by Gordon Nary
Gordon: When and why did you decide to join Legionnaires of Christ, with whom did your first discuss it, and what was their advice?
Father Juan: When I was in 6th grade a Legionary of Christ priest came to our school and invited us to visit their minor seminary in Mexico City. I was living in Leon Mexico. I was attracted to the idea and wanted just to visit the school. When I was there I started to think seriously that God might be calling me to be a priest. I was just a kid but I remember very clearly thinking about God calling me. I talked it over with my parents and I decided to stay. My dad was very positive about it. My mom had a lot of doubts and asked a friend priest who told her that I was too young and maybe later on the idea was going to change. My mother saw me very convinced and let me go. He wrote to me a letter later on saying that she didn’t want to be in the middle between God and me. She said: “God gave you to me, who am I to oppose God’s call to you”. Over the following years, that feeling of being called got stronger and stronger. I had moments of doubt and hesitation. Why not a diocesan priest? My mom was asking me why not a diocesan priest, at least I would be nearby. But I felt called to be a legionary; I was very attracted to the spirit of the Legion: Militancy, discipline, joy, closeness to the Holy Father, Love to Mary, community life…
Gordon: Where did you attend seminary and what was the most challenging course that you took and why was it so challenging?
Father Juan: I attended a minor seminary in Mexico and Spain. Major seminary in Salamanca Spain and in Rome. The most challenging course for me was Philosophy. It was very abstract to me especially dealing with existentialist philosophers. We needed to study them in order to understand modern ideologies in the world nowadays among other reasons. I loved Theology; to study God, the Bible, history of the church; It was fascinating to me.
Gordon: What is the relationship between Regnum Christi and Legionnaires of Christ?
Father Juan: Legionaries of Christ are like chaplains and directors for Regnum Christi Movement. We are their spiritual directors, we lead their spiritual retreats and evenings of reflection. They would be like a big parish for us. We work together in apostolic projects like schools, missions, camps, couples retreats…
Gordon: When were you appointed Chaplain and Spiritual Director for Youth groups and what were your primary responsibilities?
Father Juan: I was in charge of putting together a spiritual program for their formation in their faith. I also was in charge of organizing apostolic projects appropriate for their age. So, I put together international humanitarian mission trips to Mexico and South America, street evangelization in cities like Chicago, Sacramento, Atlanta; Christmas parties in intercity parishes where our young men would be involved. I organized for them as well spiritual retreats and camping trips. All this is in order to form them in their faith and helping them to be active in it. I devoted a lot of my time giving them spiritual guidance and spiritual talks on Christian virtues, faith, relationship with God.
Gordon: What are some of the spiritual challenges that young people in the United States have to address?
Father Juan: I think there is a lot of ignorance of their faith. It doesn’t look like their faith is appealing to them. Maybe they see their faith as cold rituals or old fashion stuff when faith is actually very exciting. When you see Jesus, God as your friend, when you see God’s hand acting in your life, in the circumstances of your life, then you start loving your faith. You start realizing that God has a plan for you and amazing things happen.
They tend to be very self-centered: thinking in themselves, having fun, and having party time. Sometimes they are confused or weak dealing with their sexuality, healthy relationships, moral values. They also live in a very difficult environment to their faith: social media, TV, different ideologies in schools, colleges. They live in a very materialistic and hedonistic world. They have to deal with peer pressure into drinking, drugs, sex; They want to “fit in”, “be cool” and sometimes this compromises their moral and spiritual values. We need to prepare them for this environment. As Jesus said praying for his disciples: “They are in the world” And later on He continues: “They do not belong to the world”. Sometimes family life is not what it used to be or they are simply broken. There is not good parenting in many cases and all this affects our kids very badly.
Gordon: In 2019, the National Reporter published a study that young adults leaving church start down that path at age 13. What can be done to help reverse that trend and what can parishes do to address this challenge?
That’s a big question. As I said previously we need to present the faith in more attractive ways. Bishop Barron addressed this question in one of his programs. He said that young people are attracted to beauty and service to others. I agree with him. We need to offer ways to serve the community; to teach them a living gospel, the gospel of charity. A young man who was in our youth programs one time gave me a couple of thousand dollars for a mission I was organizing to Chihuahua Mexico with a group of young men. He was clearly appreciative of what he had received in our youth programs. In my opinion service projects and faith should go together and it is attractive to them. It is important not to turn these programs only into some kind of social work o philanthropic activity. That’s why faith and charity go together: “Because I was hungry and you gave me food,” Whenever I do humanitarian missions or service projects I always have a session in which we all share our experiences or have a mass or a spiritual talk.
I do not think we have to water down the faith to make it more attractive but we need to look for new ways to present it. The kids respond to challenges in a very generous way. I remember one time I was inviting a college student to come on a mission trip during his spring break. The first year I invited him he did not come. So, the following year I told him this in my dialogue: “I know you can go anywhere in your spring break: Europe, Cancun,… but this is something you are going to give to God who has given you so much” He came the mission trip to New Orleans to gut houses after hurricane Katrina I was organizing. The next year he came to do street evangelization in Chicago. We can't be afraid to ask them, to challenge them. I think it is in their nature to be challenged.
