BRIGHTON — Sergio Chávez and Jorge Ramírez may have taken different paths, but both Colombian natives are embarking on the next step to become priests serving the Rochester Diocese.
As a young teenager, Chávez never had any interest in being an altar boy or in participating in church activities, while Ramírez was active and early in life felt a call to serve his church and community, they recounted during a June interview at Beckett Hall, the diocesan residence for men discerning priestly vocations.
Although he at first tried working in the secular world of telemarketing, "I have always enjoyed serving people," Ramírez noted. He soon discovered that the job didn’t jibe with his values, especially in terms of honesty, and he began thinking about a life of religious service. At that time, he also began speaking with a priest from his diocese about becoming a priest and possibly traveling to the United States.
Chávez’s explained that his feelings about spirituality and the church began to change during high school, after he joined a youth group with his then-girlfriend. He made inquiries into the requirements for becoming a priest and began seminary studies at age 16 at Seminario Mayor de Malaga Soata. What led to this life-altering change, Chávez said he still cannot explain.
"The truth is if I had an explanation, I wouldn’t be here," he added. "I think it was something magical. I think it’s the Lord’s call but he has yet to deliver his full message."
The two seminarians spent the past year in Rochester taking daily English classes at St. Bernard’s Institute, working in two urban parishes and becoming accostumed to American life. They returned to Colombia in July for vacation with family and friends before returning to officially enter the seminary in August. Ramírez will study at St. Mary’s Seminary and University in Baltimore, and Chávez at Theological College in Washington, D.C.
The initiative to train seminarians from South America is part of the diocese’s efforts to meet the needs of the growing Hispanic population, said Bernard Grizard, director of Parish Support Ministries.
"Increasing the number of priests from an Hispanic cultural tradition will help Spanish-speaking Catholics in our diocese to anchor their faith within their own cultural tradition," said Grizard. "Jorge and Sergio have been very well received within the Hispanic community in the Rochester diocese, and also within the English-speaking communities and the diocesan church at large."
Ramírez, 29, was born and raised in Medellin. He and his two brothers endured a lot in their young lives, having lost both their parents and grandparents, with whom they were raised, he said. After high school, he studied higher education and educational management at the University of San Buenaventura. Following talks with his priest about his vocation, he studied philosophy at Seminario Mayor de Medellín and the Potificia Bolivariana University.
At first, his extended family of uncles and cousins did not take seriously his intention to become a priest, Ramírez explained. But once he began the process, they fully supported his decision, he added.
He met with Brother Juan Lozada, director of the diocese’s Spanish Apostolate, and Father Jim Schwartz, diocesan director of vocations, in Medellín during the spring of 2009 about coming to Rochester to learn English.
"Then, in May, they called me with the news that I had been accepted, thanks to the grace of God," Ramírez recounted.
Chávez was born in Bogota but was raised in a small town called Uvita Boyaca. After completing a year of pastoral work and beginning his theology studies at Universidad Luís Amigo, he took some time to study engineering. But after discussions with Father Fernando Bernal Parra, a priest whom he met in Medellín, Chávez returned to his theology studies. Father Bernal and Father Edwin Gómez, who served as the preacher during the annual Santa Misión three years ago, also spoke with him about possibly serving as a priest in Rochester someday, Chávez added. Father Bernal also worked with Ramírez.
Once he received the news from Brother Lozada that he also had been accepted for the English immersion program in Rochester, Chávez finally told his parents, grandparents and siblings that he would be leaving Colombia.
"They were happy, a little surprised, with my decision," Chávez remarked. "But happy because they know that I’m doing what I want and what I like."
Both Colombians suffered a little culture shock upon arriving in Rochester. Chávez said. And studying English for five hours every day for the past year was difficult, added Ramírez.
"People at first seemed like Japanese caricatures talking to me because I understood nothing," Chávez joked. "But little by little, what was most amazing to me is that I began to understand, I began to write, I began to read in English … and I began succeeding so much that I now can communicate and read (English)."
In addition to experiencing snow and cold for the first time as well, Ramírez said he still cannot believe all the places the pair has have visited, including New York City, Niagara Falls and Chicago. He said he also marvels at the beauty of the Finger Lakes.
"The scenery is beautiful," he said. "(All this) is part of the process."
They both said that their perceptions of Americans as being cold, independent people could not have been further from what they have experienced. The caring and support from parishioners and diocesan staff has been more than they could ever have imagined, noted Ramírez.
"I have found a multicultural community that is Puerto Rican and Mexican as well as (meeting) Colombians and Americans who I have found to be kind human beings too," noted Chávez. "People who are open, happy and willing to share."
Brother Juan said Chávez and Ramírez were well received by their respective church communities, Holy Apostles and Our Lady of the Americas.
"They care greatly for these two young men," he added. "The community has looked kindly on them … They love them and await their success."
Chávez and Ramírez said they have become friends with other seminarians in the area as well as those they have met in the seminaries they will attend. Chávez also found new friends who helped him learn English while playing soccer with students from the University of Rochester.
"And here I thought I would not get along well with Americans," he added. "And I have made many good friends among them."
Both are excited to begin their seminary studies, which will take them four or five years, and about returning to Rochester during breaks.
"I’m happy," Ramírez said. "There are difficult moments … but little by little, one keeps trying."
"I feel that God’s call is where he puts you and where he calls you to be," Chávez added. "Whether that is as a missionary, as a priest or as a human being."