By Tanya Connor
WORCESTER – “If I had the opportunity to be born again, I would definitely become a priest.”
That’s what Father Juan Sabastian Ramirez said about how he would pursue, all over again, a vocation that involved falling in love. He spoke with The Catholic Free Press a few days before his June 20 ordination at St. Paul Cathedral.
“It hasn’t been easy because of the … language and culture,” said the 31-year-old Colombian native who came to the United States five years ago to be a priest for the Worcester Diocese. “But the priesthood and the vocation is beautiful because of the people I have met.” And the opportunity to serve.
As a child, he didn’t think about being a priest, he said.
“I always wanted to be a doctor or a microbiologist,” he explained. “I like being with people.” These careers, he figured, would involve that. At the University of Antioquia in Medellin, he did four of six years of studies for a microbiology degree, he said. He didn’t finish because he was drawn to something else.
“I used to be a regular Catholic,” attending Mass with the family each Sunday, he said. “When I was in college I started to go more often, and to sing at funerals and weddings. I started feeling the wish to become a priest.” Good priests, and other people, were a good influence on him, he said.
Because of his science background, his pastor asked him to give talks about natural family planning to engaged and married couples, he said. Then the pastor wanted him to get more formation, so he went on retreats for leaders, where he met religious sisters, seminarians and priests.
“I got very, very involved in the Church,” he said. “And I said to myself, ‘I want to do something more; I want to go beyond.’ And I got the feeling to become a priest. I said, ‘I want to serve the people of God.’ And I started praying and praying and praying and just to discern.”
He said he was young – 21 or 22 – and needed to clarify his feelings.
When you fall in love, you don’t know how or when it happens, he said.
“I didn’t realize how or when,” he added. “I just fell in love with God and with my vocation. It’s something that grows in silence – the vocation. And God is the one who cultivates it. And the only thing I had to say was ‘yes.’ And he does the rest.
“And then I realized priesthood is my life; it doesn’t matter where. I can be in Africa.”
How did he end up in the United States?
“It wasn’t in my plans,” he said. But being a missionary somewhere was. That’s why he went far from Medellin, where he was born and reared, to San Pio X Seminary in Istmina. Since that region is so poor, those seeking to be missionaries often go to that seminary and minister to the poor nearby, he said.
“It was a very good experience,” Father Ramirez said. “I learned a lot. Being with people who lack everything taught me how to appreciate the things I have.”
Returning home after finishing his bachelor’s in philosophy there, he met a priest who asked if he’d like to be a priest in the United States.
“I said, ‘I never thought of it, but if God wants me to, I don’t have a problem,’” Father Ramirez recalled. The priest gave the young man’s telephone number to Father Edwin Gómez, a Colombian ordained for the Worcester Diocese, who interviewed him by telephone.
“This priest that’s recommending you is a very good friend of mine,” Father Gomez told him.
That was in May 2010. The previous month Father Gómez had been in Colombia interviewing men who were about to come to the Worcester Diocese to study for the priesthood. It appeared that it was too late for the new graduate to join them.
“I said, ‘I’m not in a hurry; I can wait another year,’” Father Ramirez recalled.
But, he said, shortly thereafter Father Gomez told him Father James S. Mazzone, director of the Worcester Diocese’s Office for Vocations, wanted his biography, photo and other information. Not long after he sent the material, Father Gomez informed him he’d been accepted.
In August 2010 he came for the first time to the United States, where he found the language, culture, food and weather different from what he was used to.
“But I was open to learn and I started my ESL program for two years,” he said of English as a Second Language classes at Clark University, near Holy Name of Jesus House of Studies where he lived. “It was a very uplifting experience because I met people from other countries. Learning from other cultures is good.
“I had the opportunity to work in a parish on weekends. As a seminarian I didn’t have the chance to work with the Hispanic communities.” That got him to practice his English, which he didn’t speak at all when he came.
“I didn’t feel afraid,” he said. “I started talking and using my fingers to express what I wanted to say. People understood me.”
After Clark, he was off to St. Mary’s Seminary & University in Baltimore.
“I made very good friends there,” some of whom were to come from other dioceses for his ordination, he said.
“I’m very grateful to Father Edwin Gomez and Father Jim Mazzone who gave me the chance and the blessing to be part of the Diocese of Worcester,” he said.
After ordination he returned to Colombia to celebrate a Mass his parents, Israel Ramirez and Carmen Acosta, and other family members and friends could attend.
Aug. 1 he becomes associate pastor of St. John, Guardian of Our Lady Parish in Clinton, which has English-speaking and Spanish-speaking communities.