"I give thanks to the Lord and to the Virgin Mary for the Home, Fr. Rafael, and for my vocation; for always placing the people I needed at my side, so I could find and respond
to my vocation."Religious Name: Fr. Juan Antonio Maria of the Eucharist
Date of entrance: September 8th, 1990
Age at entrance: 19 years old
City and country of origin: Rielves (Toledo), Spain
Date of perpetual vows: September 8th, 1998
Current Community: Villalbilla, Madrid (Spain)
Date of Ordination to the Priesthood: October 28, 1995
And the Telephone Rang…
“Immediately they left the nets and followed him” (Mt. 4: 20). This is the phrase that comes to mind as I begin to write my testimony, because it reminds me that at a crucial moment in my vocation I was at work picking peppers. It was a decisive moment in my following of Christ in the Servants of the Home of the Mother. To paraphrase the Gospel text, “He left the peppers and followed him.”
But I’m jumping ahead of the events and should rewind. I belong to a Catholic family from one of the countless Castillian villages in the province of Toledo, called Rielves.
During my childhood I was taught the faith. One of our favorite games at the age of seven or eight, was to celebrate Mass. We would set up a little table with a glass of water and a “Maria” biscuit under the stairway and say, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” I remember these as moments of joy, of peace, and... perhaps in the midst of children’s games the Lord was speaking. We felt drawn to what the priest did in the celebration of the Eucharist, and, in our games, we imitated what we witnessed every Sunday in church, as something good and desirable. He can speak through such innocent games, which bring us in touch with the divine realities.
The different priests who served at the parish were all very approachable and helped me to get closer to the Lord. During the preparation for our First Holy Communion we had a priest who encouraged us to help at Mass. We laughed a lot with him and he was fun to be around. He made the priesthood attractive and we experienced the priest as a friend who wished to help us get to heaven. The atmosphere was one of joy and sincere friendship.
Soon after making my First Communion I began to help at the altar as altarboy. (This priest preferred to awaken our desire to serve at Mass, so he wouldn’t let us until we had made our First Communion.) The years went by and of the four or five boys who used to go to church and help out at Mass, fewer and fewer remained. Nor did younger boys appear to follow our example.
As for me, the desire to be a priest, to belong always to God, is something I experienced very early on, even though when people would ask me that I wanted to be when I grew up, I would always say either a doctor or a builder. The Lord was speaking in this too, because in a sense I am something of a doctor (at least a physician of souls, and sometimes something of a nurse, curing the self-inflicted injuries of my hardworking brothers), and also a builder (building the Kingdom of God according to his will and also in a literal material sense, in the construction of our own houses).
One fine day we were told that a new priest was coming to our parish, to serve our village. By that time we were two altarboys, nervously awaiting the new priest on the Sunday of his arrival, standing on a chair and peering out the sacristy window to catch a first look at him. An unfamiliar car pulled up and a young priest wearing a cassock got out. A matter of moments later he arrives into the sacristy with a big smile to discover us by this time with our feet firmly planted on the floor, naturally. He asked us our names and told us his: Fr. Rafael Alonso.
There was something about that young priest that attracted me. He was cheerful and friendly. He told jokes when the time was right and celebrated the Holy Mass and all the sacraments with devotion and fervor. He encouraged us, all of us, children and teenagers included, to live the Christian life coherently, and he spoke with an uncommon power, the power of the truth.
It was this that strengthened in me the desire to belong totally to God. I helped out at Mass whenever I could, which wasn’t every day because we had Mass in my village only on Sundays and two other days of the week. The desire grew as I contemplated Fr. Rafael celebrating the Eucharist, along with his example, the way he lived, the way he interacted with others.
There is one episode from this time that I recall with great clarity and which clearly reveals that the Lord had planted in my soul the priestly vocation. Blessed John Paul II used to insist that “there should be no fears about directly proposing to a young or not so young person that the Lord might be calling him. It is an act of esteem and trust to do so, and it can be for that soul a moment of light and grace.” Fr. Rafael put this teaching into practice and, for me, it certainly turned out to be a moment of grace.
