When Fr. Jaime Hernandez talks to people facing tragedies that seem insurmountable, he counsels them, not only with what he learned from books and training as a priest, but with compassion learned during his own painful experience.hernandezFr. Jaime Hernandez, pastor of St. John the Evangelist Church in Clinton, Md., sits on a stool while giving the homily during Mass Aug. 5. In 1985, at age 11, Fr. Hernandez became a victim of El Salvador’s 12-year civil war, losing his leg as he stepped on a land mine. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

At age 11, he became a victim of El Salvador’s 12-year civil war, losing his leg as he stepped on a land mine. The April 19, 1985, event marked his body and his life, but Fr. Hernandez counts himself among the lucky ones.

Along with his family, he left El Salvador in 1989 at the height of the war. They settled in the Washington area and he was ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of Washington in 2003. He now serves as a parish priest at St. John the Evangelist Church in suburban Clinton, Md.

It has been 20 years since the Salvadoran war ended with the signing of peace accords in 1992. However, the consequences of the war continue for him, sometimes in painful circumstances, such as when the 38-year-old can’t kneel as he celebrates the Eucharist, but also in good ones when he’s able to offer comfort as he tells his tale to others. He reminds them that unexpected blessings can flow from pain.

On the day of the tragedy, he was helping his father, a farmhand, with the day’s chores. They had gone out to round up cows. Jaime was holding jugs of milk. If he felt anything at the exact moment of the blast, he doesn’t remember. All he recalls is trying to stand and an infinite silence likely caused by temporary deafness from the blast.

“I took the first step, then a second and I fell,” he told Catholic News Service, recalling the explosion.

Three times he attempted to walk, until a realization kicked in. “Something had happened to my foot,” he said.

When he saw that his foot was no longer attached to his leg, the physical and emotional pain took over. He saw government soldiers nearby. They looked scared to go near him, he said, but eventually went to his aid. They took him to his father, who took him to the hospital.

Though he had lost a lot of blood, doctors saved him but couldn’t save his limb.

“It was a difficult time,” he said. “My hope was gone. I felt God had abandoned me.”

When he arrived home some 50 days later, nightmares as well as dreams began. In the good dreams, he saw himself in a green landscape, being called toward water and he saw himself intact, foot and leg still attached. But the waking moments brought anger.

The abandonment and depression he felt came as a blessing years later after he had become a priest, he said. He was making a hospital visit and a chaplain who knew the story of how he lost his leg approached him about talking to a woman at the hospital.

“There’s someone I want you to see,” he said to Fr. Hernandez.

The woman was about to have her leg amputated and was despondent.

All those moments of despair helped him approach her, he said, and he told her of his experience. “I said, ‘It’s painful, but I don’t have (the pain) anymore,’“ he said.

He told her how after losing his leg he became resistant, refused to adapt and was full of anger. He had never been a good student, had not valued education figuring he’d be a farmhand like his father, but with the leg gone, he didn’t see a future.

Some consolation came when he was able to get a partial leg made of plaster, although it hurt what was left of his leg. He used crutches because the plaster leg wasn’t functional, but no one could tell he was missing a limb. The leg was merely cosmetic, but it made him feel better, he said.

Two years after losing his limb, Project HOPE, a Virginia-based organization that helps make health care available for people around the world, helped him obtain a prosthetic leg. He began walking on his own.

It’s hard to tell these days that he doesn’t have a real leg. He has a slight limp. When he visits a new parish or when he helps out at Masses where people don’t know him, he explains why he can’t kneel.

Healing his body proved to be easier than healing his spirit.

“I asked God for forgiveness,” he told CNS, “because I didn’t place my trust in him.”

He regularly prays for soldiers, for civilians going through a civil war, as he did.

But some of what happened during the Salvadoran war provided people like him the opportunity to grow closer to God, he said. After the anger and depression wound down, he began attending Mass daily, giving thanks and growing deeper in faith. Each encounter with the Eucharist grew more profound until he eventually realized he was being called to life as a pastor.

“Having lived through that time brought blessings … the trip here (to the U.S.), meeting many people” and what he considers the greatest blessing of all – being called to become a priest, he said.

“A lot of great things happened because of the accident,” he said.

Some ask him: “If you hadn’t lost the foot, would you still be a priest?” “‘I don’t know,’ I answer.”

Others ended up with more serious wounds, lost their lives, or lost hope, he said. He believes suffering can be overcome, a better path can be revealed – and he wants his life to reflect that for others.

“We are not to see what happens in life as a punishment,” he said. “On the contrary, there are many occasions when what appears to be a painful negative experience may become a reason for a great blessing. There is a lot in my life, many blessings, I have been able to experience because of my accident.”