Nathan Lopez had sensed glimmers of a priestly calling from an early age, but he resisted for years.
On Saturday, the 29-year-old Santa Fe native became one of two new priests in the Archdiocese of Santa Fe following an ordination Mass at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi. He was ordained by Archbishop John C. Wester alongside Timothy Meurer, 28.
Previously a Roman Catholic deacon, Lopez has served in several parishes in the archdiocese, including in Albuquerque, Ohkay Owingeh, Los Alamos and Las Vegas, N.M. Now he will return to San Juan Bautista in Ohkay Owingeh, a pueblo north of Española, for his first assignment as assistant pastor.
“I had a very hard time with God for about a year in my life,” Lopez said as he described his winding and sometimes difficult path to the priesthood, after the ordination ceremonies. “And I didn’t see myself becoming a priest, ever. That was the last thing on my mind.”
Lopez, who grew up in a family of devout Catholics, recalled reading about St. Francis and dreaming about becoming a priest when he was as young as 7 or 8, and a few years later, as he participated in pilgrimages with his family in Europe. One of their religious journeys was to the town of Medjugorje in Bosnia-Herzegovina, an unofficial Catholic pilgrimage site where the faithful believe the Virgin Mary appeared to local children in 1981.
But on a religious retreat in his teen years, when he was in high school, Lopez couldn’t quite muster the courage to announce his desire.
“They asked the guys, ‘Who felt a calling to the priesthood?’ ” Lopez said. “And something in me wanted to stand. And it wasn’t quite me, because I was fighting it. I was like, ‘No, I don’t want to stand. I have a girlfriend; I want to get married.’ And it was just pounding in my heart.”
Eventually, he said, he did stand.
“And then life went on.”
He enrolled in the University of New Mexico, taking biology classes with an intention of becoming a physical therapist.
After two years of college, however, Lopez realized his heart wasn’t in it, he said.
“I wanted to help people that were suffering. That’s why I was suffering through biology,” he said with a laugh.
At 21, Lopez quit college, returned to Santa Fe and entered what he described as “a very hard, dark time” filled with anxiety and doubt. He saw God as “always angry, always wanting to punish people.”
“I just felt like he wasn’t there, and I needed him,” Lopez said.
Around this time, Lopez took a job with the Santa Fe County Fire Department’s Wildland Division, working with a crew in the Black Canyon area.
“That was actually very good,” he said. “I got to know a lot of the guys, and the mountains were absolutely amazing. I love the mountains. I hate hiking, but I love being in the mountains.”
Lopez took a second trip with his family to Medjugorje, he said, and three months later, when he was on another religious retreat, he encountered a woman whose words prompted him to make a change.
Lopez had been having a theological dispute with the woman when she told him he had “a powerful mission” to undertake and should talk with a priest at the retreat about joining the priesthood himself, he said.
“I didn’t talk to the father,” Lopez said, “but that was enough for me, to give me the confirmation that the calling of the priesthood was right and legit.”
He soon began studying at Holy Apostles College & Seminary in Cromwell, Conn., and Mount Angel Seminary in Marion County, Ore.
Rather than working in physical therapy, Lopez said, he is looking forward to using his experiences of doubt, prayer and reflection to offer a kind of spiritual therapy to those searching for healing.
“I went through a hard time with God myself, and so I can understand some of those things,” he said.
And the mountains are not far off from the parish in Ohkay Owingeh.
“I could be there in 15 minutes, 20 minutes,” Lopez said. “So I’m excited about that.”