Editor’s Note: The is the last in a series of profiles on the three recently ordained priests in the Diocese of Albany. Father Michael Melanson, Father Samuel Bellafiore and Father Kyle Eads were ordained on June 15 in the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Albany.

Besides being ordained a priest, Father Samuel Bellafiore can point to one experience in his 26 years that was life-changing.

During his early years in college at Notre Dame, Father Bellafiore had a longing to work with a certain group of people.

“I noticed throughout my freshman and sophomore years of college, for some reason, I couldn’t really explain, I was just really drawn to work with people with disabilities,” he said. “My parish, when I was growing up, was really good about including people with disabilities, which for me at the time was sort of scary, because you don’t see a lot of people with disabilities (out in public). People don’t bring them to the supermarket. Sometimes the only place you get to interact with people with disabilities is at church because people feel welcome there or at home there.”

So through Notre Dame, he applied to work in a summer service program in the L’Arche community in Washington, D.C., during his sophomore and junior years. According to its website (https://www.larcheusa.org/), “L’Arche communities … provide homes and workplaces where people with and without intellectual disabilities live and work together as peers; create inclusive communities of faith and friendship; and transform society through relationships that cross social boundaries.”

Father Bellafiore said in the L’Arche model, people with disabilities are the “core members, the center of the community” and the people who assist them don’t simply come there to take care of them. They are true equals in the experience.

“I think it had a profound impact on me,” Father Bellafiore said. “I have had a lot of great experiences, but my two months at L’Arche were the best two months of my life … so far. I think it taught me a lot about what it means to be in full-time ministry and what ministry can be like, but it also helped me in a lot of ways to accept myself and love myself as I was because the love I received from the community there was unconditional.”

Father Bellafiore has carried this impact into his first role as associate pastor at Our Lady of Victory Church in Troy. On this hot summer day, Father Bellafiore had his black sleeves rolled up to his elbows, with a coffee cup in his right hand, which always seemed to be getting in the way of his hand gestures. He is full of energy, describing himself as ‘Type-A,’ is easy to laugh and easy to talk to.

The priesthood is something that has always been swirling around Father Bellafiore even from an early age. He is from Bethlehem, went to St. Vincent de Paul Church in Albany and La Salle Institute in Troy for middle school and high school. He, along with his brother Robert, went to Mass every weekend with their parents, Robert and Marilyn, who instilled in him that “everybody’s mission was to be the shining light of Jesus.”

But that light dimmed just a little in school.

“I first remember the possibility of being a priest when I was 7 or 8 and it was kind of a thought in the back of my mind for a while,” he said, “and then I went to eighth grade where all vocations go to die. And I decided there is no way I am doing that. I fought the idea pretty hard in high school (and) decided at some point, secretly without telling anyone, that I was an atheist. And came back to my faith at the end of high school.”

His faith continued to grow at Notre Dame sparked by Eucharistic Adoration every Thursday, as well as his interest in football. “My dad said when I went to Notre Dame: ‘Notre Dame did in three weeks, what I tried and failed to do for 18 years. Which is try and get Sam to like football.’ ”

Father Bellafiore also got to hone his impressive talent for singing. He double-majored in philosophy and music with a concentration in vocal performance and trained in classical and operatic pieces while doing a lot of sacred music.

“That has always been a part of my life since I was really little,” said Father Bellafiore, who sang ‘Every Valley Shall Be Exalted’ from Handel’s Messiah for the Concert for Vocations in August. “I went to lots and lots of concerts, classical music concerts, starting when I was 6 months old and I sang in my parish choir and a youth choir and took singing lessons when I was growing up.”

Notre Dame also offered him the chance to have real, faith-filled conversations with his friends.

“It was an environment that was really nurturing and encouraging for me because there were brilliant people everywhere,” he said, “but I was able to have really passionate friendships with people who cared about the Gospel and were also thinking very seriously about a lot of different things.” 

It’s these meaningful conversations that he wants to continue with people in the Diocese.

“I have experienced here and all over as a priest, traveling, or you are in the airport or in Stewart’s, and the stuff people are willing to say to you … you get some taste of that as a seminarian but it’s really different as a priest,” Father Bellafiore said. “People are willing to talk to you about sufferings in their lives, some things that are really hard. And some things they are not always willing to tell other people.”

“Some people who are not my age are willing to talk to me, which is really humbling, because I am just a punk who got ordained (in June). I sense with people my age, they are happy to see somebody in a collar, and that is really a cool experience for some people and they are happy to open up.”
Using his age has allowed him to ask people serious, life questions.

“People … when they meet somebody in a collar and somebody in a collar that is 26, they are intrigued because it doesn’t happen every day. And it’s an opportunity to share the way that God has acted in my life … God doesn’t just want to act in my life because I am a priest, he wants to act in everybody’s life and people get that. But I also just ask people, ‘What’s the most important thing in your life?’ and ‘How is that working out for you?’

Because most people’s most important thing is not making them happy. and do you think you can be happier than that. And people seem to be pretty responsive to that.

“It’s not like three interview questions in a row but I use those questions to engage people in conversations and often to make an invitation, ‘Do you want to go to reconciliation?’ ‘Would you ever think about coming back to Mass?’ ”

Being a visible presence in the community, outside the Church walls is equally important. It is one of the most important ways to re-engage his millennial generation, the famed ‘nones.’ 

“Nobody is showing up at these doors automatically, especially not my age. You have to go and find people. Which means you can’t be in your office all day,” Father Bellafiore said. “I think especially for people my age, many of whom have never really experienced genuine love or real attention from somebody because everybody is so distracted; one-and-one interaction can be real appealing.

“Father Kyle (Eads) and I are two people and there are a lot more than two millennials not going to Mass! … I think Christianity and Catholicism in particular is inherently attractive and what human beings are made for and I think it’s where they find real fulfillment in life and where they find out how to be human beings; where they find real love and everybody wants that. 

“The Church building (used to be) the magnet that draws people, and the Church building can still be that, the parish can still be that, but we are going to need personal presence outside the parish in intentional ways to increase the pull of the magnet.”