Saturday, June 7, 2008

Felicidades, Padre Raul! Keep Going, Brother!

Congratulations to our brother, Raul Alejos Montelongo, on his priestly ordination Thursday, June 5, at Old Mission San Luis Rey, Oceanside, California. Retired auxiliary Bishop Gilberto E. Chaves, D.D., of the Diocese of San Diego, presided over the evening liturgy attended by scores of Franciscan friars and more than 1,000 parish members. Following the ordination Mass, members of the parish gave a wonderful fiesta, with great Mexican food and music.

It’s been a long road for our brother, Raul, and so this celebration is especially sweet for him, his family, and for the friars, and for myself personally. Raul and I are classmates—I was ordained a priest in 1999, and the third remaining member of our class, Father Alberto Villafan, was ordained in 2005. But all three of us entered the Franciscan postulancy program together in Portland, Oregon, in September, 1993. Prior to that, Raul and Alberto had spent time studying English at what was then our ESL house, Casa San Felipe de Jesus, in Los Angeles. The rest is history—and proof of God’s grace and Raul’s own persistent and intrepid spirit.

Our brother Raul was born in the state of San Luis Potosi, Mexico, and emigrated to the United States with his family as a child. As a youth and young man, he labored in the fields near Santa Paula, California, and was quite active in his local parish for several years before entering the Franciscans. A talented singer/ musician and an excellent public speaker possessed of natural charisma, Raul has retained a love of both music and youth ministry throughout his life as a friar. Now that he is ordained as a priest, he will be putting some of those talents to work at the parish at Old Mission San Luis Rey, where he has been assigned as parochial vicar (i.e., associate pastor.

We Franciscans like to point out that every man who comes to us has not one, but two vocations. His first vocation—one that all of the friars share—is to be a brother to his brothers and to all of God’s People following the example of our Brother Jesus and inspired in a special way by Saint Francis and Saint Clare of Assisi. The second calling is particular to each individual: some men are called to ordained ministry; others, are called to be lay brothers. In the past, rigid distinction (and sometimes very real and painful discrimination) was made between the ‘status’ of lay brother and that of the ‘cleric’ or ordained friar, both within the community and in the context of public ministry. Basically, the clerics/ ordained friars got a lot of perks; the lay brother got a lot of work, but not always a lot of credit or affirmation. Things have changed greatly both within the community and within our ministries, but some distinctions still remain.

Friar Raul’s path to priesthood, in the Franciscan context, then, has never been separate from his formation as a ‘brother for others’ within the tradition of our Order. In fact, the first three years of his formation (along with Alberto, myself, and our confreres at the time) were entirely dedicated formation in fraternal life—in other words, learning to live with each other in community. The first year, or postulancy, consisted of nine months of residential discernment in a kind of halfway house environment in Portland, Oregon. We took outside, part-time jobs, but ‘inside’ we worked on community building skills: common prayer and Eucharist, faith sharing, classes in Catholic teachings and Franciscan ideals, and even a communications course to show us how to negotiate the tensions of daily living.

The second year, or novitiate, was dedicated to cultivating the interior life—to growing in our relationship with Jesus through prayer, study, and contemplation. Throw in some manual labor, classes in Franciscan spirituality and life, and voila!—friars in the making. The start of the novitiate, with the reception of the habit, is a very special and unforgettable moment in every friar’s life.

In the case of our class, the third year of fraternal formation involved our living and working together in Mesquital-- a struggling barrio in the center of Guatemala City, Guatemala. I learned to speak Spanish, while—ironically—Raul and our other Hispanic classmates continued to take classes in English! Together, we learned to minister and to be ministered to by the Christ in our presence—in and through the wonderful example and hospitality of our friends, neighbors, and parishioners in Mesquital.

After the third year of formation, our class broke up and we parted ways. Alberto and Raul began studies—first at a junior college in Oakland, California, and then at Holy Names University in the same city. Since I had already received a bachelor’s degree, I moved into theological studies immediately. Once my brothers had completed their own undergraduate work (Raul majored in psychology), they, too, began studies for their M.Div., or Masters of Divinity degree at our Franciscan School of Theology in Berkeley, California.

So, let’s do the math: 2 years of ESL training + 3 years of initial formation + 4 years of college + 4 years of theology + 1 year of diaconate equals one heck of a lot of years. In the case of a number of brothers, including Raul, you can throw in a couple of extra years for additional ministerial training (CPE—Clinical Pastoral Training, etc. ) prior to diaconate ordination.

Daunting? You betcha! Especially, if one looks at solemn profession and/or priestly ordination as the brass ring, the Grand Prize. And it’s difficult not to do so. But Franciscan life, and religious life in general, is about the long run—the marathon over the sprint. So each step of the way is part of a lifelong process of ‘being’ and ‘becoming’ a friar. I was ordained nine years before my brother Raul, but I don’t consider myself ahead of him in any way whatsoever. Regardless of the difference in years and formation, we are both on the same road, traveling together as brothers, led by our Brother Jesus.

So, again, “Felicidades!” to Father Raul! And “Sigamos adelante/ Keep going!”, Brother!

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