This is the fifth in a series of articles introducing you to the seven men who will be ordained priests of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee this year. Ordination for six of them, including Deacon Carlos Alberto Zapata Muñoz, will take place on Saturday, May 19, while the seventh will be ordained later in the year.

There were eight children in his family until about 12 years ago when a tragedy struck. Deacon Carlos Alberto Zapata Muñoz’ 30-year-old brother Oscar went missing on a Tuesday – likely because someone at the factory in Colombia where he worked disagreed with ideas he shared and hired someone to kidnap him, Deacon Zapata said.

zapataDeacon Carlos Alberto Zapata Muñoz, of Colombia, pictured in Christ King Chapel at Saint Francis Seminary, St. Francis, on Wednesday, April 11, will be ordained a priest of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee on Saturday, May 19. (Catholic Herald photo by Ernie Mastroianni)His family – parents and remaining seven children – prayed. And waited. And prayed some more.

Five days later, Oscar was found dead. Deacon Zapata received the phone call confirmation of the identification and told the rest of the family.

“I remember what my mom said to us, ‘I said thank you God because you hear our prayers and now I know where is my son,’” Deacon Zapata told your Catholic Herald, “and she went to my father’s chair and hugged him and said to him, ‘Honey, we(‘ve) begun to (lose) our children.’ … The next day we had the Mass, and it was a wonderful experience of faith for us because my mom told us to forgive.”

Even when a policeman offered to open an investigation during a visit to their home in Medellin four days after the funeral, Deacon Zapata said his mother turned it down because knowing the details wouldn’t bring her son back to life – “God is just and God knows,” he said, recalling his mother’s words.

“It was a spiritual situation because we – everybody – improved in our faith thanks to my mom, and I remember maybe two months after, the pastor from my home parish invited her to give testimony in the church about forgiveness,” he said.

Deacon Zapata said his family’s experience will make him more sensitive as he ministers to people when he’s ordained a priest for the Milwaukee Archdiocese at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist on May 19, because he will be able to relate to them and teach that in those moments, trust in God is the only solution.

“This situation with my brother was a good opportunity to improve my vocation, my relationship with God, my sense to become a good priest because I need to be a human and share this suffering with the people,” he said.

But the 39-year-old has been helping people before receiving holy orders, according to Fr. Ken Omernick, pastor of St. Charles Parish, Hartland, where Deacon Zapata did his internship from September 2010 through May 2011. He was ordained a deacon Nov. 5, 2011.

“I think especially when Carlos was with people who were facing a death in the family or someone was sick that’s really when he was at his absolute best,” Fr. Omernick told your Catholic Herald in a telephone interview. “He really has a big heart and he knows how to wear it on his sleeve, especially with people who were in trouble.”

St. Charles parishioner, Gloria Seipel, was one of them. Deacon Zapata was there for her when her husband, Norbert, died in August 2011, and again when her son, Joseph, died this past March. She said Deacon Zapata visited her husband in the hospital, prayed the Divine Mercy Chaplet – his special devotion – and brought food.

“He took care of us spiritually and bodily,” Seipel laughed, describing Deacon Zapata as “lighthearted,” but also “very spiritual when he prays.”

During that time, the deacon met Joseph, who was struggling with an alcohol addiction.

“Carlos took Joe under his wing and he was so good to our Joseph, and he wanted to talk to Joe a lot and get him back to healing life and our Joe loved Carlos,” Seipel said through tears during a telephone interview with your Catholic Herald. “He said, ‘When Carlos becomes a priest, I will go to confession to Carlos.’”

Seipel explained that Carlos was instrumental in helping get her son to heaven, because he brought a priest to the hospital for the sacraments of anointing of the sick, reconciliation and holy Communion before he died.

“He just goes out to everyone and makes time for people and I know he’s a busy person, and he makes time,” she said, noting that Deacon Zapata’s time spent with her son made Joe decide to straighten out his life. “He is just a joyful man, too – he shows the joy of loving Jesus and that is quite an example.”

Fr. Omernick said he thought Deacon Zapata loved being in the parish.

