“Sunday mornings I would peer out of the balcony of my house, and when the people were going by on their way to Mass, I would spit on them. I told them that the Church was a sect that wanted their money,” explained the priest, who ministers in the Diocese of Almeria, Spain.
Fr. Juan José’s parents were not believers, and he had received no religious formation, but he said they did not raise him to be intolerant. In fact, he says he does not know where he got all those ideas, because the perception he had of the Church and God was that of a “multinational corporation with branches in every neighborhood to extract money, like a sect.”
“I was absolutely anticlerical, I was the first student in my school and the town of Carboneras, Almeria Province, to never be taught Religion because when I was 8 or 9, I chose the alternative course which was Ethics. In the following years, I went on convincing my friends to quit Religion classes and to take Ethics with me. In the end, my whole class ended up being taught Ethics and none of them Religion.”
But what he never imagined is that the end of his journey would be to help his friends to come back to the Church. Fr. Juan José remembers quite well that the first day he went into a Catholic church, “I went to make fun of those who had invited me.”
“It was in January 1995, some friends from class invited me to a Catholic Charismatic Renewal prayer group at the parish. Obviously I told them I wasn’t planning on going because I didn’t want them to brainwash me. For a whole month they persisted. I finally gave in – it was a Thursday in February 1995 when I went into a Catholic church for the first time.”
A golden box
A lot of his friends were there, and he was surprised because “they were all looking at a golden box at the back of the church. I didn’t know what it was, but I thought it was where the parish priest kept the money.”
That golden box was the Tabernacle.
Fr. Juan José says that he came to make fun of them because “I thought they were crazy. Inside, I was laughing at them a lot, but I was polite and concealed it. But I decided to come back the following Thursday to laugh at them some more.”
And so one Thursday after another, Fr. Juan José was letting go of his prejudices against the Church and religion.
“The pastor seemed to me to be a very wise man who was helping the people,” he told CNA. And little by little, the love of God was penetrating his heart: “I was 15 years old and I started to sing at Mass, which meant I would attend Mass on Saturdays. I liked being in front of the tabernacle and little by little, I realized that God existed and loved me. I felt the love of God. The Charismatic Renewal group, which I had come to make fun of, helped me a lot.”
“My eyes were being opened and I saw that God was not a legend or story for the weak, but that he existed and that he was supporting and guiding me. I experienced that he loved me so much that he wanted me for himself and was calling me,” he recalled.
“I am yours for whatever you need”
Fr. Juan José had been baptized and made his First Communion because of his grandparents’ wishes, but he did not have a relationship with God after that. “I made my Confirmation as I was right in the midst of the process of conversion, and it was a genuine gift. That day I told the Lord, ‘I am yours for whatever you need.’ My mother came but my father did not. It was a unique moment in my life to receive the Holy Spirit and to put my trust in the Lord.”
For months, the young Juan José was resisting the call to the priesthood. “I told the Lord that I didn’t want any hassles and to quit talking to me. Until I had to make a decision and it was to follow him, becoming a priest.”
One Saturday afternoon when he was 17, Fr. Juan José told his father he wanted to go to the seminary. His father beat him and said that “he would be a priest over his dead body.”
“They did not understand that I would want to be a priest. In fact, my father offered to pay for me to go to college in the United States but (he told me) he would never pay for the seminary.”
In such a difficult moment, Fr. Juan José recalled that all he could think of was the prayer of Saint Teresa of Avila: “Let nothing disturb you, nothing frighten you. All you need is God” and when his father stopped rebuking him, the young man gave him a hug and said to him, “I knew you were going to react like that, but I also knew that one day you’d understand.”
In fact, his father went so far as to threaten to report the pastor to the police if kept helping his son discern his vocation. “My father was trying everything, but the Lord is stronger,” he said.
To obey his father, Fr. Juan José could not start the seminary, and so he began to study teaching at the University of Almeria. For years he was patient, and continued to be faithful to his vocation to the priesthood. Until one day in May 1999, as he recalled, his mother told him that she had spoken to his father and that finally he would let him enter the seminary. “I began to cry and cry. I remember when I told the pastor about it he said “welcome” and gave me a great big hug.”
In September 2000, he finally entered the seminary.
In 2006, Fr.Juan José was ordained in the Almeria cathedral and his father even attended the ceremony. “In no way did he want me to become a priest, but he saw that I was happy and even though he was totally anticlerical, he decided that the happiness of his son came before his ideology and if I was happy, even though he didn’t understand it, he would have to accept it. “
In fact, he recalled that two years ago, “before dying, my father received the Anointing of the Sick. And it was I who administered it to him.”
“When somebody tells me he doesn’t believe in God, I always tell him that neither did I believe in Him, but I was mistaken, because I have discovered the genuine happiness that Jesus has given to me. If you’re not completely happy, ask the Lord to help you, because only He will give you the happiness that your heart needs.”
By Blanca Ruiz