An Opportunity Taken, A Gift Received

Christopher VanHaight, OFM Friar News

This piece was written by Christopher VanHaight, who was ordained last year and just returned to New Jersey after five months in Guadalajara, Mexico.

PATERSON, N.J. — I have received many gifts in my life, but my time in Mexico — living with the friars and studying Spanish — has been one of the best. The experiences I have had will stay with me the rest of my life.

My purpose for spending five months in Guadalajara, Mexico, was primarily to learn Spanish and to experience the Hispanic culture firsthand. Though the ministerial necessity for Spanish-speaking friars was an obvious influence in my decision, other factors were equally important in leading me to this point. First, the 10 weeks I spent in Bolivia after novitiate, though not sufficient to allow me to minister in Spanish, did show me that with more time I could speak Spanish well enough to effectively minister in the language. Second, was the encouragement I received from several friars, particularly Francis Di Spigno, OFM, and Gonzalo Torres, OFM, to pursue this journey. I am grateful for their encouragement.

Searching Spanish Programs
During my last semester of theological studies at the Washington Theological Union, before my ordination to the priesthood, I started looking into Spanish programs and possible locations. I had originally thought of an immersion program in the United States, but upon further reflection, realized that it would not be as effective as living in a Spanish-speaking country. Several factors pointed to Mexico, and Guadalajara in particular: the ability to return to the United States rapidly if necessary, several highly recommended language schools (including mine, IMACC), and most importantly, the presence of a friary where I could be a part of a Franciscan community. That friary is located in Zapopan, a town next to Guadalajara, and is part of a complex that houses both the Basilica of Our Lady of Zapopan and the house of philosophy for students of the Province of Saint Francis and Saint James (Jalisco).

I put together a budget and submitted a proposal to study in Guadalajara. Special thanks to James Sabak, OFM, andDominic Monti, OFM, for their help with the process. The proposal was readily approved and I was halfway there.

I wanted to first get some experience ministering as a priest in my own culture before heading off to another, and so, I started my first assignment in Paterson, N.J.  I could go on and on about what a great parish it is, or how much help and guidance I received from Daniel Grigassy, OFM, and Christopher Camadella, OFM, but I will say that it was a very rewarding time. Among other things, I was able to see the large Hispanic presence in the neighborhood and the obvious need for hispanic ministry there. I was also able to have a month of intensive Spanish tutoring before I left for Mexico, which was a great help.

Going to Guadalahara
At the end of August, I left for Guadalajara. The Tapatios, as Guadalajarans call themselves, like to say that Guadalajara is the most Mexican city in Mexico. Though a city of about 5 million people, parts still retain the ambiance of Old Mexico. It is also the capital of the important state of Jalisco, the origin of both tequila and mariachi music. For me, Guadalajara had the perfect balance between a modern, international city, but one that was thoroughly Mexican.

While parts of Guadalajara are sleek and modern, entering the friary and basilica of Zapopan was like stepping back in time to 1750, the approximate age of the building. At the heart of the massive complex is the surprisingly small Basilica of Our Lady of Zapopan, which enshrines the small statue of the Virgin of Zapopan, a miraculous image from the 16th Century that predates the Virgin of Guadalupe by several years. The Virgin of Zapopan is patroness of Guadalajara, and in October the statue is processed from the downtown cathedral to the basilica on foot, a distance of about 10 miles. More than 1 million people follow behind. This day-long pilgrimage, called the Romería, was a highlight of my time in Guadalajara. I sprinkled holy water on thousands of people as they streamed into the basilica to catch a glimpse and offer a prayer to the Virgin.

Most moving for me was at 11 p.m. The basilica was to close and the crowd was starting to thin out. An entire family — mother, father, and two little girls — came up the center aisle together, hand in hand, on their knees the whole way, a look of absolute reverence on all their faces. I will never forget that moment.

A Rewarding Experience
I have had many other wonderful ministerial experiences in Guadalajara. The opportunity to celebrate Mass with two groups of religious sisters, as well as with the children at an orphanage here; the privilege of celebrating Mass three times on Mariavisión, the Spanish-language Catholic cable network seen in over a dozen countries; and celebrating Mass with my brothers in the friary chapel.

Living with the friars in Zapopan has been the most rewarding aspect of my time in Mexico. They have been nothing but welcoming, helpful, and encouraging. Their warmth and faith-filled lives have been an inspiration to me. And of the 65 friars who live in the friary, including the 39 philosophy students, only one could speak English, so it was basically all-Spanish, all the time.

After five months, I am preparing to head back to Paterson. Leaving will be agridulce, or bittersweet. I look forward to getting back into the swing of things at home, but I will miss the culture, people, and most especially, the friars in Mexico. They have all given me so much. I only hope I can begin to repay them in some small way by my ministry to their brethren in the United States.

— Fr. Christopher returned this week to St. Bonaventure Parish in Paterson, N.J.