“I think it helped him see what his potential would be and that he would work very well with people, even in a very different culture from his own,” Fr. Omernick said of the deacon who brought to the parish his devotion to the Chaplet of Divine Mercy. “I think his English and his understanding of American customs really grew and improved and one of the things about Carlos is he, I mean, he was really willing to learn different cultural things here.”

Deacon Zapata, who said he’s normally an outgoing person, was shy upon his coming to the Milwaukee Archdiocese in 2008.

In Colombia, he was sure of his vocation since childhood – he was an altar server from a young age. He “celebrated” Mass at home with cookies and juice and got upset when his brothers didn’t take it seriously. He cried the day his priest told him he couldn’t attend the minor seminary after completing elementary school, because he missed the required workshop because he was sick.

Eventually, after praying a lot and promising to clean and change the decorations adorning the small altar where a statue of Mother Mary stood in their home, Deacon?Zapata felt the Blessed Mother answered his prayers – the priest met with him and his mother and allowed him to enter the seminary anyway.

When he finished high school, he entered the major seminary of the Order of Augustinian Recollects and completed a degree in philosophy, theology and his novitiate.

But then he decided to work outside the seminary and became a high school teacher for 10 years, teaching classes in philosophy, religion and ethics.

“I would like to think about my vocation, not about my vocation to become a priest – always I had very clear vocation, but the different ways to become a priest,” he said, referring to the decision to become a religious or diocesan priest.

He chose to work at Catholic high schools where he could spend his free time in the chapel and help to prepare the students for the sacraments.

“And all the time I worked in this way to become a priest maybe in the future, but I didn’t know when or where,” he said.

In 2007, when seminarians from Colombia who were studying in Milwaukee told Deacon Zapata about the situation of the priest shortage in the U.S., he thought it was sad because the

seminaries in Colombia are full.

He said, “God willing” he would go. After the vocation director at Saint Francis de Sales Seminary in St. Francis asked him through an email conversation if he wanted to go to the U.S. to study English in 2008, he agreed.

“I left my school job and all my life and then I returned to my, to this in my life, and it was very exciting for me because I considered it’s time to come back – it’s time,” Deacon Zapata said. But he was afraid.

“I (came) here very afraid because my English was nothing and new culture, far away from my family and I left my apartment, my stuff, my life in Colombia and (came) here like a baby,” he said of his move from life in Colombia to study English as a Second Language at Sacred Heart School of Theology in Hales Corners, where he graduated with a Master of Divinity May 4.

He would leave behind his mother and father, who’s health isn’t good enough to attend his ordination, and his siblings – one of his sisters is a nun and started “Refugio De Amor,” a foundation for children with Down syndrome.

Taking English classes, gradually getting to know people and working at St. Charles Parish helped the deacon, who considers himself an otherwise very “social” person, grow through his fears.

Kerry Shannon, a member at St. Charles, said Deacon Zapata was always warm and friendly and determined.

“He’s a very determined person when he has a goal in mind,” she said, noting that his biggest challenge – learning the English language – was also one he worked hard at because he understood the important role it would play in his ministry.

“The funniest stories, of course, are going to have to do with his learning the English language,” she said, explaining that one time when he was sharing photos from the seminarians’ trip to the Holy Land in January 2011, he was struggling to describe the photos of Bethlehem and said, “‘the place where they put Jesus in the canoe,’ … and of course we never stop teasing him about the canoe and he has a wonderful sense of humor and laughs along with us at all the things about his English that we joke about,” Shannon said.

Her hope, after seeing how he made himself available to everyone at St. Charles and getting involved in many of the ministries, is that he doesn’t get overwhelmed as a priest.

“I hope that he can just grow and maintain that – his enthusism – for his ministry and his enthusiasm and warmth in his dealings with people,” she said.

Deacon Zapata said he will be sad to leave his “second home” at the seminary where he and the other deacons have a routine and prayer life. But he’s also excited to move on so other seminarians can begin their journey to the priesthood.

He has many hopes as he nears his ordination: to enjoy every day, continue to be friendly and human for the people, become a good listener and to help the community improve its spiritual life.

“My first hope,” he said, “is to become a good priest that this community needs.”