We are headed out this weekend to visit Padre Julio. This is obviously not a picture of him. I will come back and post a picture of him after we return this weekend. I was astonished to find that I had none, given the amount of time we have spent together, but let me go on and tell the story, which begins, like most stories, with a starting point, typically written as "once upon a time."
Once upon a time, a couple of years ago, actually, God sent me a special blessing. At the time, I did not realize what this blessing was. Over time, I became more and more aware. Over time, the blessing became blessings.
Once upon a time, a couple of years ago, actually, I attended the Spanish Mass at Old Mission for the first time. The Spanish Mass is now the usual Mass I attend on Sundays. The first time I attended that Mass, a young priest from Colombia was celebrating the Mass. Charismatic, dedicated, spiritual, and drawn to people, he found many people drawn to him. Attendance at his Masses left no sitting room; no one minded standing for there was much interaction in His Masses, which ended all too quickly.
More than building a congregation, Padre Julio had a very special goal: to intervene in the lives of the children of his home area of Palomar, Colombia who were being pulled into violence by insurgents mainly because they had few alternatives. He wanted Americans to experience the blessing of helping him help the children, and many did. He gathered sponsors for a host of children in the towns. He planned to build a school on a self-sustaining farm, which he also planned to build. He had a start: two tractors donated by the local rotary club.
No voice told me to help Padre, but somehow I understood that I was supposed to help him. I offered to help, but we had a problem. He avoided English speakers because he could not speak English. My spoken Spanish is weak, but I can write in Spanish. So, we began a correspondence, and after a while, he gathered the courage to talk to me, with him speaking in Spanish and me speaking in English, communicating quite well. (He has told people that I do speak Spanish but choose not to. That is not exactly true. I do understand everything I read and most of what I hear. I can also say almost anything I want to say, but I do it haltingly, and that makes conversations awkward. When there is no choice, such as with Padre Julio's mother who came to visit and with gatherings at the home of the president of the non-profit that Padre founded, I do speak Spanish, but when time matters and the other person understands English, we tend to have the same bilingual conversations that I had with Padre.)
At the time, he had limited means to advertise and fundraise. I pointed out that he needed a website. He knew this and had someone working on it, but he was paying a high fee for someone with limited skills. That person had taken his money and not delivered on it. He did not know how to deal with the person, so he turned the problem over to me. I got the person to finish the website, but it looked messy, busy, and unprofessional. So, I gathered my family together, along with a bilingual friend from Colombia who is a professional translator. I translated all the Spanish website documents from Padre from Spanish into English, and then I wrote a website around them. My friend translated all of the website, including localization of the codes, into Spanish. Donnie, my husband, put the website together, doing the design (on which we have received many compliments) and the graphics. My son, Shane, who is a computer guru, did the html, and my son, Blaine, who was living in Illinois at the time and working as a webmaster and commercial web designer, flew home to put on the finishing flourishes that were beyond the amateur skills of Donnie and Shane. We had a website! It brought in money and let people follow the progress of Padre's projects. It also shared letters from the children and encouraged more people to become sponsors.
Then Noelle's shunt for hydrocephalus stopped working, and she had to be emergency evacuated to Stanford University Hospital for brain surgery. Padre drove all the way up there (more than an hour away) to pray for her before the surgery. Already, he was becoming part of our family. Already this was a blessing.
Then, he told me about a predicament he was facing. The bishop had reassigned him from the Spanish Mass in our little town to the English Mass in a nearby town (where Shane and Lemony live). He spoke no English, but the bilingual bishop felt that it was time for him to learn. Padre asked for advice on what school to attend. Since I have been a trainer of ESL teachers and know all the programs in this area, I knew that no school would provide him what he needed. Moreover, they would charge him while giving him little in return. I could give him much more for free. Now, I knew why I had been "pushed" to help him. Anyone could have done a website, although not anyone had offered to donate the required time and expertise as my family had. I had the precise set of skills needed to help Padre. So, I took Santa Biblia and the Bible, side by side, and each week worked through the Gospel reading for Sunday with him. We would start by listening over and over to a homily on that Gospel reading; I typed up the written version so that Padre could listen, then read and listen, then read and get the full meaning. After that, he would read the Gospel passage to me, and I would correct his pronunciation. Then, we would spend 2-3 hours working on grammar and vocabulary connected with the passage. I would make him tell it to me in the past, present, future, and hypothetical. If it was negative, I asked him to give me the positive and vice versus. If it were a series of statements, I asked him to turn them into questions and vice versus. We did that two evenings a week. Then, Friday evening we worked on preparing his homily. Soon, Fridays were also spent on language per se, and he would email his homily to me after he had written it. Then, he did not need to have his homily checked; he had it under control. We continued the language lessons, however, until he returned to Colombia at the end of 2008. By the end, he could listen to someone else's homily once and understand it all without any need for repetition or written crutch. To see that blossoming of his English language was rewarding. Another blessing.
When we were not studying at my house, Padre would be meeting with members of the Por Amor a Los Ninos de Colombia organization he founded. They met at the home of the president in Salts. I was often asked to come. (I was a bit of a celebrity among them thanks to having donated the website.) From time to time, the meetings included a Mass for one reason or another. Celebrating Mass with a highly spiritual priest like Padre in a small group in an intimate home was another one of those blessings that God seems to like to shower on me for reasons, as the expression goes, God only knows.
Then, his mother came to visit. She so wanted me to come to Colombia, but my boss would not let me go there (long story). I became close to her, too, and I could tell that she liked me, most likely because Padre had already become part of my family. She is remarkable lady, having raised seven sons, three of whom are priests. (I have met two of Padre's brothers, one of whom is also a priest.) She told someone at the last Mass of Padre's before he returned to Colombia that she would miss me because I was like the daughter she never had. She commented that I even called her Mama. (Well, yeah, because Padre never told me her name!) So, what does one say upon hearing such feelings toward oneself? Another blessing.
Throughout 2009 and 2010 Padre would Skype me from his mother's house, and they both would talk to me, Padre in English and Mama in Spanish. While there, Padre finished building the self-sustaining farm and the school. Classes started in the fall of 2009, and Padre taught the children English! My friend, the interpreter, sent computers for the school. This fall the children started their second year. It was such a happy outcome for this major effort. The story of Padre in my life seemed to have moved to one of correspondence.
Then, surprisingly, the obispo (bishop) in Colombia freed Padre to return to the USA, and he has now landed at a parish in San Diego. Upon arrival, he contacted me. "Please come to San Diego," he begged in still-good English. "I miss you. I need you."
So, Donnie and I are heading to San Diego this weekend. As if facilitated by fortune, at the last minute, I was able to get prime seats for free on a non-stop, good-time-of-day flight. I never would have expected that level of luck. However, nothing associated with Padre is luck. It is all one blessing after another.
No, helping Padre was not a tasking from God. It was an ever-growing gift from God.