ORLANDO | Greeted by the exhilaration of the faithful of their parishes, Father Benjamin Lehnertz and Father Derek Saldanha rejoiced and marveled at their jubilant receptions. The joyful greeting set the stage for a new era in each parish — St. Joseph Parish in Orlando and St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in St. Cloud.
On Feb. 5, Bishop John Noonan installed Father Lehnertz as pastor of St. Joseph. “To hear the parish love God and love me in the way they entered into the Mass, with their responses, their singing, their presence, the celebration afterwards… It is a day that I will never forget,” he wrote in an email to the Florida Catholic.
With a long history of experiencing St. Joseph’s guidance, Father Lehnertz felt his gentle hand, leading him to this place. Consecrated to St. Joseph almost 15 years ago, he noted serving as pastor under his patronage “is an incredible privilege” that blesses him every day.
“By his example of faithfulness to God and his dedication to Jesus and Mary, by his chaste love, he has served as a model for my priestly heart,” he said.
After receiving “the keys to heaven” from the bishop, Father Lehnertz approached the statue of the Blessed Mother to the left of the altar, laid the keys at her feet, and knelt in prayer, committing himself to her loving care for himself and his parishioners.
He spoke of the role of a pastor and his hopes for his community — that the people “become committed disciples of Jesus Christ, grow into the fullness of Christian maturity, and accept the missionary responsibilities that are given to them.” He also hopes the lay faithful of St. Joseph’s would be “appropriately empowered to make this model sustainable long after I am dead and gone.”
The following Sunday, Feb. 12, the bishop installed another priest as pastor, Father Derek Saldanha. Walking into the church, parishioners shared their joy for the commitment of this gentle and humble shepherd to St. Thomas Aquinas Parish.
Recalling his personal theme for his Ordination – “Jesus, the Good Shepherd” focusing on John 10:10 — he said he prayed to “be a good shepherd after the heart of Christ and show people the way to heaven.” He noted St. Catherine of Siena’s famous words, “Every step of the way to heaven is heaven.” “My job as a shepherd is to also help people build a heaven on earth by living in right relationship with Jesus as a faithful disciple. My greatest joy in the priesthood has been to see the healing and transforming power of God at work in His people,” he said.
St. Thomas Aquinas is surrounded by a growing community. Osceola is one of the fastest growing counties in the country and that growth is reflected in its parish and school as new families are welcomed each week. Father Saldanha hopes all of them continue to share their gifts building on the parish’s “strong foundation and glorious legacy of faith.” Hoping to see the faithful respond to the call of discipleship and evangelization he added, “I envision St. Thomas Aquinas parish to be a place where people can encounter Christ in a personal way and receive refreshment for their souls through the Sacraments.”
By Glenda Meekins of the Florida Catholic staff, February 16, 2023