Sunday, January 26, 2020
Linda Reeves - The Florida Catholic Palm Beach
FORT LAUDERDALE | In a black cassock, six-foot-four Father Ricardo Rivera gracefully strolled onto the gym floor during Cardinal Gibbons High School’s homecoming pep rally. What happened next, some are calling a miracle that opened a new realm for the newly-ordained priest.
Father Rivera, a Gibbons theology teacher, surprisingly joined the school’s dance team at the end of their pep rally performance of high kicks, spins and flips. Then his feet began to move. His hips began to sway. And he didn’t miss a beat.
“We were shocked,” said Kristin Garcia, the Cardinal Gibbons dance team coach responsible for inviting the priest to join the team during their program but not sure of Father Rivera’s sure-footedness. Garcia thought the priest’s participation in the dance, set to a “Star Wars” theme, would add a special touch to the finale but not send the entire audience to their feet jumping in joy.
Father Rivera’s 15-seconds in the limelight stole the show and the hearts of the students, faculty and staff.
“He came out, and I said wow,” said Amanda Lapadura, 17. “His energy was contagious. I didn’t know a priest could dance like that. When you think of a priest, you think God and praying. He is so talented. He is a great priest. I wish he was my teacher.”
Since arriving at Gibbons this school year, Father Rivera, 31, a native of Adjuntas, Puerto Rico, has impressed and excited students in and out of the classroom with his down-to-earth personality and his dynamic charisma. A member of the Piarist educational order, he is following in the footsteps of its founder, Joseph Calasanz, patron saint of Christian public schools.
He said that the pep rally was an opportunity for him to reach his students as part of his mission but in a bigger way. He took a leap of faith before the entire school body.
“You have to do anything to be closer to the youth,” he said. “It was a good experience. I know the Lord was working.”
Father Rivera nailed all the difficult dance moves without any coaching and without practicing with the team, which is a miracle in itself. In advance, the coach taped the team’s 17 dancers performing the fast-paced number that she and a friend choreographed. She gave the video to Father Rivera three days before the school assembly.
“I told him to do only what he felt comfortable doing,” she explained. “He learned everything on his own. He never practiced with the team.”
Fast forward. Cardinal Gibbons’ phones haven’t stopped ringing since the October 25 event went viral, capturing the eye of people around the world — even the priest’s provincial, who was in Hungary at the time, and his priest brothers in 40 different countries.
“He told me he was very happy,” said Father Rivera, who asked for his order’s approval before his big performance.
The school featured the pep rally video on Cardinal Gibbons’ website, Facebook and Twitter pages, and from there it spread throughout Cyberworld. So far, the school has been contacted by ABC television network and NBC’s “Today” show, whose host, Hoda Kotb, gave it one of her Boostie Awards as one of the most heartwarming Morning Boosts from 2019. German and English news networks have also been in touch with the school along with AOL and Yahoo. CBS, Fox and CNN all featured the video on their platforms, and Gibbons’ Facebook post alone has been viewed around 439,000 times.
“Today, we had a call from Tokyo media,” said Erin Herbert, communications specialist at Gibbons. “We don’t know how many have actually seen the video. I lost track.”
The priest, now labeled “the dancing priest,” has been well-received by people around the world, who have posted and tweeted good wishes and words of encouragement.
Amanda Phillips wrote, “Now this is cool news. This should be what headlines with priests are about. I love how everyone is smiling. You can feel the vibes and happy energy.”
Cardinal Gibbons granted the Florida Catholic an exclusive interview with Father Rivera, who told us he first heard the whisper of God’s call to the priesthood at age 18. He attended the University of Puerto Rico’s Rio Piedras campus in the Caribbean and earned a bachelor’s degree in fine arts with the idea of pursuing a singing career. His love for singing developed over the years through his involvement in his high school and college choirs.
“The vocation to the priesthood was stronger,” he said. “I knew the Lord wanted me to do something to reflect the face of Jesus Christ.”
He entered the Piarist community in Miami in 2011 and began studies at St. John Vianney College Seminary here, earning a bachelor’s in philosophy. At St. Joseph’s Seminary and College in Yonkers, New York, he received master’s degrees in both divinity and theology. He was ordained a transitional deacon Dec. 8, 2018, at St. Martin de Porres Chapel in Ponce, Puerto Rico. Five months later, he was ordained to the priesthood during May 17 rites at the Church of the Annunciation in New York.
He is now living among the Piarist community in Fort Lauderdale in the Archdiocese of Miami. This August, he began his priestly ministry by joining the faculty of Cardinal Gibbons, which serves 1,200 students. He teaches theology to freshmen and seniors, and on the weekends, serves at Assumption Church in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea.
When asked about his dancing abilities, the priest said, “I have danced since I was a child. Puerto Rican people are dancing people.”
He explained that his mother and father, his two sisters and brother enjoy both dancing and singing, and both have traditionally been part of his family’s celebrations.
He also confessed that he was part of a small competitive dance group when he was a teen. The team performed at events and activities and even choreographed their unique dance moves, putting their own spin on them.
Now in his new interesting phase as a priest, he continues to dance into the hearts of those he meets. As we walked areas of the school campus, it is apparent that he has won over the students. They flocked to him. One even took a selfie with him as he flashed a big smile.
“I have loved being a priest since day one,” he said when asked about the priesthood. “It is a beautiful vocation.
“I want to express to everyone that this is an occupation that you can enjoy and be fulfilled. It is so beautiful to celebrate Mass and to hear confessions. I love to teach. I feel like I want to do so much more for the Church and the people.”
Garcia hopes that Father Rivera will join her competitive dance team again in the future. She is convinced the dancing priest has bridged the gap between the generations and touched thousands of people, changing the minds of many with common misconceptions about priests, who today are sometimes labeled reserved, distant or bad.
“He said so much without saying anything at all,” said Garcia about Father Rivera’s joyful performance, apparently inspired by the Holy Spirit. “It was all meant to be. We were all in awe, but the kids were definitely in awe.”
Maggie Guidry, 17, shared a rally video on YouTube. “I have had 121,000 hits,” she said. “Based on the comments, everyone is impressed. This is important because he is bringing people to religion and the faith. It was totally unexpected. He is a great priest.”