Changed for eternity — Jonathan Demma
Deacon Jonathan Demma remembers the moment when becoming a priest was cemented into his soul.
The St. Elizabeth Ann Seton parishioner was in the Bronx with Matt and Angela Gill to witness the ordination of a friend they met a year earlier at World Youth Day in Canada. Father Juniper was a member of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal — a community founded in 1987 by eight Capuchin priests and dedicated to serving the materially poor, destitute, and homeless.
“I remember watching this friar walk across to the cardinal and thinking he was going to kneel down as one man then stand up changed for all eternity,” Demma explained. “As soon as the cardinal placed his hands on the friar’s head, I knew I was called to be a priest.”
The 22-year-old felt a shudder throughout his body.
“It was very clear what the Lord was asking me to do,” he said, recalling the May 17, 2003 occasion vividly. “I can still replay it in my mind.”
Demma will experience his own transformation May 19 when Bishop Michael Olson uses the ancient sign of ordination — the laying on of hands — to confer the sacrament of Holy Orders on him and fellow seminarian Maurice Moon in St. Patrick Cathedral. The ceremony is the final step in a circuitous road to the priesthood that began 14 years ago for the former Texas A&M engineering student.
When Demma began his studies at the College Station school, a religious vocation was the furthest thing from his mind.
“The Church wasn’t on the radar. I just didn’t need it and thought I was doing fine on my own,” recalled the seminarian who was already enjoying financial success as the information technology director for a long distance company while still an undergraduate.
Attending Mass was a low priority and, “I never questioned the relevance of it,” he admitted.
That changed during the 2002 World Youth Day in Toronto when a friar convinced the young Texan to accompany him to Eucharistic Adoration. Demma never experienced the devotion before.
“I had this moment where I evaluated all of the things God had given me in my life — all the gifts and talents — and realized I wasn’t giving anything back to Him,” he remembered. “So, I made a promise that day to find a way to serve the Church.”
The pledge eventually led him to the priesthood. After witnessing his friend’s ordination, Demma planned to finish his engineering degree and join the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal in New York. The impressionable young adult was attracted to the community’s radical vow of poverty.
“I was chasing all these worldly things and was never really satisfied. Here were people, who had nothing, and were full of joy,” Demma explained. “When I saw them, I watched the Gospel come alive. They were living it literally and were so happy.”
Sitting in a circuit theory course, the college student suddenly felt restless and uncomfortable with the decision to stay in school. He left the lecture hall and went to the chapel to pray for guidance and read Scripture. The Gospel for the upcoming Sunday was from Mark. It told the story of two disciples, James and John, who were mending nets with their father, Zebedee, when Jesus called out to them. Without hesitation, the brothers got out of the boat and followed Him.
“To me, that was the answer,” Demma continued. “I was in college, working on my career, but I just had this encounter with Christ and needed to get out of the boat.”
Three semesters shy of completing a five-year program, he withdrew from the university that day. The news stunned his parents, Michael and Alana Demma. His father is the former director of the diocesan Respect Life office.
“It didn’t seem wise not to finish school,” said the seminarian, understanding his family’s reticence. “Diving back into my faith, becoming very involved in the Church and the whole business of celibacy, a religious vocation, and leaving for the Bronx with no money all happened fast — in less than two years.”
He joined the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal in September 2004, taking the name Brother Mariano Joseph in honor of the Holy Family. During his nine years with the community, Demma helped organize Youth 2000 retreats and was one of four friars who opened Sacred Heart of Jesus friary and St. Benedict’s Mission — an outreach center for the homeless — in Fort Worth. The friary and mission closed in 2015.
During his time as a Franciscan brother, the seminarian began recognizing the differences between an itinerant preacher doing parish missions and traveling and the more stable ministry of diocesan priesthood. With the friars, he moved 11 times in nine years.
“I really got interested in sacramental theology and felt I had a gift for teaching and preaching,” explained Demma who was drawn to the idea of guiding families through the sacraments as a parish priest. “The priesthood was never in question. I just didn’t know whether I would do it as a Franciscan or go to a diocese.”
During a consultation process, it was decided that Brother Mariano was more suited to diocesan ministry. A year later, dispensed from the solemn vows made as a Franciscan to New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Demma began seminary formation for the Diocese of Fort Worth. He was sent to the Theological College in Washington, D.C. and enrolled in a dual degree program to earn a master’s degree in divinity and a baccalaureate in sacred theology.
The seminarian’s pastoral year at Sacred Heart Parish in Wichita Falls affirmed his decision to change the course of his vocation.
“Father Jack McKone was a wonderful mentor and the people were incredible,” Demma said. “For the first time, I got to experience what I imagined diocesan priesthood to be. It was a year of growth and peace.”
Demma, who became a transitional deacon last May, chose a meaningful icon for his ordination card. The memento, a picture of St. Francis of Assisi, St. John the Evangelist, and the Blessed Mother at the foot of Christ’s cross, summarizes his 14-year vocation journey from Franciscan friar to diocesan priest.
“It’s been a long journey but worth every minute,” he said. “I’ve had so much prayer and support from the people of the diocese. They really lifted me up when I needed it. I’m humble, grateful, and can’t wait to serve the diocese as a priest.”
The Diocese of Fort Worth invites you to attend the Ordination Mass of Jonathan Michael Demma and Maurice Lawrence Moon on Saturday, May 19 at 10 a.m. at St. Patrick Cathedral.