‘Padre Santiago’ hopes to import ministry of encounter to Columbia Heights

| Jonathan Liedl | July 10, 2018 | 0 Comments
Father James Peterson exchanges the sign of peace June 22 with young people who had received their first Communion at Jesucristo Resucitado

Father James Peterson exchanges the sign of peace June 22 with young people who had received their first Communion at Jesucristo Resucitado, the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis’ mission parish in Venezuela. Jonathan Liedl for The Catholic Spirit

The earthy smell of simmering cornmeal “arepas” rose from the stovetop as a young American priest was welcomed into the humble home with a kiss on the cheek and an affectionate salutation of “Padre!” As he did most nights of the week, Father James Peterson was joining parishioners for dinner.

On that night, he was with the Guzman family, devoted members of Jesucristo Resucitado, the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis’ mission parish in San Felix, Venezuela, where the 32-year old Minnetonka native has served as parochial vicar for nearly three years. Over the course of the evening, family members shared cheesy “chistes,” or jokes, and sang, and Father Peterson blessed the family from the bottle of holy water he carries in his breast pocket.

Similar scenes took place at the multitude of “despedidas,” or going-away parties, parishioners held in honor of “Padre Santiago,” as Father Peterson is known locally, before he returned to Minnesota at the beginning of July to start his new assignment as pastor of Immaculate Conception in Columbia Heights. At one despedida, parishioners literally lifted Father Peterson up in prayer, their bittersweet tears that need no translation accompanying heartfelt goodbyes.

These deeply personal farewells have been a testament to just how closely the people have grown to their beloved padre, and how deeply he’s been formed by his assignment in Venezuela, where he’s spent more time since his ordination than in Minnesota.

Speaking in Spanish, Judith Guzman said, “He’s left his mark on all of us,” adding that she sees Father Peterson as an example of service, kindness and generosity. “He knows how to serve the community as a true shepherd who cares for his sheep.”

But, if Father Peterson’s first visit to the mission as a seminarian in the summer of 2011 was any indication, his connection with the people of Jesucristo Resucitado was not something that could’ve been predicted. He admits he was “shell-shocked” by the intense poverty he encountered in the parish’s 11 “barrios,” or neighborhoods, had trouble with the regional Spanish dialect, and was overwhelmed by the heat and the noise of San Felix, part of Venezuela’s sixth largest metro area.

“At that time, I really didn’t want to return to Venezuela,” Father Peterson recalled.

However, after praying about his experience and speaking with others who had served at the mission, Father Peterson had the sense that he was being called to abandon his comfort zone. He expressed his openness to returning to Jesucristo Resucitado, and he received the green light to serve there as a deacon in the summer of 2012. After two years serving as a parochial vicar at St. Odilia in Shoreview, he returned in August 2015 as a priest to serve alongside veteran pastor Father Greg Schaffer.

“It’s been a real opportunity for me to let go of my own inhibitions, of my own perceived strengths,” Father Peterson said.

Abandoning himself to God amid such a challenging environment has allowed Father Peterson to receive new gifts, such as greater flexibility in his scheduling, more confidence in his preaching, and a greater reliance upon God’s providence and protection.

“I think [Father Peterson] has the gift of being able to work with the poor and to be happy in a real difficult situation like we have here,” Father Schaffer said.

He noted one episode, only a few months into Father Peterson’s assignment in San Felix, that convinced him his young associate could thrive in the challenging environment. In the early morning of Dec. 22, 2016, Father Peterson was held up at gunpoint on his way to church — and he still celebrated Mass as scheduled.

While dressing in his Mass vestments, the priest realized that the cross necklace he had given the thief was back on his own neck. He believes it was a small miracle — a sign from God that he is present among his people in these challenging times.

That’s a closeness that Father Peterson has tried to emulate in his role as parish priest. He said the familial culture of Venezuela and its current economic crisis gave him formative opportunities to be uniquely present to others. For example, because many people in San Felix lack access to reliable transportation, Father Peterson often gave them rides to and from their homes. He even took a parishioner who was in labor to the hospital to give birth. This “taxi ministry,” as he calls it, not only gave him a native-like familiarity with San Felix’s labyrinthine streets, but also the opportunity to form deeper personal relationships with his people.

Because he’s grown so close to his flock, Father Peterson said it has been “heart-wrenching” to see what they’re going through amid Venezuela’s ongoing economic crisis, which has bred hunger and violence. He knew children who died from malnutrition and parishioners who were gunned down in the street.

While he has embraced meeting the material needs of his Venezuelan flock and often personally delivered the daily meals prepared for the poor by the parish soup kitchen, he knows the most important thing he can do as a priest is to help his parishioners raise their hearts and minds to spiritual things.

“Christ fed people, but only after he preached about the kingdom and conversion,” he said. “I always remind people that they have to look for God with their whole heart.”

Father Peterson is sad to say goodbye to people he has grown close to, but is looking forward to bringing some of the ministerial aspects he practiced in San Felix to Columbia Heights, where he’ll begin ministry July 27.

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