Priesthood Class of 2020
Sacraments helped Deacon Stefan Yap renew his faith, now he looks forward to sharing sacraments as a priest
Jun 12, 2020
As Deacon Stefan Yap prepares for his June 20 ordination as one of eight new priests for the Archdiocese of Washington in the midst of a global pandemic and in the wake of social unrest over injustices in the United States, he said the Church more than ever needs to offer a message of unity and hope.
“God is going to take care of His Church. God is going to take care of His people because he loves them so much, so much that His only Son died on the cross for us… There is still work to be done. Laborers still need to come to the harvest and God-willing in three weeks, myself and my classmates will join the laborers,” he said.
Through the sacraments, his family upbringing, and examples of good priests, the 29-year-old deacon said he discovered his vocation to the priesthood, and over the past decade, the New York native made the Archdiocese of Washington his home.
Growing up in a Filipino-American family, one of the few things Deacon Yap said he remembers is going to Mass every single Sunday with his parents, Sergio and Lolita Yap, his older brother Shane and his younger sister Samantha.
“Growing up Filipino, you’re Catholic,” he said. “It’s in our blood. It’s in our culture… We always went to Sunday Mass no matter what. It was non-negotiable, whether we were on vacation or had a sporting event or we were traveling, we always had to make sure we went to Sunday Mass.”
When his parents joined a Filipino charismatic family ministry called Couples For Christ, Deacon Yap said praise and worship and the charismatic movement then became a large part of his upbringing in the faith as he participated in youth group activities throughout middle school and high school.
The idea to become a priest did not come until years later, when Deacon Yap was a student at the University of Maryland in College Park.
His first two years of college, however, he described as a “prodigal son story.”
“I was away from home, and I just did what I wanted to do,” he said. “I stayed up late, slept in all the time, played a lot of video games… that was really all. The only thing I did faith-wise was go to Sunday Mass. I had no idea or thought of mortal sin and being in the state of grace.”
But after going through a difficult breakup during his sophomore year, Deacon Yap felt a need to go to Confession for the first time in a year. So he met with Father Rob Walsh, the chaplain at the University of Maryland, and “I just laid it out to him about my lifestyle, my un-chastity, my selfishness, my laziness, my sloth,” he said.
“(Father Walsh) was just very gentle and kind and forgiving, but also stern like a good father is supposed to be,” Deacon Yap said. “He invited me just to come to the Catholic Student Center to go and find good friends.”
Deacon Yap said while he didn’t exactly go running to the Catholic Student Center after that experience, Father Walsh continued to invite him whenever he saw Deacon Yap at Mass. When Father Walsh visited Deacon Yap at his apartment for a house blessing during Deacon Yap’s third year in college, Father Walsh made him promise to attend the spring retreat for students. Three months later, Deacon Yap fulfilled that promise.
“That’s probably when I really began to come back to the Church,” Deacon Yap said. “I was coming back to my faith and really exploring it, not just in the charismatic way, but also intellectually. I began to try to understand Church teaching.”
The students that Deacon Yap encountered at the Catholic Student Center “knew and understood the faith” more than he did, he said. “The challenged me. Father Rob (Walsh) challenged me. He was a father… He would set me aside and talk to me when I was kind of out of hand, but he would also give me responsibilities.”
Deacon Yap says he received his first call to the priesthood during a Holy Thursday Mass.
“When Father Rob (Walsh) said the words of consecration and elevated the Host, that was when I heard my first call to the priesthood,” he said. “I just heard a soft question from within myself, now I know it was the Holy Spirit, and I just heard ‘Will you be my priest?’ And I kind of freaked out. I had no idea what this was… no one was around me… no one was behind me… I was literally by myself. After the Mass… I peeled off from the group and ran to my car and screamed.”
As Deacon Yap continued in college, he connected with a Maryland group of Couples for Christ, the Filipino family ministry that he participated in while growing up, and began helping out with their youth group programs. One retreat that he helped organize brought him to St. John’s Church in Hollywood, Maryland, where Deacon Yap received yet another call to the priesthood, this time through a priest whom he had never met.
