‘Soldier of Christ’: Calling Leads Army Veteran to the Priesthood

From saving lives of fellow soldiers to a mission of saving souls …

L to R: Soldier David Santos visits with Iraq children; Father David Santos officiates at the wedding of his niece/goddaughter at St. Cecilia Church in Kearny, New Jersey, his home parish. His mentor Father John Paladino can be seen in the background.
L to R: Soldier David Santos visits with Iraq children; Father David Santos officiates at the wedding of his niece/goddaughter at St. Cecilia Church in Kearny, New Jersey, his home parish. His mentor Father John Paladino can be seen in the background. (photo: Courtesy of Father David Santos and the Archdiocese of Newark)

Father David Santos, 41, pastor of St. James the Apostle Catholic Church in Springfield, New Jersey, remembers that he was on retreat with a young-adult group when the priest in confession, Father Antonio Biko, asked him, “What do you want to do with your life?”

“This was right after 9/11,” Father Santos recalled to the Register. “I said, ‘I want to be a soldier of Christ.’ I was growing in my relationship with the Church and my love of the Lord. I also felt this call to serve in the military. So that’s what I came up with — a soldier of Christ. And he looked at me and he said, ‘That sounds like a priest.’ And I said, ‘No, I don’t think so.’  I was certainly open to the possibility, but it wasn't something that I, at that point, really thought.”

The young Santos had a girlfriend and, like his twin brother, Brian, he was interested in all things military.

Looking back, he said, “I believe that that was the seed that was planted. From really that moment on, I thought of the possibility of it. ‘What does that mean?’ And I knew Father T [Biko] as a wonderful example of priest.”

The Santos brothers’ parents, Aurelio and Maria, had emigrated from Portugal in 1973, with a young son and daughter. 

Father David Santos diaconate ordination
Father David Santos poses with his parents, Aurelio and Maria Soledade Santos, at his transitional deacon ordination as a seminarian in Rome in 2011.(Photo: Courtesy of Father David Santos)

The twins were first-generation Americans surrounded by elements of the faith. As a junior in high school, David was invited to a retreat for teens by a girl he was dating. 

There, he met the late Father Antonio Biko. He was “very involved, very available, especially with the youth and kids who struggled with drug addiction. He was just very dedicated to serving others, but he was also a very social, very kind and funny man.” The young David “was attracted to this personality and radical choice of life and gift of life.” He remembers “growing in my faith and my identity as a Catholic man and a believer.” He was also growing in his friendship with Father Biko. The Santos brothers served as altar servers on Saturday mornings when the priest said Mass for the Missionaries of Charity in Newark. “I also grew in a relationship with the Missionaries of Charity as a result of that,” Father Santos added; they would also help the sisters in the soup kitchen and other ways.

Then the brothers started their first year of college at Rutgers, pursuing a degree in criminal justice. Their goals solidified after the events of 9/11, when, from their home in Kearny, New Jersey, they were able to see the horrific events before heading to class — their home had a clear line of sight to the Twin Towers.

“There was this immense sense of patriotism,” Father Santos remembered of the post-9/11 time period. He and Brian enlisted in the Army and became members of the 173rd Long Range Surveillance Detachment (LRS), Airborne Infantry, 42nd Infantry Division. It was a small unit of 56 men. The specialized unit was deployed to Iraq in 2004, shortly after the brothers enlisted.

Father David Santos and his twin brother, Brian
David Santos and his twin brother, Brian; looking at photo, David is on the left.(Photo: Courtesy of Father David Santos)

“Having the opportunity to serve with my twin brother was a great blessing,” Father Santos explained. “We’re very close, but also to have that sense of home with you, as you’re deployed” was important. “At the same time, we looked out for each other, and there was a sense of security in that and having family literally with you.”


‘Signal Grace’ in Iraq

Their commander, Col. Michael Manning, assigned the twins to different teams so they were not in the field during operations at the same time. But they always connected on base — and faith was their lifeline. 

“It wasn’t because of what I experienced in Iraq that led me to the priesthood, but it certainly was a part of my path to the priesthood,” Father Santos explained. “I think it helped me to grow in trust in God and confidence in faith. Being in a combat zone, you’re exposed to tremendous pressures and the unfortunate side of our humanity that’s broken and susceptible to evil. So being in a combat zone and having the great gift of faith really helps — to go through the experience with, I believe, a lot more confidence in God’s presence, his will, his guidance, for not only what happens to me, but what I also am called to do in terms of my service mission.”

He added, “I was always very conscious of the dignity of each person. Obviously, you’re in a combat zone, so there’s people who are trying to harm you.”

His mission was not yet the priest’s job of saving souls, but of saving the lives of fellow soldiers. 

