In April of 2001, St. Francis Medical Center in Lynwood served as the site of the greatest loss Brother Cesar John Paul Galan, FSP, would ever endure: the death of his brother Hector due to gun violence.
Nearly 15 years later, the same medical center became the site of his greatest triumph. In a Mass celebrated by Archbishop Emeritus Cardinal Roger M. Mahony on Dec. 11, 2015 Brother Cesar made his perpetual profession of vows, a declaration that he intends to “serve the sick, poor and to continue in [God’s] way of life through professing the vows of poverty, chastity, obedience and self-sufficiency.”
The moving ceremony was witnessed by about 100 people, including fellow Friars of the Sick Poor of Los Angeles (the group to which Brother Galan vowed to devote his life), clergy, and several of his family, friends and fellow seminarians at St. John’s.
“This is the end of a long journey for me that I’ve been praying about and reflecting about,” said a beaming Brother Cesar after the ceremony. Indeed, Brother Cesar’s journey to this point wasn’t just long, but also littered with trying setbacks. For the better part of his adolescence and young adult life, Brother Cesar, now 42, was affiliated with a violent neighborhood gang.
“The gang life for me was a normal thing,” he recalled. “I was growing up in that environment, so it was all I saw and all I knew. We [Brother Cesar and his fellow gang members] were in school together. They were my friends. I didn’t see them as gang members or anything like that. But in life, I think we all have that ‘aha’ moment. A light turns on and you get to see what God intends for us to be.”
For Brother Cesar, that “aha moment” was unfortunately as tragic as it was loud and clear. On April 3, 2001, an altercation with a gang member escalated into a shootout, claiming the life of his brother Hector, and leaving Brother Cesar a paraplegic.
But with the same vivacity he intends to perform God’s ministry, Brother Cesar has devoted himself to finding the blessing amidst his immense loss, the needle in a haystack of grief.
“There’s lessons we learn in life, and then we have somewhat of a ‘second life,’ which is what we learned from it and how we go forward with it,” said Brother Cesar. “So that was a blessing for me to experience that. It’s a blessing and curse at the same time. It’s a blessing because it has helped me understand God’s love and mercy. It’s a curse because obviously I’m still in a wheelchair.
“But I try to look at it in a positive way. I talk to people who are in wheelchairs and have other disabilities, and say ‘OK, you’ve got it. There’s no going back. What are you going to do with it? How is it going to be a blessing … not only to you, but also to your family and friends?’”
In an interview with The Tidings about his effort to find the silver lining in the darkest of clouds, Brother Cesar spoke with grace and serenity about not only his daily life in a wheelchair, but also the man responsible for putting him in that chair and taking the life of his brother.
While he is very much at peace with the incident today, he insists that, just like his journey to his profession of perpetual vows, the road to forgiving his brother’s killer, God, and in a way himself was a long and challenging one.
“The first four or five months after my injury, I was battling God still. I wanted it my way,” recalled Brother Cesar. “I wasn’t understanding that it wasn’t about what I wanted, but what God wanted out of it.”
During a journey to Lourdes he asked people there, “Am I ever going to get out of this wheelchair? Am I going to go back home walking?” He started praying for that miracle to happen, but received an unexpected blessing in response.
“[God] gave me the blessing of forgiving the person who hurt me and killed my brother,” said Brother Cesar. “He gave me the peace I was looking for. It was a peace I was looking for all my life, actually. And as soon as he gave me that peace, I was willing to move forward with life. I was being healed, just not in the way I asked. Instead of giving me the blessing of my body, he gave me the blessing of my mind.”
Witnessing Brother Cesar make his perpetual profession of vows in the face of the great adversity he has had to overcome in his life caused many of his supporters in attendance to weep tears of joy. And no smile in the room was bigger than that of Brother Richard Hirbe, FSP, the “Mister General” of the ceremony to whom Brother Cesar made his profession.
As chaplain of St. Francis Medical Center, Brother Richard was the one who delivered the devastating news to Brother Cesar in the ICU on that fateful April night in 2001: that Brother Cesar had lost his ability to walk and, even worse, that he had lost his brother Hector.
“[After delivering the news], Brother Richard gave me the best gift anyone has ever given me,” he recalled. “He asked, ‘What can I do for you, Cesar?’
“I said I wanted to see my brother one last time. So I went into the ICU room and was able to hold my brother’s hand one last time and say goodbye to him. That was the best gift that anyone has ever given to me, and, ever since then, we’ve communicated one way or another. It’s been an awesome journey.”
How fitting that Brother Richard, who first met Brother Cesar in his greatest moment of sorrow, would welcome him back to St. Francis to celebrate his greatest moment of joy.
During the Dec. 11 Mass, Brother Richard individually addressed the many who positively influenced Brother Cesar’s life, including his parents, and expressed his elation over the next step in Brother Cesar’s journey: studying to become a priest at St. John’s Seminary.
Once he completes his training, he will be the first ever paraplegic to be ordained a priest in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.
According to Brother Richard, that fact rarely enters Brother Cesar’s mind.
“Cesar said to me, when he’s at St. John’s, he forgets he’s in his chair,” said Brother Richard.