One Friar’s Journey Through Formation

from Fall 2017 Edition

Fr. Nader Ata (back row, second from right) with college friends on the campus of The Catholic University of America, where he first heard his calling to the priesthood and to live in community with the Franciscan Friars Conventual.

It is said that the Lord works in mysterious ways and this can be especially true when it comes to religious vocations.

For Father Nader Ata, OFM Conv., who was ordained to the priesthood earlier this year, the seed was planted in a random stairwell on the campus of the Catholic University of America (CUA).

“I was headed toward a Praise and Worship Adoration event. As I was walking up the stairs to Caldwell Chapel, I saw my first friar,” recalled Fr. Nader, who grew up in East Windsor, New Jersey. “The friar was Father Brad Heckathorne. He was engaging with some students when one of them tied his cord to the chapel banister as a prank. I was waiting for Fr. Brad to start yelling, but he was a good sport. He just pointed his finger and said, ‘I will get back at you, I will get back at you.’”

That positive first impression of the Franciscans stuck with Fr. Nader and, as he continued to observe them at CUA, his calling was starting to develop.

“What attracted me was the community life and witness of the friars at CUA,” said Fr. Nader. “There were three very different friars each with their own unique personality traits, yet all three of them lived together and worked together for the same cause, helping the faith life of college students to grow.”

An avid marathoner, Fr. Nader finds running to be a “great way to connect to God.” It is also symbolic of the long and difficult race of formation which Fr. Nader ran and conquered.

In Fr. Nader’s sophomore year he listened intently when Friar Michael Duffy, who was the East Coast vocation director of the Franciscan Friars Conventual, at that time, spoke at Mass about vocations to religious life and the priesthood.

As he inched closer to answering God’s call, Father Nader attended a retreat where an older friar was asked, “Father, how do you know where to go?”

The friar responded, “Grow where you have been planted. The people or place with which your faith has been most fostered is where you should go.”

It then became clear to Father Nader that his path would be with the friars.

After his sophomore year of college, Father Nader, an accomplished marathon runner, entered the order and began his formation journey, which lasted 12 years. The road, like the races he runs, was long and full of challenges.

“I worried if I made the right decision. Did I enter too soon and should I have finished my degree first,” he said. “During my formation journey I dealt with trusting the process of formation. I remember writing a long letter during my first months to my formation directors about all of the things they were doing wrong. I was ready to pack up my stuff and go back to CUA.

“I was counseled to slow down and trust the process. I was encouraged to go home for Thanksgiving break and spend time with family and friends. During that Thanksgiving break, all of the things I thought we were doing wrong in formation did not matter. I was ready to go back to the formation program. It is where I felt at home, but I had to learn to let go of my expectations and trust the process of formation not just then but throughout all the years.”

With his journey to the priesthood complete, Fr. Nader, who is currently an Associate Pastor at Assumption Church in Syracuse, New York, has had many proud reflections.

“The joy I have experienced following my ordination and knowing that I answered and followed through in my calling is indescribable. I entered the Franciscan Friars Conventual to be a priest, but I stayed with the community to be a friar. When I entered I had all of these lofty ideas of priesthood and saying Mass. And over time those lofty ideas disappeared in light of reality and I fell in love with being a friar first and foremost. Today, my priesthood would seem incomplete without me being a friar first.

Fr. Nader Ata (second from left) and Fr. Nick Spano (far right) following their joint Ordination Mass at Assumption Church in Syracuse, New York on May 27, 2017. The pair posed with Fr. James McCurry, OFM Conv. (far left) and Bishop Robert Cunningham of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Syracuse. (Photo courtesy of John Oles Photography)

“I often say I took the scenic route to ordination. I can now say that God was at work in every moment of my formation life, but it was difficult to see that when I was in the thick of things. Even now, God is at work in every moment of my life. With life being so busy with Sunday Masses, funerals, weddings, and confessions, I at times have to stop and remind myself, ‘You are doing exactly what God made me to do.’”

Fr. Nader credits his parents for instilling many of the qualities which inspired his vocation and allowed him to persevere through the doubts and tough moments he endured.

“My parents taught me how to be generous not just with money, but with my time, my talents, and my presence with people,” concluded Fr. Nader, who, in addition to his running, enjoys making puzzles, cooking, listening to music and photography. “My parents taught me that life is not always easy, but you make the best of it. I was taught to know that no matter what was dealt to you, God was in charge every step of the way.” †


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