by Joseph Nangle, OFM
Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace
This week’s article comes under the title of “human interest” – an exception to our usual topics. It is also quite personal given that the subject matter centers on a young Franciscan brother of mine, someone I admire deeply. In defense of my using this space in what might be considered a selfish way, there is definitely a “political dimension” to the story as well.
Recently I attended the priestly ordination of Juan de la Cruz Tercios held at our large multicultural Franciscan parish in Silver Spring, Maryland. That fact alone is noteworthy, even more so because the ordaining bishop was Cardinal Wilton Gregory, the first African American Cardinal in the U.S. One of the most poignant moments of the ordination ceremony took place near the end. Cardinal Gregory knelt before Juan and received the first priestly blessing. (This is customary and a quite moving custom; in this case it held enormous symbolism.)
The dramatic story of Juan’s journey from a rural village in El Salvador to his ordination as a Franciscan priest in the United States was reported some days later in the Metro Section of The Washington Post. The article was complete with photos of his first steps in this new ministry (photo from the Post article below and to the right) – saying Mass for a local Hispanic community, praying a blessing for a young Latinx couple and listening intently to the confession of a senora.
The Post highlighted Juan’s very modest beginnings in Central America, where his mother sold tamales to support him and his four siblings. In the typical narrative of so many families there, Juan’s father had to migrate and make his God-knows-how difficult way to the United States, where he worked to support his loved ones back at home.
The family was finally united, settled in the Washington area and began to attend St. Camillus Parish. There Juan met the Franciscan friars – at their best: tending to the needs of immigrant families like the Turcios and working for a healthy alternative to the gang violence, drugs and muggings in the area.
At age 23 he joined the Order and it took him 17 years to complete his education for priestly ministry. During those years he increasingly demonstrated how right it was for him to wear the Franciscan habit. On one occasion I remember hearing him give the homily at a large gathering of our brotherhood and how this immigrant boy, speaking a second language, held us engrossed with his contagious enthusiasm and his (no surprise) practical explanation of the day’s Gospel.
The instructive “political” dimension of this story is its historical significance. The Turcios family is among the estimated 60 million Latin Americans living in the United States (the numbers are inexact for obvious reasons). And there are an estimated 30 million Catholics among them. It is impossible to overstate the positive effect they have on our national life. Most of them have come here to escape the increasing poverty-driven violence of their homeland. If they had their choice, they would have stayed in their home countries. But they are here and, as everyone who knows them agrees, they are willing workers, often taking jobs that frankly many of us avoid doing.
The Latinx communities have brought with them a most attractive style. They love life and live it joyfully with their “fiestas” often wrapped up in their love and appreciation for family. And their practice of their Catholic faith has brought us new energy. That is why the ordination of Father Juan de la Cruz signifies a shining example of the enormous possibilities and promise which Latin Americans represent for our U.S. Catholic Church. The moment when the first African American Cardinal knelt to receive the first blessing of a young Latino priest symbolizes what the future of this Church might be. May we not miss it!
Joe Nangle OFM is a Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace. As a member of the Assisi Community in Washington, D.C., he is dedicated to simple living and social change. Joe also serves as the Pastoral Associate for the Latino community at Our Lady Queen of Peace, Arlington, Virginia.