Sacred Heart - - The News for South Mississippi

Sacred Heart

A man striving to become a priest has quite a story to tell of perseverance and faith. Unbelievable stumbling blocks halted Joel Faulk's religious journey, but his passion never wavered. Trials have left him with a sacred heart.

Joel is studying  at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans,  where mid-day Mass is an uphill climb. He takes two flights of stairs to the choir loft to hear God's word with a mask near his face. The inconveniences are a small price to pay for the miracles he's seen.

"There's a tremendous sense of  peace and fulfillment that I'm doing what God  wants me to be doing," he said.

Joel is one of more than 100 seminarians at Notre Dame.The Abbeville native and ULL grad started the path to priesthood more than a decade ago.

"There were always nudges of thinking about the priesthood," he said.

He had no idea what challenges lay ahead.

He started at the North American College in Rome in 1999. In his early 20s at the time, life in Rome was exciting. He enjoyed the comradery with other future priests. But, bruises from a game of pickup football revealed the first test of his faith.

"It was right after Lent started I came down with a diagnosis of Leukemia," he said.

He spent a month in the hospital in Rome and traveled back to the U.S. for a year of treatment. The chemo conquered his illness, and he was well enough to return to his religious studies. He returned to Rome in 2001.

"I almost finished the second year of theology when I relapsed in the spring of 2002," he said. "I decided to step out of seminary - no anger or animosity, it's just I said this is not what I need to be at this point in time."

He said his heart was divided, and his heart would soon be transformed.

"Once I got back on my feet, I took a job in Lafayette working in a religious ed program," Joel said.

He was later hired at Archbishop Rummel as a religion teacher. He enjoyed the job for years, but the nagging inside him started again. He said he knew he needed to go back to the seminary. Joel enrolled at Notre Dame in the fall of 2013. For the first time in 10 years, he was back on his chosen path to be a priest. Just like a decade before, another mountain stood in his way.

Seminary President Jim Wehner remembers.

"He was here for about two weeks, moving his things in, and he was experiencing shortness of breath," Wehner said.

Joel said the toxicity of the chemo that he needed to battle the cancer had permanently damaged his heart. He didn't know it was happening. It was before Christmas when they told Joel to pack his bag for the hospital. He needed a heart transplant.

Dr. Hector Ventura is his cardiologist.

"He had heart failure," Ventura said. "He was very sick when he came to the clinic."

He put Joel on the transplant list immediately. By New Year's Eve, he was on a pump to help his heart.

Wehner said doctors told Joel that if he didn't find a heart in a week, they would have to hook him to a machine that he'd carry with him.

On Jan. 5, five days after being on the transplant list, Joel was told he had a heart.

"I don't want to call it divine intervention, but something happened," Ventura said. "It's unusual when you have a person on the list for five days and get a transplant."

The seminarians all went to the hospital that night and celebrated Mass in Joel's room. He went into surgery the next morning,where he received the heart of a young man about his age.

"He was walking home New Year's Day and got hit by a car," Joel said of the donor.

"The Lord is the gift of God to the world, and those three kings gave gifts back to God," Wehner said. "So God gave Joel as second chance, that was God's gift to him. The Lord wants him to be a priest, and Joel is responding by giving his life back to the Lord  as a priest."

Because of possible heart rejection, Joel must wear a medical mask. When he was released from the hospital nine days later, he was amazed at what he saw on the seminary steps.

"When we pulled up at Carrollton in the driveway, all the seminarians were there in masks. When we got out of the car it was very joyful and tearful," Wehner said. "It's good to have our brother back."

Joel is on track to become a priest in two years.

"Christ in many ways was the first heart transplant surgeon, in that he takes away our stony heart to give us his own sacred heart," Joel said.

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