12 years, literally building St. Isaac Jogues Parish from the ground up. In 1998, an opportunity arose for Father Hoeffner to move to a parish closer to his parents, who were in poor health. He became pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Palm Bay where he would continue to serve the parish and school community until his retirement in 2016. While there he established a trilingual parish council that equally represented the Anglo, Hispanic, and Filipino communities and began a chapter of the St. Vincent de Paul Society to serve the needs of the poor.

“I’ve had a glorious ride. I’m proud to serve and do wonderful things for wonderful people. I enjoy doing that,” Father Hoeffner said. “I’ve spent 50 years doing absolutely incredible things and I am thankful to God for it.”

Father Ronald Krisman

Father Ronald Krisman

Father Ronald Krisman admitted the way he entered the seminary was a little unusual. He grew up in Kansas City, Kansas, one of eight children in a devout Catholic family. He was an altar server and sang in the church choir, but he hadn’t considered the priesthood until the eighth grade when he somewhat spontaneously decided to go to seminary the next year.

“The pastor came in the classroom and dismissed all the girls to have a talk with the boys. He said, ‘I want some of you to go to the seminary.’ Nobody raised their hands!” Father Krisman called. “Finally, two of my friends said maybe they would go. So, I said if they’ll do it, I’ll do it too.”

The three boys attended Trinity Preparatory School in Sioux City, Iowa, the closer minor seminary being already full. While his friends eventually left, Father Krisman discovered a calling to the priesthood and a love for church music. While at the college seminary, he was also taking classes for a music degree. Finally, his vocations director gave him an ultimatum: decide if you want to be a priest or a musician.

Father Krisman took a leave of absence from the seminary, worked as a parish music director and completed his music degree. He would eventually return to the seminary, this time with the Diocese of Amarillo, Texas, and was ordained May 25, 1973. He served in parishes in Texas, sometimes alternating between leading the choir and celebrating the Mass. He played the organ, composed music, and would go on to work on the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Liturgy. In 1994, he was honored as pastoral musician of the year by the National Association of Pastoral Musicians.

“My vocations director was wrong,” Father Krisman laughed. “You can be a priest and a musician!”

Over the years, Father Krisman earned advanced degrees in theology, music and Canon Law. In 1999, Father Krisman came to the Diocese of Orlando to work in the tribunal office. For the next 15 years, he would celebrate Mass in Spanish around the diocese including at St. Isaac Jogues Parish in Orlando, Blessed Sacrament in Clermont, St. Andrew Parish in Orlando, and with a community in Oviedo that would eventually become Most Precious Blood Parish. When health problems made it difficult to continue to celebrate Mass, Father Krisman spent time in Chicago working for GIA publications, a publisher of hymnals and other sacred music.

Looking back over 50 years, Father Krisman recalled one experience that was especially memorable: the time he traveled around the United States with a future saint.

“I was in the liturgy office at the USCCB when Pope John Paul II visited America in 1987. We were involved in the planning of all the Masses at the 13 or 14 sites he went to, and I traveled with him while he was here. My work planning the visit even took me to Rome where I got to celebrate Mass with the pope in his private chapel and lead the music,” remembered Father Krisman, who added that the pope told him afterward in his heavy Polish accent, “You sing very good.”

But who inspired him the most over the years, has been the people he has served. “I’m always impressed to see the faith of the parishioners. That has inspired me to no end throughout my priesthood. I’ve been very humbled by it,” Father Krisman said.

Father Robert Mitchell

Father Robert Mitchell

Father Robert Mitchell is the fourth of five boys born to Marguerite and William Mitchell. He grew up in a suburb of London and when he was 11, his family immigrated to Ireland. Raised in the Catholic faith, the brothers attended Catholic schools in both England and Ireland, though Father Mitchell said with a laugh, that in Ireland it is almost impossible not to attend a Catholic school.

Father Mitchell began thinking about religious life when he was in the fifth or sixth grade, and by the time he was in eighth grade he was considering joining a group of religious brothers. His parents, however, insisted that he finish his education first and by the time he finished high school Father Mitchell had decided on the priesthood. He joined the seminary at 17, attending Holy Cross College Seminary in Dublin and the Pontifical University of Saint Thomas Aquinas (the “Angelicum”) in Rome. He was ordained May 27, 1973, in Bray, County Wicklow, Ireland.

After 11 years serving in Dublin, Father Mitchell spent a year at Mount St. Joseph, a Trappist Monastery in Roscrea, Ireland, an experience he calls transformative. He spent more than eight years serving in the Diocese of Ferns before arriving in the United States in 1992.

“I wanted to see what the Church in America was all about. I came for three years and then went back to Ireland,” remembered Father Mitchell. “I immediately wanted to return. I called Bishop Norbert Dorsey who picked up the phone and said, ‘So, when are you coming back?’”

Father Mitchell returned to the Diocese of Orlando in the middle of 1997, this time for good. He served as parochial vicar at St. Mary Parish in Rockledge, pastor of Holy Redeemer Parish in Kissimmee, St. Ann Parish in Haines City, and St. Luke Parish in Barefoot Bay, where he served until his retirement in 2020.

“I really enjoy being in America. I didn’t prefer one parish to another. I loved all the places I’ve been. They are all great places with wonderful people to work with and wonderful staff,” said Father Mitchell. “The Church in Ireland is still very clerical. I don’t mean it in a bad way, that’s just what the people expect. They expect the priest to do everything. Catholicism is part of your upbringing there; it’s just assumed. But here in America the laity was getting very involved and the standard of liturgy was much better.”

