Divine Word Father Miguel Virella, front, center, stands with the team of priests who were charged to minister to the newly formed parish of Mother of Mercy in this 2012 photo. Shown from left, are,  Divine Word Father Florencio L. Lagura, Voluntas Dei Father Paul Janvier and Divine Word Father George Koottappillil. Craig Pittelli photo
Divine Word Father Miguel Virella, front, center, stands with the team of priests who were charged to minister to the newly formed parish of Mother of Mercy in this 2012 photo. Shown from left, are, Divine Word Father Florencio L. Lagura, Voluntas Dei Father Paul Janvier and Divine Word Father George Koottappillil. Craig Pittelli photo

“The Lord God calls us to serve.” For Divine Word Father Miguel Virella, these words continue to inspire his priestly vocation that has now reached its 25-year milestone.

Born in 1956 in Ciales, Puerto Rico, the young Miguel first entered the Servants of Mary as a “servite” and was sent to Epworth, Iowa, to study English as a second language in a seminary run by Divine Word Missionaries. There were people from many cultures and places there, and that multicultural environment was something that fed his soul and aided his discernment process toward a missionary priestly vocation.

The now current pastor of Mother of Mercy Parish, Asbury Park, made his first profession of vows Aug. 22, 1992 with the Society of the Divine Word in the Chapel of the Holy Spirit, Ill. He professed his perpetual vows there Sept. 16, 1995 and was ordained to the priesthood March 23, 1996. His first assignment as a priest was St. Anthony Claret Parish (now part of Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish), Lakewood, in the Diocese of Trenton.

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As a priest of the Diocese, Father Virella has since served in St. Rose of Lima Parish, Freehold; Our Lady of Providence Parish, Neptune, as well as St. Peter Claver and Holy Spirit Parishes in Asbury Park. In 2012, Mother of Mercy Parish was created through the mergers and restructuring of these three parishes along with Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish, also in Asbury Park.

It was the call to serve the poor that resonated with Father Virella as a young man. “My first call was to serve the poorer communities… When serving the poor, there is joy, as well as, suffering.”

“The Lord God calls us to be his servants… to serve. We are called to serve. We are called to work. We are called to care for those who are entrusted to us.”

Reflecting on his first 25 years as a priest, Father Virella remembered being newly ordained and how he “wanted to change the world.”

“I wanted to be there for everything… for all the Baptisms, the weddings, the funerals, the gatherings in their homes. I wanted to be there in court with them, interpreting for them whenever they were in the hospital or in jail,” he shared. “When I was first ordained, it was a beautiful stage I was in. I still want to do all this, but the energy is not the same.”

One of the looming challenges of Father Virella’s priesthood has been the closing of parishes. Of his 25 years as a Catholic priest, 21 have been spent in the parishes of Asbury Park, where he has accompanied the faith community through transitions of parish closures, mergers and moves.

“I always ask everybody to trust in God and to hope for a stronger and vibrant parish in the future.   I share with people that in today’s world, this is the reality of the church.  It is not only in our parish, but in many parishes.” But that trust and hope is easier said than done because, as Father Virella explained, many generations have baptized their children, gotten married, buried their families and so much more in all the churches of Asbury Park, noting that Holy Spirit Church opened in 1889.

It is in the simple things where Father Virella said he finds faith and spiritual nourishment. “Through the relationships with the community; I am strengthened. Through the faith that the families have I find the motivation and strength to continue my ministry with joy.”

In looking to what’s to come in his priesthood, Father Virella said he feels a connection with Moses. “I use that image of Moses because Moses’ relationship with God was one of trust. He tried to do what God asked him to do and he went on even though it was challenging.”

“My hope is that I can continue serving God and the people for as long as I live,” he said. “Al final de mi vida, quisiera morir aun sirviendo… con las botas puestas y bien gastadas. I am grateful to God for having called me to serve!