|“As a priest, you truly are a channel of grace for many souls, a means for many people to connect with God."|
Part 7 in a series on priestly experiences and
insights, published on Thursdays in the Year for Priests.
2009. After over 30 mission trips in the past 10
years, Fr Juan Gabriel Guerra, LC, has had a wide
range of experiences with both missionaries and “missioned” lands.
trips have taken him to disaster-struck areas in the United
States, from Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina and North Carolina after
Hurricane Floyd to Guatemala, Argentina, and a whole host of
towns in Mexico.
He has built houses alongside actors Jim
Caviezel and Eduardo Verástegui, and carried wood and water with
people who live in grinding poverty.
Some missions have taken him
into prisons and trailer parks. Others have taken him to
mountain tops at 18,000 feet of altitude. All of those
experiences, in some way, are a participation in the priesthood
of Christ, who touched mountains and valleys of his own.
the prisoners free
For Fr Guerra, the priesthood is summed up
in one idea: it’s about being a channel of God’s
“I don’t mean this in a rhetorical way, or
just as a beautiful phrase,” he says. “As a priest,
you truly are a channel of grace for many souls,
a means for many people to connect with God in
one way or another, especially in the sacrament of confession.”
to people in prison has been a powerful experience of
seeing souls come back to God with no pretensions, no
“You get people who have committed serious crimes… and
you see them like little children coming to God and
asking for forgiveness. That’s when you realize that in the
eyes of God, we are all equal. We all need
God’s forgiveness, God’s mercy. Because of the circumstance of being
in prison, you—and they— perceive the mercy of God more,”
Hearing confessions in prison is sometimes difficult, especially when
security measures make one-on-one time scarce. And people in prison
are sometimes afraid to voice their sins, not because they
fear God or the priest, but because they worry that
someone might record what they say and use it against
On some occasions, the inmates themselves help provide privacy
for the penitent. Once, while Fr Guerra was hearing confessions
in a room right after celebrating a Mass, the other
people waiting in line began talking loudly amongst themselves so
that the confessions could not be overheard or recorded.
a few minutes, the security guards came in to hustle
the prisoners back to their cells. One of the men
left waiting in line began to cry out with desperation.
“I just want Father to hear my confession!” he said,
choking back tears of frustration. He was an older man,
about 50 or 60 years old, and he had been
waiting patiently for his turn. Perhaps he had been waiting
for years. “Please, Father!” he shouted, as the security guards
started to pull the prisoners out of the room.
took quick stock of the situation. There was not enough
time to hear another confession and he had no idea
when the inmate would have another opportunity to receive the
sacraments. So he lifted his hand.
“I am going to
give you a general absolution of all your sins. By
the ministry of the Church, may God give you pardon
and peace and I absolve you of all your sins,
in the name of the Father, and of the Son,
and of the Holy Spirit.”
That day, a prisoner was set
free. And a priest drove home with much to think
“You ask yourself, why is God using me to channel
his grace through me? Why are these people coming to
me for God’s grace? You feel completely unworthy, because you
are a human being just like everyone else,” says Fr
“In the end, you see that you’re just an instrument
and that it is nothing of your own merits.”
in Mexico have peaks and valleys of their own. In
the outlying rural areas, the poverty is unlike anything that
affluent “first world” people have ever seen. Some people live
in cardboard boxes with dirt floors, scraping out a living
from a humble chicken coop and a meager garden. Others
gather sticks of wood and sell them to support a
flock of barefoot children.
|Laying a roof alongside Eduardo Verástegui while on a mission in Mexico.|
In the midst of that poverty,
there are often powerful witnesses of God’s presence among his
people, from the old women with an almost mystical prayer
life to the joy and selfless charity that is the
special wealth of the very poor.
In some places, priests
are so rarely seen and so highly valued that Fr
Guerra’s arrival was heralded with jubilant greetings. In one town,
the people began ringing the church bells upon his arrival,
and the little children came running to him to ask
for his blessing, sent by their mothers.
“Father, Father, give me
the Gospels!” they said. In that town, the word “Gospels”
was synonymous with “blessing.”
“You see the faith they have
in the priest. It’s unbelievable,” says Fr Guerra.
During a Holy
Week mission one year, he was going from one town
to another, celebrating 2 or 3 Masses each day, with
3 to 4 hours of confessions before every Mass.
wake up in the morning, pray, eat breakfast, take the
pick-up truck out on the road, hear confessions and celebrate
Mass, and then go to the next town to do
|Fr Guerra tests out the local horsepower.|
it again,” he said. “It’s pretty stressful but it’s also
amazing to see people walking from all over to get
On one Easter Saturday, about 3,000 people materialized for
the Vigil Mass. The little mission church was overflowing—as was
the people’s joy. At the moment of consecration as Fr
Guerra was lifting up the host, he heard the sound
of explosions outside the church and in the sky above.
