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Turn to Jesus (Article)

Three Great Encounters
Vocational Testimony of Fr. José Eduardo Méndez, LC

Testimonio vocacional del P. José Eduardo Méndez Torres L.C.
Fr. José Eduardo Méndez Torres L.C.

“Let’s go, kids! Wake up already or we won’t get a good spot!”
“But Mom, why so early? Where are we going?” After a long, whiny complaint, I had to throw off the covers and sheets. The shower water was already warm.

It was six in the morning when we left home in my dad’s Ford LTD, headed toward the Minerva Fountain in the city of Guadalajara, Mexico. For me, everything was a surprise. I was full of expectation, since I didn’t know what was happening or where we were going. Around me, I saw a crowd of people who were coming and going; I remember seeing the people happy. Everyone was smiling, talking fast, and they were moving with quick, light footsteps down the streets. Some were even running, carrying the little children who were trying to keep up with their elders. Very soon, my dad parked the car next to a metal fence that closed off the way for pedestrians and cars alike. We couldn’t go any further, but the important thing, according to my parents, was that we were right there along the fence, car and all!

A Perfect Bulls-Eye for the Pope
Our dawn rising had given us a good result, since we were among the first to arrive, at least in that zone. Now calm and with her place assured, my good mother took out a delicious breakfast, at least for a 6 year old boy: cold milk and an assortment of Mexican cookies. For my dad, there was a good thermos of hot coffee. These were enough to lift our spirits. During breakfast, my mother told my brother Juan Carlos and me that we were there because the Holy Father, John Paul II, was going to pass by, and perhaps we would
Testimonio vocacional del P. José Eduardo Méndez Torres L.C.
receive a blessing from him, in addition to seeing him close up. It was January 30, 1979.

“Mom, when is the man going to pass by as you say? How long do we have to wait? Can I go to the bathroom?”
“So, I think he will go by soon, but we have to wait a bit still.”
“How long?”
“Maybe half an hour.”

Good Lord! If it hadn’t been for the curiosity that seized my soul, I would have been terribly bored, because the mysterious person didn’t come for another four hours. If I had known, I would have brought my play-dough to make airplanes and people! The time passed by, and when my patience was at its limits and my behavior had begun to go downhill, we started hearing the first shouts, whistles, and cheers of the crowd. My heart leapt with joy and in less than two seconds, my two sisters, my brother, and I were on top of the roof of the family car. Police squad cars started to pass by, and men running alongside them. In the distance, the people clapped their hands and threw yellow and white confetti in the air. Many made the sign of the cross.

Suddenly, I saw him coming closer, smiling peacefully. He held his arms out in the shape of a cross, giving everyone a hug and greeting us all. Just as he reached the place where we were situated, the big white popemobile stopped—much to our joy and to the surprise of the bodyguards; something had happened further on up ahead which obliged the entire company to stop. It was in that moment, no more than a minute, that the Holy Father blessed us and was able to see four children standing on the roof of a car who were waving and shouting euphorically. We were a perfect bulls-eye for the Pope’s gaze, since we were in a raised position compared to the others. It was a fabulous day.

When I Grow Up…
A few days after greeting the Pope, I was formulating a very important question in my interior. One of those typical questions of a boy who is beginning to practice the use of reason.

“Hey, mom, who was the man we went to see the other day?”
“Son, I already told you before that it was the Holy Father who passed in front of us.”
“Yes, mom, but it’s that I don’t remember anymore what you told me.”
“Okay, it’s like this: the man we went to see the other day is the Pope. He is the captain of all the priests, and he is also our captain. Jesus chose him as his representative here on earth. Get it?”
“Yes, and what does he do?”
“Well, he helps all of us to know Jesus better and to get to heaven.”
“Mom, and do you think I can do what he does when I grow up?”
“Yes, son, you can, if God wants.”