Sometimes Father would ask the other boys if they had ever thought of being a priest. Well, he would unfailingly ask my companion that question. His name was Marcelino (no relation to the movie):
“Have you ever thought of being a priest?”
And Marcelino’s response? “Ummmm... I don’t know... Maybe...”
And that was always the end of that. But not in my heart, because the Lord was working on me. Fr. Rafael never put that question to me, and I used to think to myself:“How come he never asks me if I want to be a priest, when my answer is going to be yes!” I used to get angry that he never asked me the question.
Until one day, in the sacristy of our parish church dedicated to the Apostle Saint James, the question finally arrived, this time addressed to me:
“Have you ever thought of being a priest?”
And my long desired answer:
“Yes, I want to be a priest.”
Later on, in another conversation, Fr. Rafael asked me again about my intention to be a priest, and I answered him:
“I want to be a priest like you.”
To which he replied with the question:
“Like me, or with me?”
I didn’t have to think twice:
Perhaps latently, but there it was, my vocation as priest and Servant, or rather, my vocation as Servant-Priest, even though I didn’t fully know it, wasn’t fully conscious of it. Looking back, I give abundant thanks to God because He conserved that desire in me to serve at the altar, even when all my friends of the same age, and even younger, had given up helping at Mass, and even given up going to church.
A grace that I consider immensely important throughout this period of my life was that of not giving up Sunday Mass. I only recall missing the Eucharist on two Sundays, and I remember it with bitterness. I say it was a grace that God gave me because it was He who gave me the strength to keep attending Holy Mass and to be able to say “No” to other “options” that generally appeal more strongly to teenagers than attending Sunday Mass.
Of course I liked to play football with my friends. I was neither the worst player in the village nor a superstar, and since there weren’t that many of us, all of us usually played. We had a village football team and played against neighboring villages. Some days of the week we would train – nothing professional; just running in circles with an adult shouting at us, followed by a game among ourselves – with matches against the other teams at the weekends.
For me, a problem arose. Some weekends the games were on Saturday or Sunday afternoons, in which case there was no problem. But when the games were scheduled for Sunday mornings, then there were problems, of conscience. Bear in mind that mine was a small village and we only had one Mass on Sundays, in the mornings. On Saturdays there was no vigil Mass. So there was only one possibility of fulfilling the Sunday precept to go to Mass. The problem was that if I played in the football match, I missed Sunday Mass.
The Lord worked miracles to give me the strength to be able to say “No!” to the weekend football match I so enjoyed against the teams from neighboring villages. On Saturday evenings as we made our way home from training or whatever, arrangements would be made to meet the following morning to get to the game. We all said yes, we’d be there at the agreed time. And the battle would begin inside: Sunday Mass or football match, Sunday Mass or football match...
On Sunday mornings I would pretend to be too lazy and not turn up. At first they came to my house so that I wouldn’t miss the match, but I told my mother to tell them I was tired and didn’t feel like going.
That was my excuse to stay in my village and attend Sunday Mass. I recognize that I wasn’t precisely heroic in giving testimony of my faith to my friends, telling them clearly that I wasn’t going with them to play football because my intention was to go to Mass, but at least I worked things out so that I didn’t miss the encounter with the Lord. Obviously all of this drew the mockery of my village friends, because it was common knowledge that I continued to go to church and frequent the sacraments.
Throughout adolescence the Lord’s call remained alive in my heart, and it was that call that enabled me not to falter in the face of the mockery of others. I was not running about proclaiming from the rooftops that I wanted to be a priest, but the truth is that I couldn’t hide it, given the singular fact that I was the only teenager in town still going to church, attending Mass on Sundays and serving as an altarboy!
