CNS PHOTO | COURTESY ST. JOHN SOCIETY
Fr. Ignacio Llorente and Fr. Lucas Laborde stand in front of the Grand Canyon in Arizona.
Four young priests serving in Oregon set out this summer for an adventure. It turned out to be an exploit, for sure, but not the one they expected.
The men left Portland by car in mid-summer, their backpacks and themselves jammed into the vehicle, pretty much like any group of 20- and 30-somethings on a road trip to the Grand Canyon, 2,000 km away. Their Roman collars were neatly stowed away with their gear.
Father Lucas Laborde, a former campus minister and former pastor at St. Patrick Parish in Portland, is pursuing higher studies. Father Ignacio Llorente is now pastor of a parish. Father Federico Pinto serves as campus minister in Corvallis, home of Oregon State University. Father Maximo Stock is campus minister at Portland State University.
All are native Argentines and members of the St. John Society, a Catholic religious community founded in Argentina in the mid-1990s and dedicated to the New Evangelization, especially through campus ministry.
In the desert of northern Nevada, with temperatures soaring, the priests' car broke down. The prognosis was bad. The auto could not be fixed quickly.
Instead of scuttling their trip, the determined priests decided to hitchhike. They said it was for the sake of adventure.
"Wearing our collars helped a bit, and most surely kept us out of trouble," said Laborde, the senior priest of the group at age 38.
Over the next five days, they made the round trip and arrived at the Grand Canyon, which they found magnificent and powerful.
But when all was done, it's the stories they will remember about the 17 people who picked them up along the long journey: miners from Nevada, a Catholic priest, fallen away Catholics, Mormons, families on vacation and people going to work.
"Since you travel many miles together, you get to listen to a lot of real life stories, and we got to share profound conversations," Laborde said.
"Our goal was the Grand Canyon, but our adventure led us to discover the landscape of many people's hearts in various circumstances: unexpected acts of kindness and trust, stories of suffering, experiences of faith, profound conversations, moments of prayer, possibly the beginning of more than one friendship."
In Salt Lake City, the driver of an 18-wheeler pulled over to pick them up. His name was John and he was an Irish-American whose faith life had sputtered. But he was a thinker and hungry for spirituality. At one point, John asked the priests about Pope John Paul's 1998 encyclical Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason).
"How can you make sense of that?" the truck driver asked.
The surprised priests looked at each other, shrugged and started talking from their hearts. They told John that if he understands reason only from the scientific model, he will be missing a lot of truths. They suggested that he embrace a broader concept of reason, a philosophical idea. That way, he could build a bridge with faith.
John was elated. "That is so awesome!" he said as the miles ticked by. "You guys made my day."
To the priests, it seemed surreal to be talking about papal encyclicals with a long haul truck driver, but they are men open to the Holy Spirit. Before he let them off, John shared some of his life's difficulties and prayed with the quartet of young clergymen.
The trip confirmed the priests' contention that the Catholic Church is "amazing." Many local pastors extended hospitality.
Father Jose Sobarzo, pastor of St. Paul Church in Winnemucca, Nev., allowed the four strangers with big backpacks who claimed to be priests to stay in the parish hall at 10 o'clock one night.
The vicar general of the Diocese of Salt Lake City welcomed the priests and the diocese's director of Hispanic ministry, Maria Cruz, connected them to a parish near the Grand Canyon. There, they met Msgr. Bob Bussen, a marathon runner who carried the torch for the 2002 Winter Olympics. Bussen suggested hikes around the canyon.
"Whenever we went to Catholic churches, we were warmly welcomed and assisted," Laborde recalled. "It was an experience of God's providential care over us."
At a gas station in Salt Lake City, the men met a young couple. They were not headed the same direction as the priests, but a conversation began.
The woman had fallen away from her Catholic faith and lost a three-month-old baby. She seemed to be suffering. Suddenly, she asked Pinto: "Do you have a Bible?" He gave her his own as a gift.
The priests then asked if she would like them to pray for her. She agreed and amid gas pumps, a Slurpee machine and candy bars for sale the priests encircled the woman and her husband, asking God to shower blessings upon them.
When the men returned to northern Nevada, the priests' car was fixed and they headed back to Portland. The importance of the trip then became clear.
"God put along our way people who needed something from him," Laborde said. "Had we continued on a traditional road trip, we wouldn't have met all these people, we wouldn't have shared faith stories and moments of prayer as we did.
"Being dependent on God's providence and on other people's compassion allowed us to reach the hearts of many."