Sunday, May 13, 2018
Ana Rodriguez Soto - Florida Catholic newspaper
Photography: ANA RODRIGUEZ-SOTO | FC
MIAMI | Two are older. Two are younger. Two come from the same parish, Mother of Our Redeemer, another from a parish nearby, Immaculate Conception. One is a native — born and raised in Hialeah. The other three are immigrants who started out as manual laborers: loading and unloading clothing, moving mattresses, waiting tables.
Miami’s newest priests aptly represent the people they will serve:
- Omar Ayubi, 55, a Colombia native of Lebanese extraction who moved to the U.S. 26 years ago to join his family;
- Gustavo Barros, 45, also a native of Colombia who came to the U.S. 17 years ago seeking success as a photojournalist;
- Juan Alberto Gomez, 37, a native of Mexico who found salvation through the Neocatechumenal Way, and his vocation at World Youth Day in Toronto; and
- Matthew Gomez, 27, a Hialeah native and local Catholic school graduate who always considered the priesthood an option, then discerned it as a calling.
Archbishop Thomas Wenski ordained them May 12 in front of a jam-packed St. Mary Cathedral, during a ceremony brimming with symbols and tradition — and as emotion-filled as the new priests’ personal stories.
Father Ayubi, born April 13, 1963, discovered his vocation at 14. He was studying at a Jesuit high school in Barranquilla and considered entering the order after graduation. Then, as he put it, “life happened.”
His father died in 1980, the year he graduated. He was the oldest, and “I became a dad, literally,” to his two brothers and one sister. He worked at a bank while studying computer science. Eventually, his mother and siblings moved to Miami, and he joined them in 1991.
He found a job at a clothing factory in Hialeah, loading and unloading trucks. At night, he studied English. Soon he was promoted from the loading dock to the purchasing office, and the work became a career with three different manufacturers. When the last one shut down its Miami operations, he was invited to join their central office in Chicago.
“I was ready to go,” he said. But two weeks before the move, Father Jimmy Acevedo, then pastor of Mother of Our Redeemer, offered him a job as parish administrator. “I cannot pay you what you’re making,” the priest told him. But it was enough to live on, so he accepted.
For the next five years, the parish became his life: in the office five days a week, there on weekends as well, since his ministry — which pre-dated his work — included serving as usher, lector and coordinator of liturgical ministries.
One day, “out of the blue,” Father Acevedo asked him if had ever considered the priesthood. “I said, ‘it’s funny that you asked,’” Father Ayubi recalled. He explained that he had considered it anew but by that time he was in his 30s and figured he was too old. “You’re just silly,” Father Acevedo replied, pointing out that he himself had entered the seminary in his 30s.
The rest, as they say, is history. He entered St. John Vianney Seminary in 2011 and immediately knew “I had to be there.” Reassurance came from a most unusual source: the girlfriend he had been planning to marry until she suddenly broke it off. She didn’t have a good reason at the time, just a vague “something” she couldn’t explain. When she found out he had entered the seminary, she called him. “That’s exactly what it was,” she told him. “You did not belong to me.”
“Things happen for a reason,” Father Ayubi said. He now views his age and life experience as an asset to his ministry. “I was in the world. I know the world. I know exactly what it takes to be a father of a family, working, paying your bills… I definitely think it is an advantage.”
He will serve as parochial vicar at Our Lady of Lourdes in Kendall.
A late vocation
“Mine is a late vocation,” said Father Barros, born Sept. 7, 1972. His dream growing up was to work as a photojournalist, and he found success in his native Colombia, eventually joining the staff of the nation’s most important newspaper, El Tiempo. At 28, he set out to find success in the U.S. — and began living the immigrant’s life.
He studied English while working at a mattress factory in Hialeah. He also joined the very active young adult group at Mother of Our Redeemer, which he likened to his “spiritual trampoline.”
After a year, he found a job at a Spanish-language newspaper in Seattle, but returned frequently to Miami, both to reconnect with his parish friends and to complete a master’s degree in journalism at the University of Miami. Those trips back, he said, after feeling alone and cold in Seattle, “were for me like the vitamin of human warmth.”
And that’s where he heard the Lord’s call — twice, while attending retreats with Mother of Our Redeemer’s young adult group. The first time, in Orlando, the theme of the retreat was “Dare to say yes.” At one point, those who were considering the priesthood were asked to stand up. He remembers holding on tightly to his chair and thinking, “Nobody is getting me up from here. That’s not for me.”
But he couldn’t push the thought aside, especially because people often told him, “You’d make a good priest.” When he moved back to Miami five years later, he heard the call again. He shared his feelings with the spiritual director of the Cursillo he was attending, who told him he had to discern. He started attending weekly meetings organized by Msgr. Roberto Garza, then the archdiocesan Vocations Director. One day, Msgr. Garza invited the men to the cathedral and handed them application forms for the seminary. “I couldn’t escape.”
Making it in the U.S. was more difficult than he expected, Father Barros recalled. “I would lock myself in that bathroom in Hialeah and cry.” But now he figures, “God wanted me to be more humble,” adding he has no regrets. “God’s hand was always present.”
