This is the fourth in a series of articles introducing you to the seven men who will be ordained priests of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee this year. Ordination for six of them, including Deacon Juan Manuel Camacho, a member of the Community of St. Paul, will take place on Saturday, May 19, while the seventh will be ordained later in the year.
Each night while he was growing up, Deacon Juan Manuel Camacho’s mother would gather the family together to pray the rosary. It was a custom for his “very Catholic family,” and one that he couldn’t avoid, even if he happened to, conveniently, visit his grandmother at that time.
“I would skip my house to go to my grandmother’s and then she would make me pray the rosary, so there was no going around (it),” Deacon Camacho said, laughing.
The now-deacon, who sometimes tried to bow out of rosaries and stopped being an altar server in his teenage years at his home parish, La Purificacion, in Valle de San Jose, Colombia, would gradually make his way back to the altar by discerning a vocation to the priesthood – surprising his family, friends and even himself.
A cousin on his father’s side and an uncle on his mother’s side of the family are priests, but it was expected because they were altar servers and went from high school into the seminary; Deacon Camacho’s altar server days ended at age 12 and he didn’t attend the seminary after high school.
“When I kind of decided to move, to leave the country and be a priest … they were not that happy in the beginning,” Deacon Camacho said of his family. “They didn’t expect that from me.”
Thought he’d harvest coffee for a living
Being the only boy in his family and the eldest of three children, Deacon Camacho spent a lot of time helping out on the farm, harvesting coffee with his father, Juan Francisco Camacho.
While his mother, Luz Marina Porras, was the spiritual leader of the family, Deacon Camacho thanks his father for giving him a hard-working mentality, and for teaching him about commitment and responsibility. But even those attributes and a major in agronomics couldn’t keep harvesting the drink he consumed since about age 5 in his future, though he struggled with feeling it should be since his grandfather and father are in the business.
“I basically felt like, ‘Well, this is my life so if I’m going to be doing this, I better learn the techniques about it….’ I expected just to leave all the farm and coffee and all that and get married and have a family,” he said, “and I never thought about – like growing up – I never though that ‘Oh, I’m going to be a priest and I’m going to go out of the country’ and all this stuff that has happened afterwards, but I guess it’s the way God really communicates – you never know how God works and how the Spirit moves you and all that.”
At age 15 or 16, Deacon Camacho’s uncle, a priest, started talking with him about the priesthood. But the words fell on his deaf teenager ears.
Intrigued by missionary priest
“I didn’t pay much attention to him, but that was probably the reason I went back to be involved in the parish in the youth group, and then I met this priest from the Community of St. Paul,” he said.
The priest, Fr. Pere Cane-Gombau, caught his interest as he was studying agronomics.
“He talks about the whole work of the Community of St. Paul as a missionary group and the work that they do helping the poor and the needy, and so I kind of fell in love with the whole social part of helping the poor and the needy and preaching the Gospel in that way,” said Deacon Camacho, “and so I joined the community and I decided to do mission work; I never thought about being a priest.”
Spent 5 years as missionary in DR
During the nearly five years he worked as a missionary in La Sagrada Familia, the sister parish of the Milwaukee Archdiocese in Sabana Yegua in the Dominican Republic, Deacon Camacho began to consider the option of priesthood.
“After much reflection and talking with the priests of the community and spiritual guidance, I discerned that God was calling me to be a priest and so I came up here (to Milwaukee) in 2008,” said Deacon Camacho, who also has a philosophy major.
Deacon Camacho said he learned from Fr. Marti Colom, team moderator of La Sagrada Familia Parish since 2003, how to serve the people of God and how to be a priest in a missionary country.
Fr. Colom has known the deacon since the 29-year-old joined the community in 2002, traveling from Colombia to Milwaukee, where he would accompany Fr. Colom to Prince of Peace Parish, on Milwaukee’s South Side, where he was associate pastor.
“From the very beginning, that is after meeting him in 2002, I felt that his vocation was authentic and solid,” Fr. Colom wrote in an email to your Catholic Herald. “Juanma, as we call him, has obviously grown and matured in the past 10 years, but right from the start, he seemed to me to be a fine candidate to the priesthood.
He already had a pleasant personality that has grown with the years: he was then and (is) now always ready to take on a project, a responsibility and to do it with eagerness and care.”
Fr. Colom said that Deacon Camacho is someone who can be trusted and counted on, something he’s witnessed by working with him on pastoral and social projects in the Dominican Republic.
Grew to love intellectual side of faith
Fr. Colom has also watched Deacon Camacho grow during his formative years at Saint Francis Seminary.
“During the formative years at Saint Francis I have seen Juan Manuel falling in love with theology and the more academic and intellectual side of our faith,” Fr. Colom wrote. “Even if when he left the Dominican Republic to go to SFS he initially had a hard time getting ‘back’ to the classroom, and leaving the intense pastoral actvity here in La Sagrada Familia, a few months later he was already passionate about theology – just another example of his versatility and his willingness to take on a variety of challenges.”
Deacon Camacho’s vocation has been a process for his family, he said.
“The diaconate ordination was what gave the final push for them. They saw me and then they really felt that that was what I was going to do,” he said, noting that his sisters were young at the time, but have supported him.
Miguel Eduardo Martinez Rivera told your Catholic Herald in an email that he was enthusiastic to learn that his godson would become a priest.
“We see Juan Manuel like a person with a lot of calling and commitment to others and expect him to see their projects done in the midst of their joy and enthusiasm, a priest glad (in) everything he does and comprehensive,” he wrote in an email to your Catholic Herald.
Deacon looks forward to preaching Gospel
Rivera, who keeps in touch with Deacon Camacho at least twice a week through texts, emails, social networks or phone calls, will attend his May 19 ordination at the Cathedral of St John the Evangelist, Milwaukee.
His friends, disbelieving at first, are also excited for Deacon Camacho’s Mass of Thanksgiving to be celebrated June 3 at his home parish in Colombia, he said.
Nine members of his family, including his mother and other relatives, will attend his ordination in Milwaukee.
He will celebrate a Mass of Thanksgiving at 4 p.m., Sunday, May 20, at St. Patrick Parish in Racine, his teaching parish for the past four years.
As he nears ordination, Deacon Camacho said his biggest fear has now become what he looks most forward to: preaching the Gospel.
“As a priest, I really like the quote from St. Paul, like we preach the Gospel and we preach Jesus Christ and not ourselves, and I think that that’s key for me. …” he said. “As a priest, I look forward to (doing) that so that the most important thing is to preach the Good News of Christ to the people.”