I found that activities in the natural environment are also attractive to kids: backpacking, camping, fishing, climbing. Have a mass in the middle of it and time for prayer and reflection. We need to meet young kids where they are. It doesn’t work anymore just to ring the bell and expect that people would be there.
Definitely, we need to strengthen family life big time. “The family home is rightly called “Domestic church”, a community of grace and prayer, a school of human virtues and Christian charity”. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says it in num. 1666. It was at home where I learned compassion. I remember my mom cooking for our factory workers because she said they were eating poorly.
Gordon: When were you appointed Legion of Christ Development and Advancement and what are your primary responsibilities?
Father Juan: I was appointed to this job in the summer of 2015. I was in this job for 5 years. My main job was to look for funds for my congregation, The Legionaries of Christ. So, I have been approaching potential donors, cultivating and caring for our existing donors by visiting them, thanking them for their support, and offering my priestly ministry to their families and friends. We do not ask the families of our seminarians to pay for their formation. The congregation looks for the funds for their education and that’s where I get in the picture. In the beginning, it was tough for me. It seemed that I was just looking for money but in reality, I do a lot of priestly work taking care of them.
Gordon: What was your response when Governor Abbott Issued an Executive Order Prohibiting Government Entities from Mandating Masks?
Father Juan: I do think we need to rely on people’s responsibility in these issues also. When you are sick you do not need to be told to be at home. You know you need to be at home. We have been living with these policies for over a year, how long are we going to be living in this way? I think people need to be informed and decide what is best for them.
Gordon: When and why did you move to Chile?
Father Juan: I moved to Chile in March this year. As a missionary you know you can be sent anywhere in the world. I have lived already in 5 countries: Mexico, Spain, Chile, Italy, and the US. There was an opportunity to work there in one of our schools and they needed a priest with experience working with youth. I thought it was a great opportunity since most of my priesthood has been devoted to working with youth. I am working as a chaplain for the school and director of youth work for extra-curriculum programs like missions, retreats…
Gordon: What were some of the humanitarian missions that you led, especially the ones with Jim Caviezel and with Eduardo Verastegui and David Henrie?
Father Juan: I led or worked as a chaplain for more than 70 missions; national or international missions. I led a few missions with young men from Michigan to help after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and Hurricane Floyd in North Carolina. I led another one in Haiti after the famous earthquake of 2010 with the actor Eduardo Verastegui. Missions trips can be very diverse. I have had evangelization missions, humanitarian or medical missions. For evangelization missions, we normally do them along with local missionaries since most of our American missionaries do not speak the language and we do them in Holy Week. We go door to door and speak with the people and invite them to participate in the ceremonies of Holy Week. For the humanitarian ones, we do construction work; we have built houses, put roofs with corrugate tin replacing cardboard roofs, cement floors, classrooms, chapels, or even a water well. After hurricane Katrina for example we gutted houses in New Orleans. For the medical missions, we bring doctors and nurses and they offer free service in the village where we work. I spend my time hearing confessions, celebrating mass for the people in town and the missionaries.
Jim Caviezel came to one of our missions in Mexico. I met one of the producers of the Passion of Christ, Steve McEveety, a year earlier. They both met the Legionaries of Christ in Rome while filming the Passion. We were putting corrugated tin roofs and cement floors. I remember when I went to work with Jim the house we were going to work on was in terrible shape so he told me he wanted to build a whole house for that family. They were mom and dad and three kids. The house was more like a shack with a cardboard roof and rotten wooden walls. No furniture or beds. They had an outhouse for a bathroom. We asked Jim why he wanted to do it and he said jokingly: “I made money out of Jesus not give back it sucks”. We camped out in a field nearby the village of Chilapa in the State of Veracruz. We ate whatever the people gave us to eat and cook for us.
I did 4 missions with the Eduardo Verastegui in Mexico, Haiti, and Peru. In the last one, he asked me to go as a chaplain and he invited other actors, singers… Among others David Henrie, Alex Acha, Susana Rivadeneira who was Miss Ecuador 2004. We were working in a small village in the region of Piura, north of Peru. Fr. Joseph Uhen and his parish, Santisimo Sacramento, hosted us. We were building houses and trying to fulfill the acts of mercy; feed the poor, visit the prisoner, give shelter to the homeless... It was a great mission. It was difficult just to get out of the place where we were staying because teenagers and fans were crowding the street in front of the house. Since it was Holy Week we participated in the church’s traditional reenactment of the Way of The Cross. The actors and actresses played the roles of Jesus, soldiers, Mary. I wasn’t going to be in it and Eduardo asked me to play the role of Pontius Pilate. We also visited Machu Pichu. It was a great, great mission. Eduardo wanted to evangelize all his friends and was sending them one by one to me for confession or spiritual direction.
Gordon: Thank you for a fascinating interview and for your important work!