“It was in Confession that the priest that was behind the screen -- I had never met him in my life – he said, ‘Before I begin and give you your penance and absolution… throughout your Confession the Lord wanted me to tell you He wants you to be a priest,’” Deacon Yap said.
The priest, Father Ray Schmidt who is St. John’s pastor, recommended that Deacon Yap read the book, “To Save A Thousand Souls” by Father Brett Brannen, but Deacon Yap admitted that he didn’t rush to get it.
Not long after, Deacon Yap decided one Sunday to go to St. Mary of the Mills Church in Laurel, Maryland for Mass and Confession. During Confession there – the priest saw that Deacon Yap was “really lost in life,” he said. He suggested that Deacon Yap begin spiritual direction and asked him to email Father Walsh on his phone requesting a meeting before he exit the confessional.
During Deacon Yap’s first meeting with Father Walsh for spiritual direction, Father Walsh said that if Deacon Yap was going to take this seriously, he had some homework for him – to read the book “To Save A Thousand Souls.”
Deacon Yap got connected with Father Carter Griffin, the former vocations director for the Archdiocese of Washington, and he started attending vocations events.
During this time, however, Deacon Yap said he was in a “constant state of anxiety of questioning” about his vocation. He said he saw a “legitimate call” to the priesthood, but he also saw that he wasn’t in a good place in life.
“I couldn’t decide anything,” Deacon Yap said. “I was just so sick of college and school that I was about to just drop out and just go to seminary.”
After meeting with Father Griffin, it was decided that Deacon Yap was not yet ready to enter the seminary. So as Deacon Yap began his fifth and final year at the University of Maryland, he said he “didn’t focus on a vocation or on marriage,” receiving from prayer a “deep sense… to just stop worrying and just finish college.”
“So that’s what I did,” Deacon Yap said. “I went to class and studied for the first time in four years and I went to Mass and the Catholic Student Center regularly… and I went to work. I would occasionally get emails from Father Griffin about vocation events… but I just didn’t go.”
But when Father Griffin personally invited him to a discernment retreat that spring before he graduated with a degree in Math and Statistics, Deacon Yap went, and Father Griffin told him that he thought Deacon Yap was ready to enter the seminary.
The moment Deacon Yap received his acceptance to the seminary, he said he knew right away he had to go.
“Just the amount of joy, peace and excitement that I got from that ‘yes’ from the seminary, I knew at that very moment I had to go to seminary,” Deacon Yap said. “I couldn’t work (at the job he had lined up following graduation), I couldn’t wait. I had to go at that very moment, and that’s what I told Father Griffin.”
In the month before classes started, Deacon Yap walked the Camino de Santiago from Saint Jean Pied de Port, France to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain. The experience, he said, was so profound he hopes to return and do the pilgrimage again.
The past six years in the seminary have been years of reevaluation and discernment, Deacon Yap said. He attended the Saint John Paul II Seminary in Washington, D.C., for three years and then finished his studies at the Mount Saint Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland this May.
“Discernment is real,” he said. “The constant asking the Lord for his grace, for his understanding, for his wisdom is there every moment of seminary. As seminary continued it became more and more clear and apparent that the same joy and peace I received when I was first accepted into the seminary was still there and growing through seminary.”
As Deacon Yap prepares for ordination, he said there is a sense of relief and joy that the ordination is able to continue on schedule even in the midst of the pandemic.
“Even amongst all of this suffering, there is still great life happening…graces upon graces are being poured onto all of us. Life is still continuing,” he said. “That doesn’t mean we turn away from all the suffering that is happening, but it just shows that God is still working amidst all the suffering. To be a priest in three weeks when churches will only be partially reopened, and racism and injustice will still be going on is just an opportunity for us as priests to really help mediate grace into this world – to preach to those that do come to the churches about the hope that God is still with us. His name is Emmanuel, God is with us, and then to also at the same time elevate and emphasize the dignity of the human person, of every single person.”