Those are my memories of that great moment which was my “first encounter” with the reality of my vocation and with the first instrument that Jesus used to call me. From that moment onward, the idea never left me that the Lord could be calling me to be a priest, in spite of my young age and my monumental ignorance about what it would mean. All of this was the first seed that God let fall into my soul. There it grew, latent, alive, biding its time until the moment foreseen by God for it to grow and mature.

Big Missionary Plans
I had to wait five more years to have a “second encounter” with Jesus, and this came to me through two instruments. One of these lived between the 18th and 19th centuries: the founder of the Marist Brothers, Father Marcelino Champagnat. It was through the biography of this great saint, as told by Brother Ernesto Sánchez-Barba, who was my 6th grade teacher, that my love and respect for the figure of the priest began to grow. I loved imagining Father Marcelino in his cassock, going from house to house to administer the sacraments and help people. I was so taken with these stories that I shared my dreams with a group of friends who had the same ideals, all 11 year old kids who were planning to become priests. I remember well these conversations:

“Héctor, what about you? What do you want to be? I think I want to be a priest.”
“Me too, but I’m going to be a missionary priest.”
“Does your mom know yet about our plans?”
“No. Does yours?”

A missionary priest?! My friend Héctor’s answer surprised me very much, because the term “missionary” sounded to me like heroism and total radicality. At the end of our conversation at recess that day, I had only one thing clear: Héctor was more valiant than I was, because missionaries went to Africa, and the truth is that I wasn’t too crazy about that. These ideas and sentiments, which surely were put in my heart by the Holy Spirit, were condensing and maturing thanks to the good ministrations of Brother Ernesto who frequently gathered a little group of boys to talk to us about these topics and to give us an occasional retreat.

An Attractive Young Priest
The second instrument used by God was a Legionary priest who was young and very dynamic. I remember that he talked a lot and he even smiled a lot. He came dressed like Father Champagnat, which is to say, he wore a black suit with that little white square on his collar to indicate that he was a priest. When I saw him come into my classroom, I was very impressed.

Like several of my friends, I told the priest that I wanted to get to know the apostolic school. He told me he would go to my house to talk to my parents.

It all happened fast, but once again, a very deep emotion invaded my soul. I had already experienced this sentiment years before and now it was coming back. What plans did God have for me? Who was this priest who suddenly appeared out of nowhere? I didn’t know, but I did realize that Christ, the fisherman from Galilee, was entering the boat of my life and I saw how he was coming closer and closer. The next day, in fact, the priest came to my house to talk to my parents, but Divine Providence had other plans than those of the good priest: my parents decided that this business of entering a seminary had to wait, at least until I finished high school. And that’s how it was. I saw the priest again the next day at school. He talked to me for a few minutes, and after that I never saw him again.

Skipping a Boring Class… Almost
The third encounter with Christ and my vocation happened when I was in my junior year of high school. It was November 22nd, 1989 between 1 and 2 in the morning. It was a totally unexpected encounter that changed my life and my plans in a radical way. I still wanted to be a priest, and the idea of being a pastor didn’t bother me, but they were thoughts that were very hidden inside of me. Now my interest was focused on girls and the possibility of forming a good family. Obviously, Christ knew all of that, which is why he, my Creator and Redeemer, came out to meet me for the third time in a decisive and extremely attractive way. This is what I remember:

“Nayib, why don’t we go to the cafeteria instead of going to psychology class? I mean, it’s the last class of the day, it’s boring, and besides, it’s Friday.”
“Fantastic! But you pay for the molletes!”
“Fine, but on the condition that you pay for the drinks.” We went walking down the patio, all happy and content, when suddenly it occurred to me to look back in the direction of the classroom.

“Hey, Nayib!, did you see that?”
“Did you see who is walking into the classroom with the teacher? It’s a priest!”
“What do mean? Didn’t you see him coming wearing a tie? How do you know he’s a priest?”
“Look – see how he walks? I’m sure he’s a priest. Let’s go to the classroom to see what he’ll say!”
“But weren’t we going to the cafeteria?”

