A calling for Luis*
Franciscan Missions/Franciscan Mission Associates
By Julie Rattey
*Based on the story of Luis Hernandez, who provided the information for this feature.
Photos by Domenic Marando, OFS
Luis, 6, felt Mamá put a hand to his forehead. She gave a soft sigh. “Still too warm.”
Luis felt a little better than he had in the midday heat in their small, concrete house in El Salvador, but not well enough. His eyes fluttered; he was only half awake.
“His fever isn’t going away,” Mamá told Papá. “What can we do?”
Papá put his own hand on Luis’ forehead. It was broad and thick where Mamá’s was delicate and light. The comforting pressure lulled him back to sleep, too quickly for Luis to see the grieved look on his father’s face.
“We can’t afford the clinic,” he said. “We’ll have to take care of him here. If he gets worse… we’ll take him anyway.”
Luis’ mother set about patting Luis’ face with a damp cloth. It was always the same: trying to scrape by on luck and a prayer. The expression sounded as worn out as she felt living it. Her husband’s work as a tailor and her own work as a coffee bean harvester didn’t bring in enough money to fund all the dreams they had for their children, never mind doctor’s visits. If only we could send the kids to high school, she thought, and then, God willing, college. They might have a better life, and pursue their dreams.
But the public high school was 30 minutes away and cost money they didn’t have. If it weren’t for the Franciscan mission, which offered education essentially for free, her children wouldn’t even have a Catholic elementary school to go to. That faith foundation was so important.
Luis’ face scrunched up in his sleep. “Mass is ended. Go in peace,” he mumbled in Spanish.
Luis’ mother burst into laughter despite herself. Luis enjoyed playing priest, often donning one of his father’s shirts for a vestment and doling out bits of bread to his friends. Luis’ mother was glad that, despite his fever, Luis was apparently, in his dreams at least, enjoying himself. She felt his forehead again. It seemed cooler this time. Perhaps everything will be all right.
Luis, now 19, felt his phone vibrate in the pocket of his jeans. He put down his tools and fished out the phone.
“Sí, Mamá. ¿Cómo estás?” Luis wiped sweat from the sides of his face. The construction site was in full sun.
“Father Rafael is looking for you,” Mamá said. “Can you come home now?”
“I’m sorry, Mamá,” said Luis. “Uncle and I are working too far away. Please tell Father Rafael I will visit him next weekend.”
Poor Mamá, he thought as he ended the call. She had been so proud of his schooling. When she’d learned that the Franciscans were opening a high school in the mission, her face had lit up with joy. When, in his senior year of high school, Luis had finished first in his class, Mamá had looked equally happy. But Mamá’s joy had been curtailed when it became clear that she and Papá couldn’t afford to send him to college. So here he was, working with his uncle in construction. Luis’ parents didn’t have a future planned out for him; they just wanted him to be happy. But university was a dream they’d all shared. And though Luis wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with his life, construction wasn’t it — though certainly it was good work.
I wonder what Father Rafael wants, he wondered. Guess I’ll find out soon enough.
When Luis told his mother the news a week later, her face lit up in that once-familiar way. “A university scholarship! Oh, Luis!”
“A priest from the United States wants to help a boy from El Salvador continue his studies,” Luis said. “Father Rafael recommended me.”
Is this really me I’m talking about? Luis marveled. Why did God choose me? What an incredible gift.
“But what about the construction job?” he recalled suddenly. “You and Papá…”
“Will manage just fine,” his father finished. “We have what we need. Besides, most of your brothers and sisters have their own jobs and families now. This is your time. Don’t pass this up.”
More than two years later, Luis sat on his dorm bed, head in his hands. What am I going to do?
Everyone had given so much for him to attend university, but here, he felt empty inside. He’d explored the idea of different careers — teaching, accounting — but nothing was right. And despite all he had to be grateful for, life felt like it had no meaning. And he knew why.
For months he had been avoiding church. It had started last year. He’d begun to feel he couldn’t continue at school, because whenever he thought of his future, he realized with discomfort that what he wanted was, well, to be a priest. He kept thinking back to the Franciscan Sisters and priests talking about St. Francis and their Order’s spirituality in school, to the peace and joy he felt watching Father Rafael say Mass. But being a priest hadn’t been on the agenda. So he’d avoided God. But he had to face these feelings sometime.
But what would I tell everyone? he agonized. Por favor, Dios, he prayed. Give me a sign. Show me what you want from me. I am so confused.
Luis’ eyes snapped open as he heard the church bell announcing Mass. It was May 13, 2010, in his final semester. He sat up with an exhilarating clarity.
Today will be different.
He had taken some steps in addressing his desire to be a priest. He’d told his mother, who had been supportive and encouraged him to ask for help. “I want you to be happy,” she’d said. He’d looked online for seminary contacts but hadn’t turned up much. Since then, he’d lacked direction. But not today.
After Mass, Luis approached Father Rafael, his heart thumping nervously.
“I know you’re very busy, Father,” he said, “and I don’t want to take your time, so I’ll just tell you what’s been on my mind for a few years now.” He forced himself to look straight into Father Rafael’s eyes. “I want to be a priest.”
For a moment, Luis felt his heart stop beating. Then, Father Rafael smiled. Relief and joy flooded Luis as he heard the priest’s words.
“Luis,” he said, “this is the most beautiful news that you could have given me.”
What happened next?
Luis completed his university education and, with direction from Father Rafael, began his formation to become a Franciscan Brother in July 2010. “When I saw the friary,” he said, “I felt, This is the place for me.” He now lives in Boston, Massachusetts, where he is studying English and continuing his formation.
Help from the Franciscans
The Franciscan Mission Associates (FMA) promote information about and interest in the missionaries and their people — particularly in the Franciscan Missions of Central America, but also in the inner cities of the United States and Canada as well as every continent in the world. For more information, and to help support the ministry of the Franciscans or the promotion work of the Associates, visit franciscanmissionassoc.org or call 914-664-5604.