This is the second of two articles about HNP members who are planning to profess their final vows as Franciscans this summer. The previous was about Javier del Angel de Los Santos, OFM.
GREENVILLE, S.C. – Although religious vocation was an ongoing theme in his life and one that began in his adolescent years, Roberto Serrano, OFM, always seemed to convince himself that he wanted to do something else – reasoning that service work, perhaps as a firefighter or a job in youth ministry, would keep him close to his faith and still allow him to marry and have a family. But no matter how many excuses he came up with, he always found his way back to vocation. The friar, known to all as Tito, is scheduled to mark a Franciscan milestone this month when he professes his solemn vows.
His path to final profession passed through Greenville, where Tito spent his yearlong internship at St. Anthony of Padua Parish preparing for the next phase of his ministry as a Franciscan friar. Tito was attracted to the parish because he wanted to experience its diversity of ministry and the creative, out-of-the-box thinking that has always been part of its history and culture – which includes a parish school, food pantry and affordable housing.
His internship assignments provided learning experiences that exceeded his expectations. When the parish school found itself in a bind after the religion teacher extended her maternity leave to permanent stay-at-home-mom status, Tito stepped in to fill the void. Although standing in front of classrooms teaching religion to children ranging from kindergarten to 6th grade sounded intimidating, the experience was as enriching for Tito as it was for the students.
“Although I was doing the teaching, this ministry became the learning experience that I needed,” Tito said in a phone interview.
“I had given talks to high school and college kids, but grade school is a different ballgame altogether. It’s half teaching, half performing – a balance between entertaining and educating, keeping students interested and engaged, but conveying important information. It was exhausting but exhilarating – and something I hadn’t expected to be doing. I never pictured myself in a classroom,” he said.
“We have a way of making plans, and then God laughs. I had expectations of what I was going to learn during my internship. I didn’t learn what I expected, but I learned far more than I expected,” he added.
Campus Ministry & Culinary Skills a Perfect Mix
In addition to teaching religion class, Tito served in campus ministry at two nearby universities – Furman and Clemson, where Patrick Tuttle, OFM, and Robert Menard, OFM, respectively, are campus ministers. It was mostly a ministry of presence — helping students in their faith journey — but he also gained life lessons in intercultural and inter-religious encounter and planning mission trips – an element that he would eventually like to incorporate into his ministerial work as a friar.
Tito often preached at the parish’s Monday midday Mass, which changed the way he reads scriptures and listens to others.
“I learned that preaching really starts to change the way you look at scripture. I listen more intently to what the celebrant says about the readings, and I have become a better listener to what others have to say,” Tito explained. “Good conversation, even when people disagree, has great value.”
The people of the parish seemed to enjoy having Tito with them, said Patrick, pastor of St. Anthony of Padua Parish.
“He spent a great deal of time taking care of the religious education of the children of our school,” said Patrick. “He also was instrumental in many challenging poverty ministry tasks, such as moving the poor from one apartment to another allowing some measure of dignity and joy in the process. Brother Tito is a fantastic cook as well and, at least three times, cooked a meal for over 150 people. Tito brought the flavor in many ways, not the least of which was joy and help to the brothers in St. Anthony Friary.”
One aspect of pastoral life at St. Anthony’s that Tito will always cherish from his internship is the Sunday night socials, when he had the opportunity to display his culinary skills – gathering in the kitchen and collaborating with a small group of volunteer parishioners on a meal for other members of the parish.
“It was one of the great joys of my time at St. Anthony because there was a real sense of intercultural encounter, community building and socializing,” said Tito, who knows his way around the kitchen after learning from one of the top chefs of Puerto Rican cuisine – his mother. He brought some of his ethnic heritage to the parish meals, preparing his specialty – pernil, a roast pork dish served with rice and beans.
“It reminded me of my own family and the joy and laughter we shared when preparing big meals – although in my family kitchen there was a lot of loud music and we were always fighting over prime counter space,” he said laughingly.
His ministry work at St. Anthony of Padua helped Tito to recognize that his growth personally and as a friar was still a work in progress, and it also affirmed what he already knew – that the best place for him to learn and grow in faith is with Holy Name Province among the fraternal community of friars.
“When you’re in the seminary, the environment is focused completely on studies. But it’s a messy place when you’re with the people of God. It’s important as friars to be rooted in God and fraternity. No matter what life and ministry throws your way, as friars we find a way to excel because of our faith foundation and the fraternal aspect of the Order,” said Tito, who was born in Tampa, Fla., and attended elementary school at a military base in Germany, where his father, a career member of the U.S. Air Force, was stationed.
A Fateful Drive Home
The son of parents who grew up in Puerto Rico, Tito attended a Catholic school in Phoenix, Az., when his father was reassigned stateside. He graduated from Arizona’s first Catholic high school, which was established by the Franciscan Province of Santa Barbara.
The desire to serve intensified as he matured into a young adult, and after graduating from high school, he volunteered with a program for teenagers at a local parish. On a fateful drive home one night after a youth event, thoughts of religious vocation burned in his mind – but this time, he didn’t try to dispel them.
