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Turn to Jesus (Article)

Fr Juan Gabriel Guerra, LC, on Walking with God
Part 7 in a series on life as a priest.

Fr Guerra playing recorder
“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.

October 1, 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.

His 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.

Setting the prisoners free

For Fr Guerra, the priesthood is summed up in one idea: it’s about being a channel of God’s grace.

“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.”

Ministering to people in prison has been a powerful experience of seeing souls come back to God with no pretensions, no excuses.

“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,” he says.

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 them.

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. 

After 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.

Fr Guerra 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 about.

“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 Guerra.

“In the end, you see that you’re just an instrument and that it is nothing of your own merits.”

Exuberant faith

Missions 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
Fr Guerra with Jim Caviezel
Laying a roof alongside Eduardo Verástegui while on a mission in Mexico.
gather sticks of wood and sell them to support a flock of barefoot children.

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.

“You 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
horseback fr guerra
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 to Mass.”

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

Affectionately referred 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 in midair
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 North America.

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
mountain Fr Guerra
“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 house.

On his way down, he saw a man with black skin standing on the trail, watching him descend.

“Is this 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 God’s fidelity.”

“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.



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