Appreciating Diversity, Rejoicing in Spirit that Brings Church to Life

John Heffernan, OFM Friar News

SILVER SPRING, Md. — St. Camillus Parish near Washington, D.C., is a place I am honored and delighted to be. I was ordained here almost 32 years ago and had an earlier assignment here 19 years ago. It is a community that in many ways mirrors the development of the Catholic Church in North America. We have an aging population of European origin and a growing population of Latino, African and Bengali origin. It is indeed fascinating and exciting.

John Heffernan, left, with Javier Del Angel de Los Santos at the latter’s ordination. (Photo courtesy of John)

On May 29, our parish hosted the priestly ordination Mass of Javier Del Angel De Los Santos, OFM, and Juan de la Cruz Turcios, OFM. Both friars have significant roots in our community, and their ordination caused me to reflect on my own progression as a priest and how the Church and country have changed in the past thirty or so years.

In 1981, I lived and worked in a very small, rural town in Western New York. I was fairly involved in the local Catholic parish. The pastor had his quiet way of encouraging me in ministry. When I left for seminary studies, two years before I became a Franciscan, I very much felt the support and encouragement of the people of that community.

I went off with a very limited understanding of the Church. The first semester, at a Boston, Massachusetts, seminary, I heard of the emerging need for Spanish-speaking ministers to respond to the rapid increase of Latino Catholics in the U.S. The archdiocese was offering Spanish language classes and they sounded interesting to me, so off I went. I am not certain anyone knew just how prescient that 1981 language program was.

In 2019, the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate – known as CARA – issued a report describing the demographics of the Catholic Church in the United States. Census figures reported 35.5 million Hispanic/Latinos in the U.S. – which is about 12 percent of the overall population. Since the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, it has been a priority of the Church to provide appropriately trained priests and religious to attend to the pastoral needs of all people, including the particular needs of immigrants.

However, while there is approximately one white Catholic priest for every 1,100 non-Hispanic Catholics, there is only one Hispanic priest for every 10,000 Hispanic Catholics – all while the percentage of Hispanic Catholics was growing from 29 percent in 2007, to 34 percent in 2014, to nearly 40 percent in 2020.

But the failure to provide Hispanic pastoral leaders or qualified Anglophone clergy for the pastoral care of this growing demographic is also resulting in an exodus of Hispanic Catholics from the Church.

John Heffernan with St. Camillus parishioners. (Photo courtesy of John)

It is this growing and changing Church that beckoned our brothers to priestly ministry. For Juan de la Cruz, it was the encouragement of many people among whom he ministered that led him to respond to this priestly vocation within his Franciscan vocation. He was acutely aware of the need for priestly ministers, particularly among the Latinos to whom he ministers.

Our brother Javier came to the Franciscan community with a passion for sacred scripture and a unique gift for sharing the living word of God. During three different ministry assignments, in which he offered scripture sharing classes, Javier recognized the hunger of people for this scriptural image of the living Christ. The excitement of his hearers at St. Camillus has been for him an encouragement to continue pursuit of studies and ministerial preparation.

Juan de la Crux Turcios (left) with John Heffernan. (Photo courtesy of John)

I came to ministry in the Church by way of a vocational call I heard among a rural, farming community. Over these thirty years, the people of God have guided my vocation to the places it was needed – to the places I was needed. The guidance of wise and holy friars was crucial.

In many ways, I am in a distinctly different Church today. It is a beautiful, holy, and exciting community of God’s people. Our parish has the look and feel of all God’s people. Being together does not happen without intention and purpose. Who we are and who we can be is a matter of recognizing the ways and the will of God. It is a matter of excellent leadership and trust in human goodness.

I am heartened to accompany my two young brothers into this ministry of the priesthood. They inspire me to continue to listen to the holy people of God and to learn who they are. They teach me an essential lesson. This is not simply a matter of what can be done or distributed by good-hearted pastors.

Instead, it is a matter of recognizing, fostering, and promoting the gifts and talents of all of God’s people. It’s about finding and enabling the best leadership. It’s about getting out of the way so that the Spirit has room to move and bring new life.

This précis does not adequately express my obligation as a priest or our future as a Church. I rejoice, nevertheless, for the Spirit that brought this Church to life and continues to renew it in every age.

John Heffernan, who professed his first vows in 1985, is on the ministry team at St. Camillus Parish in Silver Spring, Maryland, and is a hospital chaplain at Walter Reed National Medical Center in nearby Bethesda. Previously, he served at parishes and ministry sites in New York City, Triangle, Virginia, and Lima, Peru. He enjoys annual mission excursions to southern Mexico.