Even someone who receives the vocation practically as a boy, is not necessarily “good”. The Lord chooses us not because we are “good” but because He wants to: it is his will and not our actions, that underlies a particular vocation. The path of following, of responding to a vocation, is not an easy one, without temptations. Quite the opposite; the devil makes sure to put difficulties in our way to divert us from God’s will, and the Lord permits this too, to strengthen us in our vocation and in the fulfillment of his will.
I have had certainty concerning the priestly vocation throughout my life, including the difficult years of adolescence, but there was a time when I did not want to have a vocation and did everything I could to “crush” that calling of the Lord. But I was unable. The call was so strong that I could not entirely put it out.
There was a moment in my youth when I even thought to myself: why can’t I have a girlfriend, like the other kids? Not with the purpose of one day entering marriage, but just to “be like everyone else.” This was the idea, and the devil made sure to make everything look “pretty”, like an “interesting experience”, without “renouncing my priestly vocation.” This was my reasoning: well, I know I have a priestly vocation and I can’t deny it; so, there’s no harm in going out with a girl, and then, when the moment comes to follow my vocation, I give her up and that’s it.”
Of course I didn’t realize at the time how dangerous that could be, but with the passing of time I saw it, and I thank God profusely that I didn’t bring those thoughts to fruition, because I doubt very much that I would have been able to break off a relationship with a girl once it had commenced.
Let me tell you a concrete case of how the devil avails of every opportunity to throw his nets at us. When I was thirteen years old, they did some psychological tests on us at school to help orientate us in our choice of future studies or in the workplace. In one of the sections we had to state our desires and inclinations concerning the profession we wished to practise in the future. At that time the little boxes still included options like priest, missionary, etc.. So I ticked “Priest”. A few days later a teacher told the whole class the answer I had given in the questionnaire. Imagine my surprise when I arrived home that evening and took my books out of my schoolbag only to find a note written by a girl (who didn’t sign her name; I found that out later) saying that it was sad that I wanted to be a priest because she really liked me, and what not. Those moments make it hard to remain firm in the calling one has received, when one feels the ardour of human love in one’s heart and the desire to form a family.
Divine Providence came to my rescue. At the end of that school year I had to go to high school. Torrijos was the nearest one to my home, which was where that girl, the writer of the note, was going. But since Fr. Rafael was a teacher at El Greco high school in Toledo, and several members of the Home of the Mother of the Youth were going there, I applied to go there too. There wasn’t much chance that I would be admitted. In fact, at first I was refused. But then the Lord and Our Mother arranged things to save my vocation from a more than likely betrayal.
Certainly, knowing Fr. Rafael was a big help in the development of my vocation, and, through him, meeting Mamie and the other young members of the Home of the Mother. Fr. Rafael was always a source of encouragement in the following of my vocation, from the moment that he asked me in the sacristy of our parish church of the Apostle St. James if I had ever thought about being a priest. Little by little he taught me how to pray, how to deepen my relationship with Our Lady the Virgin Mary, and he invited me to the camps that he himself organized with the group of boys. That was the beginning of my contact with the Home, and with other young people who lived a committed Christian life.
A very significant grace I received was that of turning to the sacrament of confession whenever I needed it. Adolescence is a difficult time, and if you have bad friends who push you towards sin and laugh at you if you don’t follow what they do... Well, that’s what happened to me. I have mentioned that I had friends among the youth of the Home, but the fact that I lived in a little town away from the city entailed some problems too, because the youth of the Home of the Mother lived in the city of Toledo and I didn’t have much interaction with them apart from the summer and other occasional weekend activities. Sometimes they came with Fr. Rafael for the Sunday Mass but I wasn’t able to spend much time with them. So, humanly speaking, I was alone a lot of the time, and the kids I hung out with were those of my village, who weren’t exactly an example of virtues.
But as I say, thanks be to God, I was always able to turn to the sacrament of penance, which was for me the lifesaver to which I had to cling so often to recover God’s grace lost through mortal sin. And so passed my adolescence and early youth, between falling and rising again, with my vocation always there in the background.
