“All roads lead to Rome,” the saying goes, but many roads also lead to St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo, where 15 of its 93 seminarians are international students.
Hailing from countries that include Mexico, Holland, Nigeria, Spain, Uganda and the Philippines, these students bring a special “richness” to the seminary, says Dr. Paul Ford, professor of theology and liturgy.
“The international students remind us that the church is much bigger than the United States of America, and they call us to be mindful of a world that is much closer to life and death situations,” said Ford. “They call us, especially the faculty, to try to be more ‘world church’ rather than just local church.”
A ‘nudge in my heart’
Raised by his grandparents in Mexico after his father and mother left for work in the U.S. when he was 8, Luis Espinosa was brought by his parents to the states along with his siblings when he was 14.
While attending high school, he had “a really powerful retreat experience” at St. John Eudes in Chatsworth at a Spanish retreat for teens. “It gave me the basis for deepening my own faith and giving me the ability to adjust to a new country, a new language and a whole new life," said Espinosa.
Since then, he has had the conviction that God was with him. "When I was 22, I decided to do something about this God that seemed to be lingering in the background and this nudge that I felt in my own heart," explained Espinosa. After calling the archdiocesan vocations office, he was directed to Juan Diego House in Gardena to finish his college coursework and is now a third-year theology student at St. John's.
First-year theology student Raphael Reniva, 27, a native of the Philippines who worked there as a nurse, was inspired to pursue the priesthood while ministering to the poor at a rural health clinic. His older priest-brother, serving in the Archdiocese of Portland, was also a source of inspiration.
While researching the life of Blessed Junípero Serra, the founder of the California mission system, he became acquainted with the Diocese of Monterey and emailed the vocations director about his desire to become a priest. After an interview with the vocations director who traveled to the Philippines, Reniva was accepted as a seminarian for the Diocese of Monterey and came to St. John's in 2012 to begin his pre-theology studies.
"At first the transition was quite difficult for me," said Reniva. “But through my brother seminarians here, we're all kind of on the same page through the pathway to the priesthood, so it really helps me getting settled in here at the seminary.”
‘I'm not the only one’
Third-year theology student Albert Van der Woerd was inspired to study for the priesthood during his sabbatical in California while he was still a religious brother member of a Dutch-based congregation. "The ordinary contact with parishioners in parishes here shone a light on my vocation that brought me to the conclusion: 'I am working on the wrong side of the altar,'" said Van der Woerd.
He received permission from his superior to pursue the priesthood, with the caveat that he find a job, which he did helping out at St. Michael, his home parish in South Los Angeles. Van der Woerd said the support of St. Michael’s parishioners has helped him cope with leaving his religious order family after 20 years.
"The diversity at St. John's has been a great plus for me, because I'm 54 years old and some students here could have been my sons," noted Van der Woerd. "But, there is such a variety here of ages, professions and backgrounds that you don't feel stuck in one certain particular category.
“And," he adds, "I'm not the only one who has left his home. I'm not the only one who is challenged to build his life up again and to embrace all the possibilities and the great charism of this church in Southern California."
Another seminarian embracing mid-life change in the pursuit of the priesthood is Filipino native Alwyn Anfone, 55, whose vocation was sparked when he met St. John Paul II while taking courses in nuclear chemistry in Holland. “His presence had everything: holiness and authority," said Anfone, a former chemistry professor at the University of the Incarnate Word and the Alamo Community Colleges in San Antonio.
"I bought a house [in Texas] and I had my profession, but there was something wrong," said Anfone, who remembered how he enjoyed teaching catechism to the poor in his native country. On retreat, he realized that God might be calling him to the priesthood and spent a year in discernment attending daily Mass. He left his career to become a seminarian in 2010, transferring to St. John's this year to be closer to family. He is among ten seminarians studying for the Diocese of San Bernardino.
Nigerian native Gabriel Okafor, 31, spent nine years in the Philippines studying philosophy and theology on a path toward priesthood. Ten years earlier in Nigeria, he had joined the Anawim Community ecclesial movement, and had been sent for theological studies to Anawim's centers in the Philippines. While there, Okafor met a bishop from the Diocese of Monterey who invited him to study for the Central California diocese.
A new St. John's student, Okafor will spend a year at the Camarillo seminary before his internship year in the Monterey Diocese followed by a final year of theology before ordination.
‘I'm glad I'm here’
Ugandan Paul Keeya, 23, came to St. John's as a first-year theology student in 2013. He entered seminary at age 12 in his native country, and in his senior year in high school decided that he should continue on the path to priesthood.
"I still miss the people in Uganda," said Keeya, "but I come here with an open heart. Being with that open heart, I'm ready to receive and to give. It has helped me to strengthen my vocation, to deal with different people, like in any ministry dealing with different backgrounds and personalities.”
He struggled with the recent heat wave, since Uganda doesn't get as hot as California in the summer. And figuring out what to eat among many new foreign menu items has been "interesting," says Keeya.
"But, I'm now used to everything," he told The Tidings during a recent post-breakfast interview at St. John's. "It's a good place; I'm enjoying it and I'm glad I'm here.
"I thank the Catholic community of Los Angeles," adds Keeya. "This was my first time coming to the United States (as well as the first time leaving his country), and to be treated like I have been here is a great thing. I am grateful."
This is one of a continuing series of stories connected to St. John’s seminary’s 75th anniversary year.