New priests for Archdiocese of Washington
Seeing how God has acted in history, and in his own life, drew man to priesthood
Jun 12, 2019
As a child growing up in the suburbs of Boston in the early 2000s, Michael Russo had no interaction with diocesan priests, and what he did know was the largely-negative news he heard. The oldest of three children in a typical Italian-American Catholic family, Russo’s mom kept the family going to church and religious education programs, but Russo said he never thought of joining the priesthood himself.
“She always told us, ‘you’re going to Church because you have to go to CCD (religious education classes), and you have to go to CCD because you have to get confirmed because you have to be married in the Church,’” he said. “That was the motivation.”
Now, Deacon Russo, 27, is one of 10 men who will be ordained as a priest for the Archdiocese of Washington on June 15 at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.
His journey to the priesthood, Deacon Russo said, was indeed a gradual process, only discernible in hindsight as God’s gentle providence.
“It was this slow, slow pushing by God to get me to that point,” he said.
After attending public high school, Deacon Russo knew he wanted to attend college in Washington to study history and political science. After becoming disillusioned with politics, he gravitated toward history and a newfound interest in classical studies, particularly ancient Greek and Roman history, and from there, early Christian history, which he studied at George Washington University.
“Coming out of high school, and because my mom kept us in church, I had a good sense that I was Catholic, and that would always be part of my identity, who I was,” he said. “But ironically, going through these history studies and being exposed to parts of Christian history I had no idea existed, kind of drew me to the rich Catholic intellectual tradition that existed…And it was as I was discovering that that my faith life grew, and I slowly found a vocation.”
The discernment began in college, where Deacon Russo found community at the university’s Newman Center and got to know seminarians and the chaplain Father Greg Shaffer. It planted the seminary idea, the deacon said.
“That was the first exposure I had to a diocesan priest,” Deacon Russo said.
Combined with this, Deacon Russo’s faith life began flourishing as he discovered daily Mass, Eucharistic Adoration, and the opportunity to attend Confession.
“It was this slow process through college,” he said. “I was simultaneously shifting into classical studies, and studying early Church history… I began slowly growing in my faith life all at the same time.”
The student of history began reflecting on his own history in light of God’s direction.
“I think when we look at history from a Catholic perspective, we see God acting in history,” he said. “God acts amongst humanity. And it can help us be attentive to the Holy Spirit. It’s what I’ve found in studying history and also the act of reflection, saying, ‘this is where God has acted in my life; okay, where is He pulling me?’”
“Looking back, it was definitely the Holy Spirit, slowly planting, letting the seed grow,” the deacon said.
After attending discernment retreats for the Archdiocese of Washington and other events with seminarians, Deacon Russo decided to enter the seminary after graduation. He studied at the Saint John Paul II Seminary and Theological College in Washington.
Just as the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, had such a tremendous impact on his vocation, Deacon Russo encourages those discerning the priesthood, those who should be discerning the priesthood, and all Catholics to partake of the sacraments as frequently as possible.
“It’s in the Mass that we hear the word of God, we see the Church present around us, we know we’re not alone, and we can be in intimate communion with God and one another,” he said. “It’s communion with God and communion with other Christians on the same path. It’s the surest way to be attentive to God and hear His call.”
Spending summers and time during the school year in parishes -- Our Lady Help of Christians in Waldorf, St. Patrick in Rockville, and St. Mary in Rockville -- has kept Deacon Russo grounded in his path, he said.
“Every time I’ve helped in a parish, my vocation has been confirmed,” he said. “I’ve just learned that priestly life is with the people.”
And the list of people who have supported and rejoiced in Deacon Russo’s vocation is long, he said, but includes priests with whom he has worked, Catholic and non-Catholic friends, parishioners, and especially his parents, grandparents and other family members. His parents, Mike and Maria Russo, who still reside in Massachusetts, will attend his ordination, along with many other family and friends from out of town.
“When I told them I was applying to seminary, no one was surprised,” Deacon Russo said. “They were so happy and supportive.” That helped him enter the seminary, stay in the seminary, and “now it is helping me get ready to be a priest,” he said.
Serving people is what the deacon is most eager for following his priestly ordination.
“I’m most excited to celebrate Mass in the parishes with the people of God,” he said. “And to, in a small way, help people see that as the source and summit of their life. It’s been so foundational for me. I want to share that joyous good news with other people.”
As far as challenges?
“The first Confession will be nerve-wracking,” he said. “I mean, they’ve prepared us well but eventually they said you can’t practice anymore, you just have to go.”
The invitations for his ordination have been sent out, the RSVPs are coming in, and the vestments for his first Mass -- which takes place at St. Stephen Martyr Church in Washington on June 16 at 11 a.m. -- have arrived. Though it hasn’t quite hit yet, Deacon Russo said he is prepared for the next chapter of his history.
“I feel ready,” he said. “Ready to see what God has next in store.”
The latest local and global Catholic news delivered to your inbox.