Five years after first meeting him, Fr. Rafael moved to Santander, and another priest arrived in my parish. My contact with the Home remained alive and I contined to be a member of the Home of the Mother of the Youth.
After my first year in university, I was working during the summer to pay for the following year’s studies. That summer I was a little disconnected from the HMY, not being able to attend the camp or other activities. The month of September arrived. One day I received a call from a young member of the Home who invited me to Santander to spend a few days with Fr. Rafael. He told me it was important, that Father wished to speak with us (“us” meaning the young members of the HMY who had manifested our desire to give ourselves to God in the religious and priestly life).
God organizes things so that it becomes possible for us to do his will. I was not very convinced because I had made a commitment to work during those days. I was picking peppers and the farmer was counting on me. But we could only pick peppers on the days when the buyers would come to transport them, because peppers go off very quickly when they are removed from their plant and placed in boxes. How amazing is the Providence of God, even in the tiniest details! Precisely two days before the date decided for that encounter with Fr. Rafael in Santander, I was told that we wouldn’t be picking peppers for a few days because the buyers weren’t coming.
Quickly I called back to make arrangements to get to Santander, to celebrate the anniversary of the making of vows by the first three Servant Sisters. On the way, Fr. Felix (back then he was just plain Felix, third-year seminarian), told me a little about why Fr. Rafael wanted to see us. When we go to Mamie’s house in Santander, on September 7, Father was waiting for us. It was lunchtime. During the meal he asked me if Felix had told me the reason for our journey. He explained the situation to me in greater detail, and why he thought the moment had arrived to begin the Servants. He asked me: are you ready to begin the Servants now?
It was a proposition, not an imposition. Fr. Rafael told me I didn’t have to answer immediately, that I had time to think about it, to ask the Lord for light. The following day, September 8, Our Lady’s birthday (Nativity of the Virgin Mary), he would speak with each one of us to receive our personal response.
September 8 was a “decisive” day. I spent the morning in spiritual retreat. Fr. Rafael, Felix and I left Santander early for the Servant Sisters’ house in Zurita. Father went to the Shrine of Our Lady of Valencia in Vioño, to hear confessions of the pilgrims who go there on Our Lady’s feast-days, before celebrating the solemn Mass, which we also would later attend.
We spent the morning in the Sisters’ chapel in Zurita, in prayer; asking the Lord and Our Blessed Mother for light to know his will. There were no few objections. Why interrupt the studies I had begun? My parents wanted me to finish them; what would they say? Why now? These and other questions jostled in my mind. But the grace of God was also doing its work and the Lord’s gentle voice said to me: “If you say no now, will you have the strength to say yes later? This is the moment you’ve been longing for: be generous and throw yourself into my arms: I love you and I have chosen you to be my gift.”
After that morning and the Holy Mass, it was decided: if the Lord wishes it, so do I. Now it was just a question of meeting personally with Fr. Rafael to communicate the decision to him. In an atmosphere of profound joy in the Lord, that evening of the feast of Mary’s Nativity, in the little chapel of the Servant Sisters of the Home of the Mother, I gave my “Yes”, that yes which has had to be repeated so often, because it is not something you say just once: it has to be maintained day after day, fighting against one’s own wretchedness and sins, turning always to the mercy of God and the maternal protection of Our Lady. It is She who has chosen me to be a member of her gift and who has kept me in her Home to this day. I pray She will do so until I see her face to face in heaven.
Today, more than twenty years after that “leaving the peppers to follow Him,” I do not regret in the slightest my “Yes” to giving it all up (the university career, the possibility of forming a family, exercising a profession) to do his will; rather, giving up what amounts to nothing compared n owthe One who is All. Pope Benedict XVI was entirely right when, in the commencement homily of his pontificate, he said to us: “Speaking from my own long personal experience of life, I would like to say to all of you, dear young people: Do not be afraid of Christ! He takes away nothing and gives all! Whoever gives himself to Him, receives a hundredfold. Yes, open, open wide the doors of your heart to Christ, and you will find the true life.”