One memory that stands out in the last 50 years is waiting in the pouring rain to see St. John Paul II when he visited Galway in 1979 for a Mass with the youth.

“When he visited Dublin, there were one million people at the Mass,” remembered Father Mitchell. “When your whole population is only three million people, that meant the whole country shut down for him!”

These days, Father Mitchell can be found among the congregation at daily Mass at St. Joseph Parish, Winter Haven. He says that the greatest blessing of his priesthood is undoubtedly the Blessed Sacrament.

“I can’t conceive of a world without it,” said Father Mitchell. “Someone asked me once what I would miss most if I weren’t a Catholic – definitely the Real Presence of the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament.”

25 Years:

Father Miguel González

Father Miguel González

As a child growing up in Puerto Rico, Father Miguel González used to play Mass in his bedroom, with Ritz cracker hosts, Hawaiian punch wine, and the neighborhood children as the assembly. When his mother worried that this play might be sacrilegious, their parish priest told her to let him continue – saying, “It could be that he has a vocation.”

Father González credits his early love of the Mass, and eventually his priesthood, to Cursillo. When his parents became involved in the apostolic movement, their commitment to the Church was also instilled in their children. He became an altar server, a lector and joined the youth group. Parish life was such a big part of their lives, that when the family moved to Miami, the church was the first place they felt at home.

“We came to a different place, but church was church, and Mass was Mass. That connectivity was key to adapting to a new life. It offered something familiar that made it easier to embrace the change,” said Father González.

It was in high school that Father González’s call to the priesthood took shape. Upon graduation, he made the move to the property next door, St. John Vianney College Seminary. While no one was really surprised by the decision, several friends made bets he wouldn’t make it all the way through. Despite taking a few years off to work in Spanish radio, those friends lost that bet on May 23, 1998 when Father González was ordained. Among the congregation was a special guest, the same priest who had encouraged his make-believe Masses so many years ago.

In all 25 years of priesthood, Father González has only served at two parishes. His first assignment was as parochial vicar at St. James Cathedral, then St. John Vianney Parish in Orlando. In 2004, he was made the vocations director and was in residence at
St. James. In 2011, he was back at St. John Vianney, this time as pastor, and from 2017 to the present he has been the rector at St. James.

Father González has wonderful memories of serving at both parishes, each with its unique gifts and talents, but remembers in a special way the diverse community of St. John Vianney.

“The richness of the diversity and coming together celebrating who we are as a body of Christ and immersing yourself in that is beautiful,” he remembered. The school also celebrates the students’ rich cultural backgrounds with an annual International Day, and in 2017 they became the only dual-language school in the diocese. It is something Father González is grateful and proud to have been a part of.

Sadly, his toughest time as a priest also came while at St. John Vianney — the Pulse shooting in 2016.

“I was asked if I would be able to make my way to a hotel near the hospital because that’s where people were gathering and they needed a bilingual priest because the majority of the victims and the relatives were Hispanic,” he shared, remarking that through all the pain, “The hand of God was with us.”

Through it all, good times and bad, Father González relies on the gift of the Eucharist.

“The greatest blessing has been and is and will always be the Eucharist. Gathering with God’s people around the table of the Lord,” he said, “This year of the Eucharist we have the reminder that Christ is waiting for us at this table to nourish us, to accompany us and to bind us all together as one family united in His love. That is the greatest moment of each and every day. That’s why I’m a priest.”

Father Justin Vakko, OCD

Father Justin Vakko, OCD

Growing up in Kerala, India, the local Catholic Church was like a second home to Order of Discalced Carmelites Father Justin Vakko. He and his seven brothers and sisters were there every day, praying as a family and joining in the life of the parish. When not at church, they attended school at the Carmelite convent. Surrounded by such inspiring examples of faithfilled lives, Father Vakko grew up with a strong desire to become a priest. At 15, he entered a Carmelite monastery, and after 13 years of formation, was ordained a priest Dec. 28, 1998.

“I thank God that I was born into my family,” Father Vakko said. “Faith was so important to us. It was a very special upbringing.”

For three years after ordination, Father Vakko remained at the seminary, in charge of the minor seminarians, before being sent to a Carmelite province in California. In 2006, he arrived in the Diocese of Orlando, where he has served ever since, beginning at St. Matthew Parish in Winter Haven, then Nativity Parish in Longwood, Holy Family Parish in Orlando, Our Lady of the Springs in Ocala, and Prince of Peace Parish in Ormond Beach, where he serves as pastor today. In his spare time, he plays sports like volleyball, basketball and bowling.

Father Vakko obtained a master’s degree in western philosophy from the Mahatma Gandhi University in Kerala, India, and a master’s degree in counseling psychology from Palm Beach Atlantic University. He said counseling people, along with the sacramental life of the Church, are among his greatest blessings as a priest.

“Our faith is very dynamic, tangible and concrete,” Father Vakko said. “As a priest, we never go unnoticed. What we believe, what we stand for, and who we represent is always visible. I hold on to my faith and hold out my faith to others. As a priest we can do a lot. Our presence speaks a lot. It can be a challenge, but a gift also.”

Reflecting on the last 25 years of priesthood, Father Vakko said he has received a lot of joy from his vocation.

“I look at my life and God has always been gracious. I have always experienced God’s graces through all these years. Always I have experienced His love. I can never complain,” he said. “I’m always thankful for my vocation. I’m very grateful for this great life God has given me.”

By Liz Wilson, Special to the Florida Catholic, April 06, 2022