GREENWOOD—Father Francisco Javier Oñate-Vargas credits many for helping steer him toward the priesthood, both lay people and the ordained.
Some of those early mentors, along with hundreds of friends and family, were in the pews Feb. 11 at Our Lady of Lourdes Church to celebrate his priestly ordination.
An overflow crowd of more than 400 people joined Bishop Robert E. Guglielmone in welcoming Father Oñate-Vargas to the priesthood, nine months after the bishop led his ordination into the transitional diaconate an hour up the road at St. Mary Church in Greenville.
“We gather with a tremendous sense of joy,” Bishop Guglielmone told the crowd that rainy evening at Our Lady of Lourdes.
“Our church, our diocese, is enriched by the ministry of a new priest. We come to pray for Francisco, pray with him and ask for God’s blessings upon him,” he said.
Originally from Guadalajara, in the state of Jalisco in south-central Mexico, Father Oñate-Vargas entered Holy Trinity seminary in Irving, Texas, in the fall of 2011, where he studied philosophy. In 2014, he started theological studies at St. Mary’s Seminary in Houston before completing his formation in 2018 at St. Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary in Boynton Beach, Fla. He was ordained a transitional deacon last May and was assigned to Our Lady of Lourdes.
Though Father Oñate-Vargas knew at an early age that he wanted to become a priest, as he grew older he wavered on that commitment. He said the decision to enter seminary wasn’t an easy one for him.
“I had to struggle back and forth with my own desires and wants,” Father Oñate-Vargas said. At age 24, as he was preparing to graduate from Midlands Technical College in Columbia, he accepted his call to the priesthood.
“Ultimately, I ran out of excuses of why not enter seminary and I simply did,” he said. “Seminary formation was demanding both academically and spiritually, but I am truly grateful for the seven years of seminary formation I received.”
Father Oñate-Vargas said many people played a key role in his discernment “through their love for God and the way they live out their faith,” adding that none played a bigger part than his Catholic family, especially his mother, who, by example, instilled in her son the need to include others in one’s life.
“My mother taught me the importance of service and devotion,” he said.
Father Oñate-Vargas’ parents, María Isabel Vargas Ramirez and Antonio Oñate Leon, sat quietly in the front pew as their son was welcomed into the priesthood. Family members, including his six siblings, plus nieces, nephews and cousins, filled several pews behind them.
Father Oñate-Vargas’ ordination Mass, celebrated in English and Spanish, was held on the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, which marks the date on Feb. 11, 1858, when Mary appeared for the first time in Lourdes, in southern France, to Bernadette Soubirous, a 14-year-old peasant girl.
“What a beautiful day this is, the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, on which we gather here today also to celebrate the great gift of priesthood,” Bishop Guglielmone said in his homily. “It’s a very fitting day on which to ordain a priest, for as a priest, Francisco, you will be called to act in the person of Christ.”
The Blessed Mother’s presence in Lourdes is a sign of the healing presence of Jesus, the bishop said, telling the new priest he would be called to be an agent of healing.
“You are called this day to imitate Christ, the healer; to imitate him to the fullest extent of your potential; to be a true shepherd to the people you are sent to serve,” Bishop Guglielmone said.
Though a majority of people who celebrated Father Oñate-Vargas’ ordination were from Our Lady of Lourdes, others from his home parish — Our Lady of the Hills in Columbia — were also there, along with members of St. Andrew in Myrtle Beach and Corpus Christi in Lexington.
Faculty members from St. Mary’s seminary in Houston and St. Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary in Florida also traveled to Greenwood for the event.
“I am so grateful to my Heavenly Father for calling me to serve Him and His people as His priest,” Father Oñate-Vargas said. “(My ordination) was a grace-filled moment all the way. God be praised.”
Juanita Mata, Father Oñate-Vargas’ cousin and a spokesperson for his family, said they are very excited and happy for him.
“It wasn’t easy for him, but we’re happy he decided to follow the calling,” Mata said. “Francisco is a very special young man.”
Father Oñate-Vargas will start his first assignment on March 9 at St. Michael Church in Murrells Inlet.