Reporting on immigrants in Seattle, mostly undocumented Mexicans, “touched me very deeply,” he said. He also was born without one ear, a condition known as microtia and atresia which affected his hearing, though paradoxically, “I love listening to people.” Receiving an implant in the seminary — a Bone Anchored Hearing Aid — “changed my life,” he said.
He considers that both experiences “awakened my sensitivity” to those who are sick and those in need and will help him exercise his priesthood. His goal, he said, is to “make people aware that Christ lives.”
He will serve as parochial vicar at St. Louis in Pinecrest.
‘Going to Mass saved me’
Father Juan Alberto Gomez, born Oct. 30, 1980 in Veracruz, Mexico, looks back on a somewhat difficult life. He is the fifth of seven siblings whose father was an alcoholic. He left the family to work in another town when Juan Alberto was 10. His mother died when he was 16.
“I had no direction. I felt alone,” he recalled. “I kind of hated God a little but I never left the Church.”
In fact, while “every door was open for me to get into drugs or alcohol,” he said, he retained a strong attraction to the Mass. “I think the Lord protected me. Going to Mass every Sunday saved me.”
After high school, he left home and worked as a waiter for several years in Acapulco, returning to Veracruz in summers to pursue a degree in mathematics. Along the way, he joined the Neocatechumenal Way. They helped him to see that he was not alone, to experience a Father’s love, and even encouraged him to take a leadership role in the community.
They also took him to World Youth Day in Toronto in 2002. That’s where he realized, he said, that “the Lord was calling me. I saw the joy, I saw the strength of the youth. I saw that I was not alone, that the Church was young, that it wasn’t dead.”
Eventually he responded to the call to priesthood. After studying at the Catholic University of America and the Blessed Diego Luis de San Vitores Catholic Theological Institute for Oceania in Guam, he came to Miami last year and joined the Redemptoris Mater Seminary at St. Cecilia Church in Hialeah.
Looking back on his life now, he realizes that despite the suffering, “it has been beautiful. Because I discovered God. And I have seen him. I have touched him. Everything has helped me to say, today, yes, Lord, I want to follow you. I want to give witness to the Good News that you love us, that you have not abandoned us.”
Since he entered the seminary, he has reconciled with his father, who still does not practice the faith and at first didn’t understand how his son could give up a wife and children. So he was floored a while back when his father said to him, “Son, you have chosen the better part” — the very words Jesus says to Mary in the Gospels.
“That’s impressive. That comes from the Holy Spirit,” Father Gomez said. “I think the Lord is preparing me for something great.”
Father Gomez will serve as parochial vicar at St. James in North Miami.
Always an option
Father Matthew Gomez, born Sept. 4, 1990, is that rarest of breeds: Hialeah born and raised, a parishioner at Immaculate Conception Church, graduate of its school and of Msgr. Edward Pace High School in Miami Gardens. He spent a year at St. Thomas University before entering the seminary.
He credits his vocation, in part, to his parents and Encuentros Juveniles, an archdiocesan youth movement. Like his parents, he and his two brothers — Matthew is the oldest — made the retreat and have served as leaders. Their parents also taught them that “the call to the religious life and priesthood was a valid option.”
So Matthew raised his hand in eighth grade when a seminarian visited his classroom and asked if anyone was considering the priesthood. He wasn’t at the time, but “it was option,” he recalled. At Pace, he got involved in campus ministry, which also “allowed my heart to be opened so that I can one day respond to God’s call.”
While studying at St. Thomas, he remembers a three-week period where his professors “all spoke about taking risks.” So did the people he met when he visited the United Nations as part of a study tour organized by the university’s Global Leadership Program. And so did a friend and fellow Immaculate Conception parishioner, now Father Bryan Garcia, ordained in 2015. At a vocations retreat, Father Garcia had told the men that entering the seminary is all about taking a risk.
“That was the lightbulb moment where the three weeks prior came together,” Father Gomez recalled. He told himself, “Ok. I think I need to take the risk.”
The hard part was telling his parents, who had always insisted their sons go to college. “I honestly was terrified,” he said. “I was convinced I was disobeying my parents.”
He told his brothers first, and a week later, his parents, who also were overjoyed. “That was the first, really the only decision I have made in my life without them,” Father Gomez said.
As a millennial, he is active on social media — “I embrace it as the tool it is” — and even hosts an occasional podcast with his brothers and a friend, called The Bearded Gentlemen, which can be heard on Soundcloud. He also loves going to movies and watching television.
“We have to find the goodness, we have to find Christ in every situation,” he said. “I’m not afraid of confronting that in media, in secular culture.”
Father Gomez said he especially looks forward to hearing confessions because he’s had such good experiences himself. “I want to bring that back to the people,” he said, citing what one confessor told him: “Don’t let a good sin go to waste. It’s an opportunity to get back to God.”
Father Gomez will serve as parochial vicar at St. John Neumann in Kendall.