SALT LAKE CITY — On Aug. 14, the Feast of St. Maximilian Kolbe, the Diocese of Salt Lake City had reason to celebrate. During a solemn ceremony in the Cathedral of the Madeleine, Bishop Oscar A. Solis ordained Deacon Dominic Sternhagen to the priesthood.
The Mass began with the procession, as the ministers walked to the altar, and Deacon Sternhagen took his seat on a chair placed in front of the first pew. His parents and other members of his family sat behind him.
Because of restrictions on social gatherings imposed by the pandemic, attendance at the ordination Mass was limited to family and friends, and priests of the diocese. However, the Mass was livestreamed. Bishop Solis presided. Among the concelebrants were Msgr. Colin F. Bircumshaw, vicar general; Msgr. J. Terrence Fitzgerald, vicar general emeritus, Father Martin Diaz, rector of the cathedral, and many priests of the diocese.
In small dioceses such as Utah, priests, seminarians and vocations are religious life are very precious to the local Church, the bishop said, adding, “Dominic, my brother, your ordination to the priesthood is a great blessing to the people of God of Utah and to the universal Church.”
Acknowledging the Mass was being celebrated on the vigil of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Bishop Solis said the Church recalls the Holy Mother’s “final sharing in the Easter glory of her Son, and we rejoice in the hope that is the fulfillment of the Easter mystery of the Church. The Church rejoices today because we also gather for the celebration of the Sacrament of Holy Orders for Deacon Dominic Sternhagen.”
Christ instituted various ministries in the Church that work together for the good of the whole Body, the bishop said. “In the Sacrament of Holy Orders, presbyters are set apart in the image of Christ, the eternal high priest, to preach the Gospel, to shepherd the faithful, and to celebrate divine worship as true priests of the New Testament. … As a local Church, we welcome this candidate into the Order of Priests, and we give thanks for the foundation and source of his vocation to the priesthood.”
After the Gospel was read, Deacon Sternhagen was called forward for the Election by the Bishop and Consent of the People.
“Relying on the help of our Lord God and our savior, Jesus Christ, we choose Dominic our brother for the Order of the Priesthood,” Bishop Solis said.
“Thanks be to God,” the choir and congregation responded.
Deacon Sternhagen returned to his seat, and Bishop Solis went to the ambo to give the homily.
“My dear brothers and sisters in Christ, we gather tonight in joy for the blessing of a new priest,” he said, and thanked the deacon for “responding to God’s call to a lifelong commitment of love and service to God and his people.”
The ordination was extraordinary because it occurred in the midst of the pandemic, with all the difficulties that has imposed, the bishop said. Speaking to Deacon Sternhagen, he said, “In the midst of sufferings and uncertainties, your ordination is a manifestation of God’s love for you and for the world. It offers an extraordinary message of hope for a humanity searching for answers and longing to know that there is a god who cares, who heals and who saves us from our miseries.”
The bishop encouraged the new priest to take courage from the day’s readings, (Jeremiah 1:1 4-9, 1 Cor 15:54b-57, and Luke 11:27-28), and speak and act in the person of God, “embodying his love, mercy, tenderness and compassion.”
In times of adversity, priests will face criticism, ridicule and have integrity as a priest questioned, but bishop said, but “Christ will be with you always. After all, it is his mission, and not your own. … From here on, whatever you say or do, you must do it in Christ’s name, for his honor and glory. Youi are no longer to live for yourself, but for Christ, obedient to his will and to his Church.”
Bishop Solis encouraged the new priest to immerse himself in constant prayer, especially the Liturgy of the Hours and the rosary, to have a personal devotion to the Blessed Sacrament, and to meditate daily on the words of God.
Following the homily, the deacon made his vows, then lay prostrate in front of the altar while the Litany of Saints was sung. Then the priests of the diocese, beginning with the bishop, laid their hands on him, giving him their blessing fraternal greeting. Finally, he was clad in the vestments of a priest, and Bishop Solis anointed of hands with chrism oil. Then, for the first time, he assisted at the altar as a priest.
Following Communion, Fr. Sternhagen laid his hands in blessing on his parents and Bishop Solis. As he returned to his seat behind the altar, the congregation applauded him.
Fr. Sternhagen is very empathetic, relates well to people, and “loves to absorb knowledge,” said Fr. David Spillane, L.C., who vested the new priest. The two men met in 2004, when they both joined the Legion of Christ, a Catholic religious order. They both were sent to Ireland for internships, and while there were able to spend their days off together.
“He was a huge support for me in his service and his charity, his conversations and everything,” Fr. Spillane said of Fr. Sternhagen.
Eventually, Fr. Sternhagen discerned that he had a calling as a diocesan priest rather than with a religious order, so he applied to the Diocese of Salt Lake City. He is one of five children; his mother, Mimi Sternhagen, said she and her husband encouraged all of their offspring to explore a religious vocation. Another of her sons now is a seminarian.
In an interview after the ordination, Fr. Sternhagen said the highlight of the Mass was distributing Communion. Prior to that, he was concentrating on “trying to be in the right place at the right time and not mess up too badly,” during the rite, he said.
However, as his family, friends and people from the various parishes where he has served came forward for Communion, “each one coming up, and giving them Christ – which is something that I’ve already done as a deacon and as a lay person, so in a sense it was like the least new thing, but it was the most beautiful moment,” he said.
For him, it was a lesson, he said. “The lesson is that it’s not in the extraordinary things, it’s in the simple things. … That’s where God is.”