This past J-term, eight University of St. Thomas Church and Culture study abroad students experienced profound joy in a surprising place: the poverty of Mexico’s Neza Dump. Encounter with the blessed poor was one of many highlights for the six Saint John Vianney College seminarians who participated alongside SJV priest formator Fr. Joseph Kuharski.
Led by Dr. Michael Naughton, Director of the Center for Catholic Studies and Ms. Nancy Sannerud, Program Manager of the Center, this integrated humanities course encompassed an immersive study of the cultural, spiritual, social and historical interactions between the West and Indigenous cultures. A rigorous week of on-campus preparations included studies of Christopher Columbus, Our Lady of Guadalupe and papal addresses to bishops of the Americas. The class joined Fr. Paul Haverstock for Mass, discussion and Hispanic ministry at St. Gabriel the Archangel in Hopkins before flying to Mexico City and experiencing the apostolate firsthand.
Over seven days, students observed remnants of a pre-Christian world at Teotihuacan Pyramids, paid homage to Our Lady of Guadalupe at her shrine, visited the museum of the zealous Cristero Blessed Miguel Pro, served at Mother Enez’s orphanage and ministered to the people living at Neza Dump.
A profound joy pervaded the encounters SJV seminarians shared with the poor, even those living in and eating garbage as a means of survival. Riveting discussions about development strategies and future prospects for community improvement were held at the Institute for Christian Social Thought.
These conversations continued back in St. Paul during post-trip reflections with Dr. Naughton and Jason Adkins, ESQ, Minnesota Catholic Conference executive director.
The men found a powerful witness of priestly joy in Fr. Manuel Rojas Aguila, who served the Zumpango village outside of Mexico City.
Jack Massmann, a second-year seminarian from the Diocese of St. Cloud, noted the priest’s attentiveness to his people’s needs, both physical and spiritual.
“His fatherhood pertained to everything about them,” Massmann said.
Serving in dire and dangerous conditions, this spiritual father exhibited great humility through his priesthood. “It’s ultimately the work of God,” Massmann observed.
Appreciation for the priesthood was a pervasive theme on the trip. One evening, priest formator and trip chaplain Fr. Joseph Kuharski remained behind at a parish and rejoined the group only after hearing dozens of confessions from faithful souls grateful for his priestly ministry.
“The people of Mexico love priests,” explained Matthew Wilson, a second-year seminarian from the Diocese of Lansing. His own desire to be a fatherly figure, especially in Hispanic ministry settings, was sparked anew by this encounter in Mexico City. “It made me desire to be the person they’re coming to—that they see Christ in me and want to encounter Christ through me.”
This article was first published in Vianney News Spring 2023.