The Road to Being a Priest
I am certain that no one ever in their wildest dreams thought Manny Venegas would be a priest! His father came from Mexico, and Mom was an Irish cradle Catholic; they divorced when Manuel was very young. With no real regular contact with his Dad, Manny and his older brother Donovan lived in a community in Lompoc, Cal., with their loving and hard-working single mom, and devoted grandmother, June Herrmann. They enjoyed the love of family, but way too much freedom.
Manny’s brother Donovan was swallowed up in the negative culture surrounding them, and Manny soon followed, embracing the culture of gang affiliation, drugs, crime, etc., from age 12 until 22. He completed high school. His brother Donovan is now doing well, married and a father of six kids that love their Uncle Manny.
Manny credits his faith-filled Catholic grandmother for praying him into the safety of a relationship with Christ. She was always telling Manny that “God was waiting for him.” Manny finally met Jesus in a very personal way on Nov. 24, 2005, in his backyard. He had his “St. Paul” experience and in his typical all or nothing way walked away from it all, to the point of not leaving his home for three months while he purged himself of the culture that had consumed him. He cut off all his old ties, and with God’s help he became the man the Lord meant him to be. He tells me now that his life was literally saved that November night…most of his former companions are now dead or in jail.
While holed up in his home Manny did a lot of praying and asked God to lead him to the truth, and God answered Manny in a very simple way: “Go to the kitchen table.” There he found a bulletin for St. Francis Church; that was the beginning of his close relationship with his “home parish” and his road to becoming a fully alive Catholic.
While he had been baptized at the age of 7, his formation in the faith needed completion, and Manny embraced the RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) process. After completion he was asked to help teach others in the program. He was confirmed on June 4, 2006, and when he received the Sacrament of Reconciliation he says he was a free man, and it was the second greatest moment of his life! Receiving the Eucharist was the first.
While Manny immersed himself in the “sheer goodness” of the faith and he was well loved and accepted by his new parish home, he had a very simple request of the Lord: he needed a friend, someone to just hang out with. God smiled on Manny and provided him with a jewel of a friend in Joseph Scott. Joseph played the trumpet at the parish, and he too was searching. While having a totally different background than Manny, they became immediate friends, and God had plans for dear Joseph as well. Manny is becoming a Comboni Missionary and Joseph is becoming a priest.
Manny turned his attention to his education. His GPA at Bakersfield College was a dismal 0.02. Manny laughs and says he just started from scratch again. His return to college in 2007 began with daily Mass and Adoration, then classes. He earned an associate degree in early childhood development and child psychology. He taught preschool as an aide.
But still Manny felt the strong call to “go bear fruit.” The Lord was calling him to a life of service. He posed for a picture for me with a book that had a profound impact on him “A Guide to Religious Ministries for Young Men and Women,” with the forward by Blessed Pope John Paul II encouraging young people to “bear fruit.”
This prompting encouraged Manny to apply to the priesthood, but his first attempt was sadly declined. Manny says his past came back to haunt him. A long, period of time passed in Adoration. Eventually he received in an invitation from the Comboni Missionaries to join them. Even though they knew his background posed a risk, they wanted him. His journey led him to Cincinnati’s provincial headquarters for the Combonis, and it wasn’t long before our energetic Youth Group leaders Patrick Reis and Bradley Barnes tapped into this amazing transformed man.
Manny is beloved by our youth, and will leave a sad hole when he moves on. His journey will take him to Mexico and eventually to Africa. A joyful day he looks forward to is his ordination. The Comboni tradition is to be ordained in your home parish. He prays his dear grandmother lives to see it.
I couldn’t help but ask Manny if he had considered marriage as a vocation. He truly loves children and works exceptionally well with youth. His answer was amazing: “I will have access to people in areas no spouse could ever have. I will love for love’s sake. A priest is that to his parish…his love has no boundaries.”
Manny, our prayers go with you on your journey to becoming a priest. We pray your grandmother sees you ordained, and that your calling brings you joy. Thank you for your service to us and for listening to the gentle voice of the Lord. We celebrate you in this Year of Faith!