What better way to express the exuberant joy of the
Resurrection than with a fireworks display?
Touching the stars
to by some youth as “Fr Iron Man,” Fr Guerra
is an athletic priest gifted with a strong constitution, unusual
endurance, and a love of physical challenges. When he takes
groups of young men on Mission Youth’s “Extreme Missions” to
Mexico, part of the trip involves some kind of an
adventure: hiking a mountain, exploring caves, riding horses… it’s all
|Fr Guerra catching some air time with the Lord.|
part of the experience.
On a recent trip, he and
a group of 20-odd young men took a day or
two after the missions to hike up the Pico de
Orizaba. At 18,490 feet, the Pico de Orizaba is the
highest mountain in Mexico and the third highest mountain in
The young men were eager to tackle the
challenge. A select group of strong hikers over the age
of 20 prepared to go as far as they could,
including Fr Guerra’s own brother, Juan Carlos, an experienced hiker
and mountaineer. One of the young men was a marathon
runner; another was a rock climber. All of them were
athletes in good physical condition.
After a day of steady
hiking, the group of 7 men camped out under the
stars at 14,000 feet. At that altitude above the clouds,
the sky is practically exploding with stars. It’s like a
celestial fireworks show.
“At 14,000 feet, there is nothing above you
but the mountain, not even the clouds,” says Fr Guerra.
“I felt God’s presence with me, just looking at the
beauty of the sky with all its stars. You see
the majesty of God up there.”
The indigenous people who live
in Orizaba have another name for the mountain. They call
it Citlatlépetl: Star Mountain. At those heights, one can almost
touch the stars.
Not walking alone
At those heights, a hiker can
also feel nauseous and short of breath because there is
a lot less oxygen at 14,000 feet—about 60% of the
amount at sea level.
At 2:00 a.m., after a brief rest,
the hikers gathered their gear: flashlight helmets, clamp-ons, pick-axes, radios,
and a compass. Several of the hikers decided to stay
at camp. After an hour of walking, several more returned,
nauseous and exhausted by the altitude.
Fr Guerra and his brother
Juan Carlos continued, following the compass and the stars until
they faded in the morning light. At 10:00 a.m., after
hiking for 8 more hours, they reached 17,000 feet altitude.
At that point, Juan Carlos decided to stay back and
Fr Guerra continued alone for another 2.5 hours, climbing up
|“The fact that I’m a priest right now… that’s thanks to God’s fidelity to me."|
the glacier on the north side of the mountain, which
is as dangerous as it is difficult.
The Pico de Orizaba
is a volcano topped with crater measuring 1,640 feet in
diameter. As Fr Guerra set foot on the northern edge
of the crater and continued upward, he was walking at
18,000 feet altitude and breathing about 50% of the oxygen
at sea level.
At that point, clouds started to roll
in and descend on the mountain – a definite warning
signal. If hikers get caught in a storm on the
mountain top, anything can happen. He immediately radioed in and
told the other hikers that he was returning by a
different route down the other side of the mountain, not
to worry, and that he would see them at the
On his way down, he saw a man with
black skin standing on the trail, watching him descend.
the way?” he called out, glad to get some guidance.
“I’m your brother, stupid!” answered the man.
It was Juan
Carlos. He had been exposed to the sunlight for the
past 4 hours, laying on the snow and watching his
brother’s progress up the mountain and around the crater. Together,
they made it down the mountain and eventually met up
with the group back at the house.
In that last leg
of the hike alone, he had felt a touch of
fear and the sensation of being “alone in the middle
of nowhere.” But he had also felt the same presence
of God that accompanies him everywhere in his priesthood, from
the valleys to the mountaintops and back again.
“To be honest
I always felt God’s presence and support in my life,”
says Fr Guerra. “The fact that I’m a priest right
now… that’s thanks to God’s fidelity to me. The fact
of my fidelity to my priesthood is a sign of
“If I’m here right now, it’s because God’s keeping
up with me.”
Fr Juan Gabriel Guerra, LC, is originally from
the city of Leon, in the state of Guanajuato, Mexico.
He joined the Legion in 1976 and went on to
earn a Bachelor’s degree in Philosophy at the Gregorian University
in Rome, and a Bachelor’s degree in Theology at the
Regina Apostolorum. He was ordained to the priesthood in Rome
on January 1, 1991. In addition to serving as a
chaplain on missions trips, he is currently working with young
men in Atlanta, Georgia.
To view a list of the articles
in the series, click here.