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Once a Soldier for the Army, Priest Is Now a Soldier for the Lord

Father David Santos, pastor of St. James the Apostle Church in Springfield, N.J., presides over his niece’s wedding at St. Cecilia Church in Kearny. (Photo: OSV News/Courtesy of Father David Santos)

SPRINGFIELD, New Jersey — As Father David Santos peacefully leads the faithful in Springfield, New Jersey, he may not come off like a military man. But the pastor at St. James the Apostle Church has seen the brutality of war first hand, having faced death in Iraq during the height of war. 

Through his service to the U.S. Army and the Catholic Church, Father Santos has spent over half of his life sacrificing for the lives of others. Because of his time as a soldier at  war, he says, he has learned how to be a soldier for God. 

“As men, there’s something in us, even though we complain about it sometimes, that really likes sacrifice,” Father Santos told The Tablet. “It’s just something that’s part of our nature. I think both the military and the priesthood call that out of us, to be able to give of ourselves for others in a peaceful, loving, sacrificial way.”

Born into a Catholic household as the child of Portuguese immigrants, Father Santos truly began exploring his love for God in high school, under the guidance of Father Antonio Bico, a beloved priest known for his ability to bring youth into the Church. 

After he graduated high school, Father Santos and his twin brother Brian enrolled at Rutgers University. But just like many others, Father Santos’ life completely changed on Sept. 11, 2001. From their house in Kearny, New Jersey, the then-teenage college students could clearly see the devastation wrought on the Twin Towers.

Father Santos and his brother were among the many people who enlisted in the military in the wake of 9/11. Ignited with patriotic vigor, they joined the military together in 2002. From there, even before they were of legal drinking age, the brothers were shipped up to Rhode Island for training.

The Santos brothers served in the 173rd Long Range Surveillance Detachment Airborne Brigade, 42nd Infantry Division, a specialized unit of just 56 men, during the height of the Iraq War. They trained for about two years before they were deployed to Iraq in 2004, where they served for 11 months on the front lines. 

Their missions were often focused on information gathering, and they would take action in active war zones where they faced gunfire. 

Now-Father David Santos is seen with Iraqi children during his time serving in the military. Ordained for the Archdiocese of Newark in 2012, Father Santos is pastor of St. James the Apostle Church in Springfield. (Photo: OSV News/Courtesy of Father David Santos)

They were under the command of Colonel Mike Manning, who said that while he didn’t predict Father Santos would join the priesthood, he now realizes how the groundwork was laid for him to go down that road.

“We’re all products of our environment, all products of the homes in which we grew up in. And, Father David and his brother Brian grew up in an absolutely magnificent home with two wonderful parents. Faith was a big part of who they are,” Manning said.

After around three years of service, the Santos brothers returned to New Jersey, and Father Santos returned to his studies and enrolled at Seton Hall University. In the back of his mind, he kept thinking about the priesthood.

“One thing I remember vividly was that I was brushing my teeth, and I’m seeing myself in a Roman collar [in the mirror],” Father Santos said. “I was growing in my faith, my faith was very important, and I saw what a priest was capable of.”

A two-hour conversation at a Dunkin’ Donuts with his mentor from high school, Father Bico, changed David’s life. The next day, following the advice of Father Bico, he was at the Archdiocese of Newark’s Office of Vocations. 

He enrolled at St. Andrew’s College Seminary at Seton Hall University, graduating in 2008 — all the while continuing to serve in the National Guard — and completed his discernment in Rome at the Pontifical North American College. In 2012, he was ordained to the priesthood for the Archdiocese of Newark.

His welcoming nature brought a feeling of comfort to those at his first parish assignment, said Father John Paladino. The priests served together at St. Bartholomew Catholic Church in Scotch Plains, New Jersey, for eight years, growing the number of parish families to 3,000 as of last year.

Father Santos fell seamlessly into his inaugural clergy position as parochial vicar, Father Paladino said, which he attributes to the leadership skills he developed in the military. 

While at St. Bartholomew, Father Santos helped establish the Parish Emergency Response Team, designed to help in situations of natural disasters and for any security issues. He incorporated physical exercises, like organizing hikes before Holy Hours, into faith practice. 

“He had that kind of front-line mentality,” said Father Paladino, who now serves as the director of ongoing formation of clergy for the Archdiocese of Newark.

Father Santos and Brian served as co-grand marshals for the Memorial Day Parade in Scotch Plains. Through his brothers’ unique road to the priesthood, Brian believes Father Santos serves as a reminder that priests are human, just like everyone else.

“These expectations for the priesthood are kind of like stereotypes. To have him around with my kids, family, and friends, it’s great exposure to the humanity of it. I think it really connects our faith with the everyday,” Brian said.