The Monday Profile: Answering His Call in a New Country
By Shelby Oppel
August 5, 2002
Summary: The Rev. Angel Perez, a native of Mexico, is the only priest ordained so far this year by the Archdiocese of Portland
The new priest's hands were shaking. In the cavernous sanctuary of St. Mary's Catholic Church in Corvallis, hundreds of college-town Catholics waited to hear what the Rev. Angel Perez would say.
In heavily accented but fluent English, he assured them he would be a priest for all, not just for the Latino parishioners. I will need your help, he said.
"I said to them, my faith is very strong," he recalls. "That even though we have these problems in the church right now, these sex scandals, I really believe the Holy Spirit sustains us."
"God is with us," he said, and stopped to look at his notes.
In the pews, he heard one parishioner applaud. Then another, and another, until they all were clapping. For a moment, the anxiety that accompanies a new Catholic priest in 2002 went away.
Even in ordinary times, being Father Angel wouldn't be easy.
The Archdiocese of Portland is home to about 160,000 Latino Catholics, but Perez is one of only two archdiocesan priests of Hispanic descent.
With an estimated 500,000 Latinos leaving the Roman Catholic Church each year, leaders such as Portland Archbishop John Vlazny are looking to Perez, who is Mexican, to keep them in the fold and to encourage other Latinos to join the priesthood. Pope John Paul II's visit to Mexico and Guatemala last week reinforced the Vatican's outreach to Latin America.
As he reaches out to Latinos, Perez also must connect with his Anglo parishioners, who are the majority of St. Mary's. And he faces typical new-priest challenges, from learning the contours of a 1,400-member parish to figuring out what to say to married couples who seek his advice.
These, however, are not ordinary times.
In May, Perez was ordained as the archdiocese's only new priest this year. Three weeks later, the nation's bishops met to confront months of scandal over sexual abuse by priests. The bishops pledged reforms, but hurt and suspicion linger.
At 37, Perez is older and has studied longer for the priesthood than most new priests. But his unlined face and expressions of wonder ("I can't believe I'm a priest"; "Corvallis is huge.") make him seem much younger.
He speaks quietly and laughs often, wears a crisp aftershave and quotes Celia Cruz songs. The parishioners at St. Anne's Catholic Church in Gresham, where Perez served as a deacon, nicknamed him "Father Marc Anthony" after the salsa singer he resembles.
His collar was a long time coming.
Perez was born in La Barca, a small town in southwest Mexico's Jalisco state. His parents left a month later for the United States and settled in Chicago, but Perez stayed in La Barca with his grandparents in their red-brick hacienda. His grandmother took him to daily Mass at a small Catholic church behind the house.
Perez earned a degree in accounting and worked for two years as a government bookkeeper. Around the same time, he met a young priest who struck him as the kind of man he would like to be: selfless, energetic, a leader.
One day, the priest suggested seminary.
"At the time, I had my girlfriend with me," Perez says, laughing. "And I said, can she be a nun?"
But the idea took root. The relationship with the girlfriend, never serious, ended. At age 20, Perez entered El Seminario Mayor de Guadalajara.
The Mexican seminary requires 10 years of study, compared with five to seven at Mount Angel Seminary near Portland. After seven years, Perez was tired and unsure of his path. He took two years off to teach philosophy at a public high school. His favorite subject: Nietzsche, an atheist.
He met a woman.
"I started feeling something for her. I said, thank God, I'm alive," Perez recalls.
When he told her, she said she felt the same. But she worried others would blame her for stealing him from the church. He prayed about his future.
God's call became clear.
"It was: I need you, I need you," he recalls.
Then Perez got another call -- from Oregon.
Starting over As Perez returned to seminary in Mexico, his younger brother, Eduardo, found work in a migrant camp in Cornelius. Eduardo met a Portland priest, the Rev. Dave Zegar, in the fields, and told him about his brother. Zegar helped Perez get to Oregon for a visit. He never went back.
In the United States, the priest-parishioner ratio is 1-to-1,200, according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. For the nation's 25 million Hispanic Catholics, however, the ratio is 1-to-10,000.
Perez barely spoke English when he arrived, so he began at Mount Angel Seminary with a year of language study. After seven years of theology, philosophy and pastoral training in Mexico, he had to start over.
At Mount Angel, Perez was not a "yes man," says the Rev. Richard Paperini, the seminary's president-rector. He wrestled with how to integrate Latinos into the church while preserving their identity. He challenged professors who advocated a melting pot approach that blends all cultures into one.
He chose as a spiritual adviser a priest of the Missionaries of the Holy Spirit, a Mexican religious order.
"I think he sort of adopted their kind of spiritual philosophy, which is both contemplative and active in the world, and includes a lot of self-discipline," says the Rev. Timothy Mockaitis, former vocations director for the Archdiocese of Portland.
When Perez first came to Oregon, he stayed because he felt the Latino Catholics needed him. But he doesn't want to be known as "the Hispanic priest."
"I don't think he'll deal with the Hispanic community in a paternalistic way, the way that some Anglo priests might," Zegar says. "He'll be good for the church in that way."
Vlazny appointed Perez to St. Mary's in May as the parochial vicar -- similar to an assistant pastor -- at the boxy, wood-and-brick complex that sprawls across a city block near Oregon State University. Nearly half its adult members hold advanced degrees, according to a parish survey.
The sex scandals trouble him, but Perez says he is confident bishops are dealing with the problems. His new duties come first.
On a recent weekday, he celebrated 8:30 a.m. Mass for 50 parishioners and visited Catholic residents at a nursing home, where he asked a woman in a flowered dress if he could lay his hands on her head. She said yes.
"There are rules. There are so many rules," he said, walking back to the parish. "They taught us at the seminary -- we are not supposed to touch. I don't have any problems with that. I know my boundaries.
"They need to know somebody cares for them."
The next week, after another long day, he had just removed his shoes for a nap at the rectory when his cell phone rang. It was the hospital. A patient needed a priest.
"Every time they call me, it's because they have faith in what we're doing," he says. "I always tell people, thank you for having faith."
The ringing phone meant something else.
"I was just realizing, I no longer have the freedom of my own," he said with a small smile. "I gave my life to the church. And the church is taking my life."