Then I felt the irresistible need to run to the classroom before they could shut the door on us. We barely squeaked in, panting after our 200 meter sprint. In the classroom, once we were seated and calmed down after the spontaneous excitement of not having to listen to the teacher, the “man with the tie” presented himself and turned out to be, in fact, a priest: his name was Juan Pedro Oriol. Very quickly, he attracted everyone’s attentive gaze, and we listened to him gladly. His Spanish accent was funny, and we could also see that he was a very happy, contented person.

“Dear young people, I’ve come to greet you and tell you my vocation story. Does anyone want to ask me a question? Okay, let’s see – you. Go ahead.”
“Father, did you have a girlfriend?” Obviously, this question was asked by a girl in the classroom.
“Well, yes, I did have a girlfriend and she was an amazing girl—and very pretty, too. Her name was Piedad, but her nickname was Piedy.”
“And why didn’t you marry her?”
“Well, because Christ had other plans for me.”

“Follow Me.”
From this question, Father Juan Pedro launched into his vocation story. We were all very attentive and impressed at what he was telling us. While he spoke, I remembered that I had once known a priest very similar to him, but I couldn’t remember where or who. He had the same characteristics: joy, a natural freedom in speaking, friendliness, but above all, he irradiated great interior peace. Later on, I found out that Father Juan Pedro and Father Jesús Sánchez were from the same religious congregation. Coincidence? No, I think not; it was Providence.

I continued listening to the story he was telling us, and that was when Christ called me to be a priest. How can I tell the story of such a marvelous moment? I don’t know; it’s something difficult to write, but I will try. Inside my soul, in the deepest part, I clearly heard the voice of Christ who said, “FOLLOW ME!” Yes, there was no room for doubts. It was my Creator who was calling me; it had to be him. His voice can be recognized in any place even if it hasn’t been heard in that way before: it is a very kind voice, sweet, powerful, firm, and full of love. It was the same voice that called Peter, John, James, and Matthew on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. And who was I that he would call me in the same words that he used to call these great apostles! (cf. Mt 4, 18-20). It was the same voice that rang out and commanded the stars and the universe to exist, and they existed. How could I not respond to that call?

From there, I left the class dazed, confused, very happy, worried, and not sure what to do. Christ himself had pointed to me with his finger. O dear Lord! Why me? All of my other companions came out of the classroom as if nothing had happened, thinking and wanting the same things as before, but I came out another person. My plans, my studies, my career, my girlfriend, my family: everything, absolutely everything was on the line! That was when I felt the enormous weight of the invitation that had been made: to share Christ’s life, to walk in his footsteps, to leave the world and become an instrument of salvation for souls, to stop being just myself and to become instead “another Christ.” No matter how I tried, I couldn’t answer the riddle of “Why me? Why me?” I think there is no answer other than this: because God wanted it, because he looked at me and loved me. Very soon, Christ came out to meet me in a special way to relieve me of my fright and to accompany me every step of the way until I entered the novitiate.

Now 29 years have gone by since my first encounter with Christ, 24 since my second encounter, and 19 since my third encounter. Our Lord knows well what this means because we have walked together in good times and in bad times. He has never left me alone. He called me and he himself accompanies me always. I have arrived with him to Mount Calvary and I am ready to share his cross for the salvation of mankind. Frightened? Yes, humanly I am very frightened, but I trust fully in Christ: “Show the Lord your way, trust in him, and he will act” (Psalm 37:5).

Father José Eduardo Méndez Torres was born on July 28, 1971 in the city of León, Guanajuato (Mexico). He is the third of four siblings. He entered the Legion of Christ on September 15 in the first campus of the novitiate in Italy in Lanzo d’Intelvi, in the province of Como. In 1996, he worked pastorally in Columbia in the formation of the students at the apostolic school. In 2002, he was moved to the city of Salamanca, Spain, to help in the formation of novices. He did his licentiate in philosophy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical Athenaeum in Rome, where he is currently preparing for his licentiate in theology.



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