Father Santos well remembers the first time his three-man team was hit with an improvised explosive device (IED), the roadside bombs “very common and devastating American forces.” 

He was driving the lead vehicle of the two that were carrying a six-man team — three in each — when they were hit with an IED. 

“Thankfully,” he said, “in this situation, they had buried the munitions too deep, and no one was hurt.” Returning two days later, he “was able to recover a piece of shrapnel from that site,” he said. “I have it with me. I keep it on my desk. It’s a reminder of how fragile life is and, especially, the first time where I really felt somebody was trying to harm me.  And you realize, there are so many countless situations where soldiers don’t walk away from those situations.” 

Such times, involving gunfire and explosions, were not “a rarity.”

“At this point, I feel like I lived 10 lives because you go through so much and you experience so much. I think it does quite a job on you, in terms of just maturing you.” But he also mentioned “benefits — resilience, a sense of duty. You learn a lot about yourself, about others. When pressure is applied in that way, and you’re constantly operating in a tempo that is very stressful, you learn how to manage stress and you learn how to adjust to situations that you don’t plan for or things that you don’t expect.”

Father David Santos and his Army unit
Soldier Santos with his unit – he is the one standing at the far left, behind the soldier kneeling. (Photo: Courtesy of Father David Santos)

He recalled an unexpected event that happened during basic training. Going to Mass on Sunday, soldier Santos remembers looking through a booklet, like a bulletin, and saw “a soldier dressed in green fatigues. His name tag said ‘Santos.’ And I’m thinking, ‘That’s interesting.’ I flipped the page, and it’s the same soldier, and he’s celebrating Mass as a priest!” He sees this as another “vocational seed” leading to his “Soldier of Christ” goal.

Brother Brian Santos remembers that incident too, telling the Register: “I think at that time, he was having a real deep inclination of wanting to be a priest. … He was on the path to, I think, where God wanted him to be. There wasn’t necessarily any big changes, but it was cool to see how it unfolded. He has pretty cool stories of how I think God was telling him in a certain direction he should probably lead his life towards.” 

“I think that was a signal grace for him,” Col. Manning (Ret.), their commanding officer, told the Register. 

Today, the retired officer teaches leadership courses in college and is an adjunct formator at St. John Seminary in Boston. “Faith is just a huge part of who they are. It was a part of the fabric of what it meant to grow up in the Santos family. And so those guys brought that. So there was a humility, there was an authenticity, and then we talk about the way that people live their values: They live virtuously. And that’s what you saw with the guys. It was a gift to have the Santos brothers in our formation.”

Stateside again in December 2005, after their tour in Iraq, Father Santos explained, “What enabled my brother and I, in particular, to adjust when we came back, had a lot to do, no doubt, with faith, understanding that God is ever present, a loving God who’s with us. We had a very strong family bond, very strong family support. So to know that you’re coming back to a loving family who you miss and they miss you, that’s a tremendous advantage. This whole time, my faith was growing.”

Back in college, he started thinking more about the possibility of priesthood and told his priest friend, Father Biko, “I don’t think I can do what you do. I don’t think I could be a priest.” For the next two hours, they sat talking.

“The next day I woke up with tremendous peace,” he said. “I felt this a tremendous sense of peace that I was taking the first real big step and serious step in the direction that the Lord had been mapping out for me.”

The Archdiocese of Newark sent him to the Newark archdiocesan seminary at Seton Hall University and then on to study at the North American College in Rome for five years. 


Pre-Ordination Consolation

At home in New Jersey for a break a couple of weeks away from ordination, he heard that there were a few chalices in the seminary left by priests who had died. They had bequeathed the chalices to the seminary for seminarians who had need of one. 

“I got a call that there were a few chalices, if I wanted to see if I liked any of them,” Father Santos recalled. “The first one I see — oh, it’s beautiful. It had just been refurbished. Typically, in the base of the chalice, you’ll have engraved, ‘In memory of,’ ‘In gratitude for,’ or a patron or a family member you want to honor.”

“I took the chalice, turned it over, and it said, ‘Soldier of Christ.’ I almost dropped it! That put all doubts to bed,” he said, recalling his gratitude: “Thank you, Lord. You’re so good.”

“I’ve never seen a chalice that has a message like that,” he added “It’s never just a message like that. Every time I tell this story, it feels like a dream, because it’s just so beautiful how the Lord views that situation. And he established that, confirming my vocation and how he has guided me throughout my whole discernment, my life. And it’s a statement — ‘I’m going to be with you until you’re with me for all eternity.’ That was just tremendously comforting.” 



