From Mexico to meeting the pope: One chaplain's long journey

4/30/2008 By Lance Cpl. Meghan McNabb , 2nd Marine Logistics Group

MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. —At just 16 years old, Jose A. Bautista-Rojas left his hometown of Guadalajara, Mexico for Los Angeles with the hopes of creating a better life for himself and the parents he left behind.

At the time, he had no idea his journey would lead him into the priesthood, the military or the opportunity to shake the pope’s hand.

The road from Guadalajara was not short and life in Los Angeles was not easy, according to Bautista. Living with friends, working all day and attending English as a Second Language classes at Evans Community Adult School at night, Bautista focused on the chance to bring his family to the United States.

“There wasn’t much time for fun,” Bautista said. “I worked carpentry from 7:30 to 3:30, from 5:00 to 7:00 I worked at a car wash and from 7:30 to 9:00 I went to ESL classes.”

After four years, Bautista’s family was able to join him and he was able to turn his attention to new goals.

Because he worked so much, Bautista hadn’t focused on graduating high school until he decided to enter the priesthood; a journey that would take 11 years to complete.

Ironically, the road that leads to swearing off women actually began with one. Bautista started attending church with a girl he liked, but ended up finding much more.

“I had stopped going to church,” Bautista said. “I had to fight off the pressure and temptations that come to young men. I wasn’t always perfect, but I had to get back on track. I enjoyed church and the sermons, and before I knew it I was getting involved.”

Bautista’s interest coincided with a new initiative by then Bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, Cardinal Roger Michael Mahoney. The cardinal recently established Casa Reina de Los Angeles, or House of our Lady Queen of Angels as a place for young men who wanted to enter the priesthood, but either didn’t have their high school diploma or needed to perfect their English.

Bautista studied hard for two years to earn his high school diploma and perfect his English. He spent one year studying for college level classes, four years earning his college degree and four years earning his master’s of divinity.

On June 5, 1999, Bautista was ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, under the direction of Cardinal Mahoney, and was assigned to St. Elizabeth of Hungary in Van Nuys, Calif. In 2001, Bautista was assigned to his next church, St. John of God in Norwalk, Calif., where two of his parishioners, a Marine and soldier, died in Iraq.

At their memorial service, busloads of Marines came from Camp Pendleton, Calif., to attend. Some of them told Bautista how they didn’t always have access to the Holy Mass in Iraq.

“I’m saying mass and I look up and thought of them serving without mass,” Bautista explained. “I thought to myself, ‘I need to put my words into action.’ I would always say let’s pray for those serving, but it was time to act.”

Bautista received an endorsement from the Archdiocese of Los Angeles who released him to the Archdiocese for the Military and in January 2006 he entered the Chaplian Corps with the U.S. Navy.

Then a lieutenant, Bautista served as the Combat Logistics Regiment 27, 2nd Marine Logistics Group (Fwd) chaplain for 13 months from January 2007 through February 2008 in Iraq’s Al Anbar province. Bautista was the only priest stationed at his unit’s base at Al Taqaddam, but said what mattered most was finally being able to minister to those he had prayed so long for.

“One of the most memorable times in Iraq was when a sergeant was going into surgery,” Bautista shared. “He asked me to hold his hand until he went under, and I knew this is what ministry is about.”

Bautista said he doesn’t consider the priesthood as a job, but rather, as his vocation and what he is dedicated to.

“A job is something you are hired to do,” Bautista explained. “A vocation is love for God and what you’ve been called to do.”

Bautista feels that Marines and sailors can tell when a chaplain is acting only as an officer and not ministering.

“You have to be an officer as well as a chaplain,” Bautista said. “But it’d be sad if they only recognize you as an officer. A ship that doesn’t float isn’t living up to what it’s supposed to be, just as a minister that doesn’t minister isn’t living up to their potential. You have the title, but you’re not living up to it, Marines can see through that.”

While ministering in Iraq, Bautista received an early invitation by the Archdiocese for the Military to attend mass during Pope Benedict XVI’s recent visit to the United States.

Amid shouts of “Viva la Papa,” Bautista watched as the pope arrived at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.

“It was my oasis,” Bautista said. “It was nice to go from the desert to a sea of clergy, faithful people and peace.”

The next day the chaplain attended the Holy Mass at Nationals Park in Washington D.C. where the pope talked about being a witness of faith.

“(The pope) said those of hope must live different lives,” Bautista said. “We must point the way for others. Being seen different is how people will recognize you as a person of faith.”

After the pope’s historical mass, Bautista took meeting the pope into his own hands. He walked up past the security lines as the pope was walking off the stage. With outstretched arms, the pope grabbed his hand and shook it.

“I felt like a teenage kid, I was giggling and so emotional,” Bautista said. “The affect this man has on people is unreal.”

The pope not only physically reached out to Bautista, but spiritually did as well, and even gave a message in Bautista’s native tongue. He said, “Paz a ustedes,” or “Peace be with you.”

“What made it so emotional was that he was reaching out to you,” Bautista said. “I felt like he was speaking directly to me, like he was reaching out to me personally.”

Bautista said it was a beautiful gift to meet the pope and be surrounded by the clergy.

Although Bautista has appreciated every minute of his time as a chaplain, he said he will eventually be called back to serve in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, and wants Marines and sailors to never think their dreams are too high or far away.

“I want them to know that every step they take, even the littlest step, is one step closer,” Bautista explained. “I am an immigrant from Mexico who didn’t speak English, and I never thought I’d become an officer in the Navy.”