“People have asked me, ‘What do you most look forward to in the priesthood?’ The sacraments are obviously, I think the first priority,” the new priest said. After a long pause, he continued, “But very close to that, in a mysterious, absurd, mystical way, when a person knows that they are loved by the priest, they know they are loved by God. And I look forward to doing that.”
Listening to Father Steven Troy Chabarria talk about the priesthood, you would never know he did not want to be a priest. But now, there is tremendous peace and joy as he begins his first assignment as the parochial vicar at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Tyler.
Journey to priesthood
The oldest son of Albert and Laura Chabarria, Father Steven’s faith journey began while he was still a student at Whitehouse High School. “I give credit to my dad,” he said. “Right around when my dad turned 40, he had an awakening and started to take his faith seriously.”
Father Steven, who is close to his father, described how Albert began to pray, read more about the faith, and participate in various activities at the cathedral in Tyler and in their home parish of St. Mary Magdalene in Flint.
Although Albert was Catholic, Father Steven’s mother, Laura, was a Baptist. As a result, Father Steven and his brother would attend Sunday school and church services at the Baptist church in the mornings and catechism classes and Mass at St. Mary Magdalene in the evening.
Attracted to the liturgy and the clear doctrinal teachings of the Catholic Church, coupled with the newfound freedom that comes with turning 16 and learning to drive, Father Steven felt he had to decide which Church he would attend. For Father Steven, it was clear, he wanted to go to the Catholic Church. A desire he attributes to the graces of baptism and confirmation.
In high school, Father Steven found he was frequently asked to explain Church teachings. “I was kind of talkative,” Father Steven explained. “I don’t know if I ever indicated before that I knew things about the faith, but I paid attention in catechism class, so I guess I knew. So, I started answering some of those questions. And for the questions I didn’t know I started looking things up.”
Although Father Steven was beginning to take his faith seriously and even began to explain the faith to others, the priesthood was not a serious thought on his mind.
“I wasn’t really interested in that,” Father Steven said. “I felt like I was tricked into being an advocate for the Catholic Church, because there was no one else to do it. I knew it was important, but I didn’t want to be the guy defending the Church.”
“I’m the fun guy! I’m the cool guy! Everyone likes me!” he remembered with a laugh. “I’m not the churchy one.”
After graduating high school, Father Steven began his freshman year at Tarleton State University to pursue a degree in horticulture.
Castle made of sand
Father Steven was unhappy those first months of college. “The friends that I made there were doing college stuff, as college kids do,” he said. “I just couldn’t invest in that kind of stuff. I wanted to be a part of the stuff that they were doing. But I couldn’t do it. I see it as a grace of God now. But at the time it was just frustrating.”
Because his classes were easy, Father Steven had tremendous free time. Much of his day was spent in the quiet of his room watching fishing videos.
During this time, his grandmother began sending him devotional booklets. “I had a stack of them on my desk by my bed,” Father Steven said. “They’d stare at me every day. Eventually, I got so bored that I look at those things, and I’m like, ‘Well, maybe I’ll read those.’ So that’s how it starts.”
This time was difficult for Father Steven. He had been well-known in his community back home, and when he moved away for college, he no longer had this attention. “I really fed on people’s attention,” Father Steven explained. “I had built a kingdom of my personality. I had a lot of attention. And when I moved, I didn’t have that.
“Basically, I had built a castle of sand and the waves came and I had nothing,” he continued. “It was just me sitting on the beach. And I’m looking at the ocean blue and I have nothing. And the Lord put things in my path that I was forced to look at.”
Father Steven found himself saying to God, “My friends are not here, my family is not here, my comforts are not here, my affirmations are not here, all I have is you. I believe you’re real. I believe that you have a plan for me. The things that I’m reading are touching my heart in ways that I haven’t been touched before. What do I need to do?”
He began praying the rosary and going to daily Mass for the first time. But there was still much frustration and unhappiness in his life.
Turning to God, “I say that prayer again,” he explained. “Lord, I know you exist. I know you have a plan for me. And I know that plan is going to make me happy. Because I’m not happy right now. I feel like I’m just lonely, and sad. What do you want me to do?”
At that moment, the Lord put the priesthood on his mind. But this was not a suggestion Father Steven was particularly happy with.
“Literally not that. I did not want that. I did not like that. I couldn’t even say the word priest,” Father Steven said. “I had many reasons why that was not a good idea. But I asked a sincere question, and he gave me a sincere response. And I couldn’t act like I didn’t hear it. It was clear as day. I knew it was right, but there was no part of me that wanted it.”
Following the promptings of the Holy Spirit, Father Steven slowly explored more about the priesthood. “Instead of watching fishing videos,” he said. “I started watching saint videos. I watched a video on the priesthood, like one of those vocation videos, and in the middle of it, I was just weeping.” He knew he had to give it a try.
Over spring break of his freshman year, he reached out to his pastor at St. Mary Magdalene, Father Timothy Kelly, who connected him with Father Justin Braun, the diocesan vocations director at the time. Father Steven was accepted as a seminarian of the Diocese of Tyler and began his studies at the University of Dallas in the fall of 2015.
“That first semester, I didn’t want to be there,” Father Steven admitted. “But I knew I had to be there. Just being around the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament, praying, doing the liturgy of the hours, going to Mass every day, there was real grace there.”
While in seminary, Father Steven learned how to pray on a retreat. “That was kind of my conversion,” he said. “I encountered the Lord with an open heart, probably for the first time.”
He found himself saying to the Lord, “I don’t want to be a priest. But I’m here. And if you need me for this, I’m going to be doing it. You’ve convinced me that this is something for my good. You’ve convinced me that this is something where I can be happy.”
And over time, he started to want to the priesthood.
“In seminary, there was so much correcting, such healing,” he remembered. “On every level, there was an addressing of my heart, and of my desire, and of my intellect, such that I was finally able to, after eight years, have the freedom to say, ‘I do believe. I am convinced and I’m ready to give my life to him.’”
By the time Father Steven reached his diaconate ordination in the summer of 2022 and his priestly ordination on June 3, 2023, there was tremendous freedom to say yes to the Lord.
“So here we are. Eight years,” he said with a smile. “I was in the womb of the Church for eight years. Now that I have been birthed, there is a lot of growing to do.”
It’s all worth it
“The only reason that I have sound footing is because of that relationship with God,” Father Steven said. “I look at that castle of sand that I built, it was a castle of sand. A soft breeze, one swift wave tears it down immediately. It’s because of that relationship with God.”
“If the priest knows God and is known by God, all he has to do is be, and then it is transmitted,” Father Steven said. “It’s like Mother Teresa. How did Mother Teresa change the world? One person at a time. She loved one person at a time. You don’t change the world because you want to establish this and make this happen. You love one person at a time. And in God’s will, he makes that fruitful.”
After a long journey, Father Steven Chabarria radiates the joy of a person who knows he is deeply loved by God. “So, I didn’t want to be a priest,” he concluded with a smile. “But it’s worth it. It’s worth the whole thing.”
Originally published in the Summer 2023 edition of the Catholic East Texas.