A Son's Journey to the Priesthood
During the weekend of June 7–8, 2008, clergy, family and friends gathered at Holy Trinity Orthodox Church in Santa Fe, New Mexico, to witness the ordination of Fr. Daniel Bethancourt by Bishop BASIL – first to the diaconate and then to the holy priesthood.
Fr. Daniel is the son of Archpriest John Bethancourt, Holy Trinity’s pastor. “Holy Trinity is my spiritual ‘hometown,’” said Fr. Daniel, “where I was raised during the early years of my life as an Orthodox Christian. It was wonderful to be ordained there with my parish family-of-origin present. I felt surrounded by love and prayers.”
Fr. Daniel’s sponsors to the diaconate were Holy Trinity’s Archdeacon Basil Rives and Dn. Justin Havens of Ss. Peter and Paul Church in Salt Lake City. His sponsors to the priesthood were his father, Archpriest John Bethancourt, and his spiritual father, Archpriest Paul Moses Jaroslaw.
This was a special privilege for both father and son. “I was overjoyed to have my natural father and my spiritual father as my sponsors,” said Fr. Daniel. “They’ve both been mentors to me in the past, and I’ve already gone to both of them for advice since my ordination.” Fr. John added, “There is within me a feeling perhaps somewhat akin to that of the aged Simeon in the Temple: now I can die in peace.”
A number of other area priests served alongside Bishop BASIL at the two hierarchical divine liturgies, including Hieromonk John Anderson of St. Michael’s Skete in Canones, Economos Demetrios Demopulos of St. Elias Church in El Dorado, Fr. John Hennies of St. Dimitri Church in Los Alamos and Fr. Luke Huggins of St. Juliana Church in Santa Fe. Holy Trinity’s Subdeacon Raphael Nava and Subdeacon Joseph Olas, a classmate of Fr. Daniel from St. Vladimir’s Seminary, also served.
Fr. Daniel found most memorable His Grace’s counsel at the altar. “My forehead was pressed into the corner of the holy table and Sayidna BASIL was whispering into my ear. He was charging me to be faithful and reassuring me of God’s mercy. It happened during each of the two ordinations, but in my memory it’s blended together into a single moment.”
His Grace also offered profound words for all those present. He spoke of the ordination as an offering of “living prosphora” – a sacrifice made primarily by Fr. Daniel himself, but also by his wife Kh. Maria and their soon-to-be-born child, his parents Fr. John and Kh. Photina, and all those who love him. This dramatic image emphasized the holiness and gravity of the offering while connecting the whole community to the sacrament.
Fr. Daniel was humbled by Bishop BASIL’s words. “I wished that I could pause everything for a while and make the seal on the loaf look a little nicer,” he said. “But at some point you just have to say, ‘This is the loaf we’ve got and we’ll have to use it, blurry seal and all.’” For Kh. Maria, the Bishop’s words provided a sense of peace. “It’s such a beautiful way to think about how we all participate in his being ordained. It was very meaningful for me that our baby (although still in the womb) was there. Years from now we can tell our little one, ‘See, you were a part of this too!’”
Many of those present had also witnessed Fr. John’s ordination 12 years earlier. It was at the cathedral in Wichita, also at the hands of Bishop BASIL, and shortly after the chrismation of a small group of pilgrims from Santa Fe. When the Bethancourt family came into Orthodoxy during that December in 1996, 17-year-old Fr. Daniel was among them, but had not yet experienced an inner conversion to the ancient faith. He recalled, “When my dad said, ‘You’re old enough to make your own decision about this,’ my response was, ‘I trust your judgment … if you think this is the right thing, I’ll go along with it.’ My heart wasn’t really in it, though.” A post-graduation trip to Europe gave Fr. Daniel a different perspective on his new spiritual home. “Even though I hardly understood the language or felt anonymous and lonely in a foreign culture, I felt completely at home in Orthodox churches,” he said. When he returned from Europe, a love for the faith had begun to take root. As Fr. Daniel put it, recalling C.S. Lewis, “The back of the wardrobe started to open up.”
Since that time, Fr. Daniel has devoted himself to growing deeper in Orthodoxy. “He has not swayed from that inner conversion,” said Fr. John. “In truth he was ‘orthodox’ from the time he was a little child, and his choice really to be Orthodox was consistent with his earlier life.”
Even Fr. Daniel’s vocation came at an early age. “I first started to think that I might be called to the priesthood when I was around 10 or 11,” he said, “It’s hard to describe how the idea first came to life in my mind. It was a sort of a weight inside of me, and it became heavier as I got older.”
His parents also sensed great things for Daniel’s future. “I believed that God’s hand was strongly upon him even before his birth,” said Fr. John, “long before I had a formal calling to the priesthood myself. Over the years I have had moments of wondering if he would follow that path, but I have tried to avoid putting any expectations on him. When he told us that he desired to explore the possibility of priesthood I was both amazed and also had the inner response, ‘Well, of course.’”
Fr. Daniel’s mother, Kh. Photina, had a similar intuition. She shared the experience during the banquet following Fr. Daniel’s ordination. “When Daniel was a baby, there was a day when I was holding him and a song came to me. I received a word about him being as solid as an oak tree. I sang, ‘You, my son, will be as solid as an oak tree, your roots shall run deep, when the wind blows strong and the stormy tempest hits you hard, you shall not be moved. You shall stand strong because your roots shall run very deep. You shall be as solid as an oak tree.’ I have never forgotten that experience of holding my baby Daniel in my arms and singing to him God’s word about him.”
Although Fr. Daniel initially explored a career in medicine, it soon became apparent that God had another direction in mind. When he entered St. Vladimir’s Seminary, Fr. Daniel brought with him the experience of being a “priest’s kid” and few illusions about the path ahead. “I knew that the priesthood was a cross from start to finish, and was often messy business,” he said. “But I also knew that with God’s help it was a glorious calling, and the only one that would be life-giving if it’s what God had for me. What seminary did was to force me to see, over and over again, how inadequate I was. Almost every class I took was convicting in one way or another.”
Fr. Daniel graduated from St. Vladimir’s in 2007; he and Kh. Maria were married soon after. Now with their infant son Peter Basil, born on the Feast of the Dormition, Fr. Daniel and Kh. Maria are settling into their new life at St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in Shreveport, Louisiana.
Fr. Daniel takes with him many lessons learned from a lifetime of watching his father serve as a pastor. “There are more of these than I could enumerate, but I’ll mention three,” he said. “The first is that everything – the whole cosmos, and certainly the Christian life – is about relationships. Even laws, canons and rules are about maintaining healthy relationships, and if we remember that, they can be life-giving rather than oppressive. The second is that no relationship can be maintained without sacrifice. The third is that the foundational sacrifice of a priest – and of a Christian – is prayer. Prayer in all its forms is our sanity and stability, because through it we maintain the central relationship of our life: our relationship with our Heavenly Father. Unless we offer our first-fruits in prayer to God, everything gets skewed.”
As they begin their new journeys of spiritual, as well as natural, parenthood, Fr. Daniel and Kh. Maria are already beginning to feel at home in Shreveport. “We thank God for bringing us to St. Nicholas,” Fr. Daniel said. “It is an enthusiastic parish with remarkable potential and an awesome patron Saint! We have been received graciously by the community and look forward to doing the work of building relationships and growing together in Christ.” Kh. Maria echoed Fr. Daniel’s gratitude and enthusiasm. “I hope that our family (both the Bethancourts and St. Nicholas) will grow and produce Christians!” she said. “God willing, the people of St. Nicholas will be lights and witnesses in Shreveport and beyond.”