“I felt this profound sense that became unavoidable. I made the decision in my car after dropping off a friend. I got home and told my mom we had to have a talk. I think she knew – the intuition of a mother. I finally decided to do what I was meant to do,” said Tito, who had been studying philosophy at the time after months of taking EMT and fire science courses while contemplating a career as a firefighter.
“Firefighting is not the type of vocation you settle for as a conciliatory prize. It’s not what I really wanted to do, which is why I started taking philosophy and logic courses,” he said.
His work with the teen group, combined with his studies, inspired him to contact the vocation director of the Phoenix diocese. Although he greatly admired St. Francis of Assisi and the sense of service and littleness, he had not yet felt drawn to the Franciscans.
After 18 months of discernment, his vocation plans fell through. He was back to square one, unsure of his future. Tito continued taking philosophy and humanity courses at a community college while working in various jobs, as a laborer and electrician in construction projects and as a customer service consultant at a gym. But vocation came calling again.
Franciscans Come Into Focus
“Because of my love for St. Francis, I finally decided to explore the Franciscans,” said Tito, who transferred his philosophy credits to Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio, where several of his high school classmates were already enrolled. That’s where he met Fr. Rick Martignetti, OFM, of Immaculate Conception Province, whose guidance during the discernment process resulted in Tito joining that province a year later in the summer of 2011.
He completed his postulancy in 2012 at St. Leonard of Port Maurice Parish in the North End of Boston, Mass., and continued his formation and education at the Interprovincial Novitiate in Burlington, Wis. – where he made his first profession and became acquainted with Holy Name Province when he met Casey Cole, OFM, and Edgardo Jara, OFM, who have become his close friends.
During his year in Burlington, Tito provided a ministry of fraternal presence at the friar retirement house and served at a food pantry, unpacking truckloads of donated goods and stocking shelves. He went to Rome, Italy, to complete his studies in philosophy and returned two years later to begin graduate studies in theology at St. John’s Seminary in Brookline, Mass. In 2016, he transferred to Holy Name Province, and after a two-month renewal process, Tito was assigned to St. Joseph’s Friary in Chicago, where he lived while studying for his master’s in divinity degree at nearby Catholic Theological Union.
It’s more providence than coincidence that Tito’s ministry work in Greenville had a connecting thread to his first two years as an HNP friar. During his first year in Chicago, he worked with a not-for-profit refugee organization that helped immigrant refugees acclimate to their new home and environment.
“Living in Germany and moving around a lot as a child because of my father’s military career, I know what it’s like to have to adjust to different cultures and surroundings,” said Tito, who speaks three languages — English, Italian and Spanish. “I wanted to play a role in making people feel welcome and teaching them about the resources available.”
He added, “Like those Sunday night parish dinners at St. Anthony’s, a little hospitality goes a long way in intercultural and inter-religious understanding and tolerance. Once you get to know people, and welcome them and embrace their differences, it’s hard to categorize and stereotype them.”
Youth and Migrant Ministries
Tito worked in urban ministry during his second year in Chicago. When he wasn’t tutoring elementary-aged students in an after-school program, he was shadowing the organization’s director to absorb as much information as he could. It’s the part of his nature that existed well before he became a friar – a burning desire to serve others, and learning how to best achieve that. Not surprisingly, Tito would like to establish an organization in a multi-immigrant-populated neighborhood to help families navigate the many challenges and difficulties they face – something that he believes is sorely needed in light of Washington’s anti-immigration policies.
“As Franciscans, we strive to be humble and lesser brothers, which can be a challenge for me because I am very opinionated and certain in my views. But I am reminded daily of the call to ‘littleness’ and humility, usually by my brothers who humble me with their insight and the way they express and conduct themselves,” Tito said.
Acknowledging that God has a way of changing things just when they seem planned, Tito said he is aspiring toward ordination into the priesthood. After professing his final vows, Tito would like to expand his work in youth, migrant and inter-religious dialogue ministries, and organize mission trips.
He spoke excitedly in anticipation of his final profession – although he admits there was “a moment of nervousness after realizing, ‘oh my gosh, this is for life!’ There will be a lot of emotion, with my parents and friends present,” he said.
In June, Tito completed a pilgrimage retreat in Rome and Assisi, a journey that most friars take before professing their solemn vows. One of the retreat’s most inspiring exercises, he said, was walking the path that St. Clare of Assisi took when she left behind her home and family to become part of the Franciscan community.
“We stopped at different points to reflect on what she was leaving behind. I related it to my own journey, what I have walked away from, but most importantly what I am walking toward, what I have sacrificed and what I am saying ‘yes’ to,” Tito said.
— Stephen Mangione is a frequent contributor to HNP Today.
- “Communities Celebrate Catholic Schools Week” – Feb. 21, 2019, HNP Today
- “Friars in Florida, South Carolina Host Guests Interested in Franciscan Life” Feb. 22, 2018, HNP Today