In the summer of 2017, if you found yourself within the Archdiocese of Dubuque, IA, in the small town of Tama, searching for a deacon with the last name of Upah, you would still need to be more specific to narrow your search to one man.
Stan Upah was ordained as a permanent deacon in July, but his son, Andy, had already been ordained as a transitional deacon in May. Until Andy’s ordination to the priesthood in 2018, “Deacon Upah” could have referenced either man.
The bond of a Deacon/Father to Priest/Son relationship is uncommon, but Father Andy has a couple of classmates from the Mundelein Seminary Class of 2018 who can relate. Father Viet Nguyen’s father, Paul, was ordained as a deacon for the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, MO just a few weeks before his son was ordained as a priest for the Archdiocese of Kansas City, KS. Father Jacob Rouse’s father will be ordained as a deacon in 2019 for the Archdiocese of Dubuque, where his son already serves.
“I’ve always heard that the best way a father can show his kids what a man should be is to love their mother. My dad’s love for my mom shows me how to be a man and also a priest, to love my bride who is the church,” Father Viet said. “But it’s become this circular thing where my dad has influenced my whole life, but my vocation to the priesthood influenced his pursuit of the diaconate. He told me that if I could make a commitment to give my life, he couldn’t push off his calling any longer.”
Both priests are quick to point to the strong faith example set by their parents as integral to their vocation. Prayer was a large part of family life, and even from an early age, both the Upahs and Nguyens could see a calling to the priesthood in their sons.
Deacon Stan and his wife Charlotte strived to be faithful role models, attending church regularly and encouraging Andy to be active in the Church, but allowing their son find his vocation on his own.
“Although we identified his priestly calling since he was a young altar boy, we never persuaded him to be a priest. It is a great feeling to see Andy in love with the vocation he has chosen and even more exciting knowing the effect he will have on other people’s salvation story throughout his lifetime. Never have we seen him as happy and at peace as he is now as a priest,” Deacon Stan said.
For Father Viet, his extended family and Vietnamese culture played no small part in his pursuit of the priesthood.
“My parents always told me that they left Vietnam with ‘nothing but their family and their faith in God,’ and that’s the faith I grew up with. My mom told me and my three brothers that she prayed for all of us to be priests, so I grew up knowing that. My brothers always tried to push me to be the priest because they were dating, and by the end of my sophomore year in college I was giving it serious thought,” he said.
“My uncle is a priest in Taipei, and my grandma prays for him and for me every day. I don’t see this as just MY vocation, because it’s a big celebration for the entire Vietnamese community in Kansas City. Even people I don’t know are proud of me becoming a priest. It is humbling for me because even as a child, you want to make your parents proud, and I’m honored that my vocation gives hope to this community that has endured a lot of hardship.”
Having a son who wants to be a priest lands all seminarian parents in rare company, and at times unsure how to encourage their son in his vocation. All parents do the best they can to pray for him, ask questions, and support him throughout formation. Conversations between the Upah and Nguyen fathers and sons are a bit different, ranging from the standard sports, news, and politics to the uniquely vocational topics of Christology, homiletics, and other highly theological topics.
“The cool thing is that we can both appreciate each other’s formation. We are reading a lot of the same things, have attended similar classes, and we can bounce things off of each other and talk at that level,” said Father Andy. “My dad has my mom as the primary critic of his homilies, but I have him.”
Father Viet agreed, saying, “It’s kind of weird but kind of cool to talk to other people besides seminarians about topics like that. What’s been really nice is when I go home on breaks, we pray evening prayer together. My mom, dad and I all have a set of breviaries. Who else prays the breviary with their parents? We are actually praying together the prayer of the church.”
Another “cool” aspect of this unique relationship is how the men will serve at each other’s Ordinations and Masses of Thanksgiving. Because the sons were ordained as deacons before their dads, they were able to serve at their dads’ ordinations. The Rite of Ordination includes a time where other deacons of the diocese welcome the newly-ordained with a sign of peace, and both Andy and Viet were ready with big hugs for their fathers. Deacon Viet was even able to vest his dad, providing him with the stole and dalmatic he will wear during Masses. Both fathers also served as deacons for their sons’ Masses of Thanksgiving.
Father Andy has always seen his dad as service-oriented, helping others in need, leading mission trips and retreats, and finds it fitting that his Deacon Dad served at his first Mass, saying, “I think he was nervous about it, but I wasn’t nervous about it, he’s a pro at this point. It gave me fun material for the homily – talking about the Trinity and how your opinion of God as a father is influenced by your Dad.”
New priests often point to their fathers as influencing the way they hear confessions, remembering the loving mercy and justice they were shown as children. Often, after a priest says his first Mass, he gives his father the stole worn when hearing his first confession. When the father passes away, he is buried with that stole, symbolizing that among all the things he did in his life, he gave God his son as a priest.
Father Andy looks forward to expanding his ministry beyond the many members of the Upah family into the heart of Dubuque, saying, “I have two younger sisters, both married, and six nieces and nephews. They gave my parents grandchildren, but I hope I can give them even more through spiritual fatherhood.”
When asked about new dynamics in their relationship, Father Viet quips, “People like to joke and say, ‘Oh now that you’re a priest and he’s a deacon, you are going to tell him what to do, right?’ My response to that is exactly what my dad told me, ‘In the church, yes, but at home – I’m still the father,’ and he’s absolutely right.”
The most important thing a parent can do for their son who is discerning a vocation is to continue loving, supporting, and praying for him. For parents of seminarians or men considering their vocation, the USCCB provides helpful resources on its website, and many diocesan vocations offices have additional information and even local groups of parents who get together. Every vocation has its challenges, but trust in the Lord and his grace. You may even end up finding your own calling, just like Deacon Stan and Deacon Paul.