‘The Mission Shapes the Man’

Manning always saw in David the qualities of being a soldier for Christ. He said the unit did dangerous work to clear and keep roads and communication open in hotspots heavily laden with IEDs and much enemy activity. It was physically, mentally and emotionally arduous. 

“When you’re going through these really difficult times, you have those of us that are blessed to have faith, and in particular, the Catholic faith. I know Dave’s faith absolutely sustained him through our deployment. And, of course, he cooperated with that grace.”

At the time, he did not realize the young soldier might be discerning a vocation, but he would see him in conversations with a Catholic chaplain who would occasionally bring the sacraments. 

But he did know, and today describes, David Santos as “an exceptionally humble man, an exceptionally talented man, and we would refer to him as a one-percenter. He’s a top one-percent guy, as is his brother. They’re exceptional human beings. The mission shapes the man. They really fought the war as part of a very elite unit with a very, very difficult mission. And every time the guys were out, there was some type of contact with the enemy that occurred. And so they were constantly in danger.”

He added, “Dave Santos had this well-formed love for the faith. He’s got a wonderful conscience. He’s just got these natural skills and inclination towards leadership. Then he has this really transformational experience as part of this wonderful combat unit. He takes all of this experience, all this God-given talent, and he says, ‘I’m going to be a priest. I’m going to respond to this call.’ And that’s what they have at St. James parish. They have this exceptional leader. He’s holy; he’s humble; he’s grounded; he’s tough. He’s everything that you want in a priest. And he’s everything that we need in the Church today. When I look at Father Dave, this is a leader. Quite honestly, he should be a bishop someday because he knows how to lead; he’s a shepherd. Our mission as Catholics is to seek the truth, to defend the truth, and to suffer for the truth. And that’s what Dave does. And he does it with just a boatload of grace and humility.”


All-in for Christ

Father Santos was ordained on May 26, 2012, and celebrated his first Mass at Our Lady of Fatima Church in Newark on the day of his ordinaton. He celebrated his second Mass the next day at his home parish, St. Cecilia Church in Kearny.

Father David Santos ordination photo
Father David Santos’ presbyteral ordination photo, taken during his ordination to the priesthood at Newark’s Cathedral-Basilica of the Sacred Heart in 2012. He is kneeling before Archbishop John J. Myers, who was leading the Archdiocese of Newark at the time.(Photo: Archdiocese of Newark)

Father Santos is all-in.

“I love being a priest,” he told the Register. “I often say it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. And people are surprised: ‘It’s harder than the military?’ I say, ‘Absolutely.’ In the military, don’t get me wrong, obviously, it is [hard], and everyone has their own experiences. You’re hyper-specialized and competent in a specific amount of skill sets; then the Army provides support so that you can successfully conduct a mission. It helps you to limit the scope of your attention and effort so that you can be successful at your mission. In the priesthood, there are many similarities. That’s why I think the military is an untapped resource for vocations. There’s a clear connection between the two, many parallels.”

Father David Santos offers a blessing
Father David Santos offers a blessing to the newlyweds during the wedding Mass of his niece/goddaughter at St. Cecilia Church in Kearny, New Jersey.(Photo: Archdiocese of Newark)

He underscored the connection between his experiences as a soldier and a priest. 

“You sacrifice your life for the greater good, your will for the institution in many ways. You're teaming up with others for a particular mission. It’s duty; it’s sacrifice; it’s camaraderie, fraternity; it’s a regimented lifestyle, discipline. There are a lot of parallels. But the difference is specifically, again, [in the military] you’re hyper-focused on a few skill sets. But as a priest, as a pastor, I’m called to lead people in the parish, but also meant to be attentive to the pastoral needs and the temporal needs. So I’m the CEO; I’m the CFO, the human resources person, the facilities manager, but I’m also the priest — the confessor, the dispenser of the sacraments, the spiritual guide and the shepherd, which I love. I love that about the priesthood.”

Within a few days of starting at his parish, he was visiting a dying person, meeting with the family; celebrating a baptism; meeting with a couple preparing for marriage; celebrating Mass — and more. 

Father David Santos picnic
Father David Santos poses for a photo with parishioners in 2022 during the centennial anniversary celebration of his current parish, St. James the Apostle Church in Springfield, where he serves as pastor. (Photo: Archdiocese of Newark)


Father David Santos parishioners
Father David Santos celebrates the Saint James Way street dedication in 2022 in Springfield, New Jersey.(Photo: Archdiocese of Newark)

“You run the gamut of the emotional spectrum. You run the gamut of people’s experiences of great joy at the birth of a new child and the heartbreak of the loss of a loved one. And the priest is privileged to accompany people throughout all of that. It’s beautiful. It’s a great privilege, great responsibility.”