This is the first in a series of articles introducing readers to the five men who will be ordained priests of the Milwaukee Archdiocese this year. They will be ordained Saturday, May 21 at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, Milwaukee.
When Javier Guativa first arrived in Wisconsin at the age of 25, it wasn’t his impending studies at Saint Francis de Sales Seminary, St. Francis, at the forefront of his mind, nor was it the whole societal differences that struck the native Colombian when he came face to face with American culture. Rather, it was the temperature, the now 29 year-old explained.
“The hardest part was to adapt to winter here,” he laughed. “Where I come from it is very warm, usually around 80 and 90 degrees, so that’s why.”
The youngest member and the only son of a Catholic family of six, Guativa grew up in Colombia, where he, his family and extended relatives lived in a city of nearly half a million people.
Growing up, Guativa admitted that he had no idea where his life was headed. He was interested in philosophy in school, but before he had given it much thought as a possible career, a chance meeting at the age of 16 allowed him to see by example the path his life could take.
Two members from the Community of St. Paul, a public association of Christian faithful comprised of clergy and laity, invited Guativa on a vocational retreat in Colombia. As he got to know the members of the community – including Frs. Pere Caní-Gombau and Martí Colom – he became more certain after witnessing their simple life of mission and service that this type of life was also for him.
“I think it was their dedication to help those in need, and for the way that the community lived,” he explained. “By seeing and living with them, I was able to experience how they were to one another. So, I experienced how they were like a family.”
So impressed with their service and faithful attitudes, Guativa joined their community when he turned 18.
His decision to enter the priesthood was initially difficult for his family, he admitted, because they were concerned about his leaving Columbia. After graduating from the National University of Colombia, he ministered in the Dominican Republic and Kenya before traveling to the Archdiocese of Milwaukee to attend Saint Francis de Sales Seminary in 2005.
“Where I was working, it was a remote area bordering Uganda and Sudan,” he said about his 2003 mission trip to Kenya. “I was there for close to a year, but it was wonderful. I was helping the poor people there and trying to preach the word of God.”
In working with the Kenyans, Guativa drew upon his experience at his home parish of St. Rita in Colombia where he was comfortable talking about faith with the young and the old, he said.
While adjusting to a new culture in America was difficult for the young seminarian – earning a master’s in divinity in English as his second language isn’t the easiest feat – he and other foreign students learned little ways to bring their home to the seminary.
“I like to play soccer,” he said, admitting that he thinks he’s pretty good at the game. “We (fellow seminarians) used to play on Tuesday nights or Wednesday nights at the seminary. We used to play in the gym in the winter time, and in the summer we used to go outside.”
Colombia is thousands of miles from Milwaukee, but Guativa looks forward to weekly Skype conversations with his parents via computer. Although he admitted he gets homesick from time to time, the people he meets and the places he visits allow him to feel more at home every day.
“I miss my family, but at the same time I have been here for the last six years, so I can say that now Milwaukee has become my house and my home for me,” he explained. “I have a lot of friends, and members of my community live here, so now I feel like I’m home. I don’t deny that I miss my family and my country, but after six years, Milwaukee has become a home for me, my second home.”
Living with a community of young men also studying for the priesthood, Guativa has come to rely on that solidarity while he lives in the United States.
“For me, it’s living and having time with all the other guys who want to be a priest,” he explained. “In a way, we were following the same path. To pray with them was joyful, and like I wasn’t doing this by myself, that I was doing this with other people who were also following the same path.”
Guativa believes that God calls many men to the priesthood, although the static of today’s society makes it hard for them to hear the calling.
“I think that yes, God is still calling many men to follow him in the priesthood, but sometimes young people are afraid or sometimes also they think to become a priest is a big bore,” he said, explaining that one thing that the religious communities can do to encourage more people to listen to their calling, is to show them the joy their way of life brings.
“I would tell them that it’s wonderful to follow Christ, and they shouldn’t be afraid of saying yes,” he added. “Just to give it a try and then they can discover the wonderful things and the joyful things that the priesthood brings to the life of the priest and the life of the community.”
Fr. Esteban Redolad, superior of the house where the Community of St. Paul resides in Racine, has known Guativa since 1998, when they met at a pilgrimage in Spain. During those 13 years, Fr. Redolad has seen the seminarian change.
“I’ve seen him mature in age and mature in his own vision of his vocation and of the church,” he explained. “Growing more, I guess he’s been able to widen his world views and get more exposure. He’s had some years in Kenya and then coming here to study here, his vision of the world is much more open and he’s able to understand all the people and other cultures and other visions.”
Guativa hopes the parish he will serve has a young population.
“I would like to work with younger people,” he smiled. “I hope they will have a youth group in the parish I will be assigned. At some point I would like to work in campus ministry. Also, before coming here I worked as a missionary in the Dominican Republic, so I would like to go back to missionary work in the future, although I don’t know where.
“Wherever my community will send me, but that is something I would like to do in the future.
“It has been a joyful and challenging path,” Guativa explained about his journey to the priesthood. “Joyful because I have all the good things and fun things, and I have the opportunity to do work and to study in many different places, and challenging because it helped me to grow spiritually and also in a human way. It has been wonderful years, I would say.
“I will gain a big family,” he added, laughing. “My community, my religious community, and also from the people I will be serving, the parish where I will be serving as a priest.”