A day in the life of a Franciscan missionary
THERE IS A HEARTWARMING disconnect when you talk with Father Ponchie Vásquez, O.F.M. The litany of grave social problems in his ministry stands in stark contrast to his bubbling good nature. “What we do is physically impossible,” he laughs.
He and one other Franciscan priest cover a territory in Southwest Arizona the size of Connecticut, spiritually accompanying the Tohono O’odham Native Americans in the Sonoran Desert. It is an area that encompasses one of the oldest Catholic mission sites in the United States, dating back to 1687. Their challenges—many similar to those faced by missionaries centuries ago—could flatten the faint of heart—poverty, cultural loss, suicide, alcoholism, migrants who cross into The Nation from Mexico, drug trafficking, and much more. But when he talks about his ministry, Vásquez is cracking jokes one minute, explaining the subtleties of evangelization in the next, and topping it all off with a quote from Dolly Parton.
He quite likes the line from Dolly Parton in Steel Magnolias (although, he warns, “you really date yourself when you quote that movie”). “Laughter through tears is one of my favorite emotions,” Parton declared in the 1989 comedy. It’s a fitting quip for a friar who spends every Wednesday at the jail, knows his people only get the Eucharist once a month at best, and regularly hands out food and directions to desperate migrants who find themselves on the land of the Tohono O’odham.
He does what he can; he lets his people teach him about God; and he relishes the human connections of life in his religious community. Those are a few ways Vásquez has kept his chin up over 11 years serving the San Solano Mission Parish, headquartered in the tiny town of Topowa, Arizona.
The word friar refers to a man who belongs to a Franciscan religious community. Many Franciscans prefer friar instead of father or brother in their formal names. By having one title for all members, they hope to promote unity and break down division between Franciscan priests and brothers.
The friars’ focus
He names the three activities that determine his days: sacraments, hospitality, and advocacy/education. He, with other friars and lay leaders, tends to the needs of the Tohono O’odham who live in small villages spread out over 4,450 miles of mountains and desert. Alongside parishioners the friars provide welcome and assistance to the many migrants who cross the border from Mexico and urgently need food, medicine, and maps when they show up at church doors.
The focus on advocacy and education means that he and his community host many visitors who want to learn about immigration, their ministry, and the lives of the Tohono O’odham. Catholic high-school students, seminarians, and other church groups come to learn and, the friars hope, be advocates for immigration reform and justice for native peoples. The friars work closely with the Tohono O’odham government and cultural center to coordinate these learning experiences.
The next natural step
Vásquez began the formal preparation to be a Franciscan in 1986, eventually choosing ordination (although not all friars do; some Franciscan friars choose to be brothers). Priesthood was the next natural step for a guy who grew up in a small town in Texas immersed in Hispanic devotions, entered a “junior seminary” at age 13, and had always wanted to be a priest.
“I fell in love with God, and later, living as a religious,” Vásquez explains in a 2016 video interview, “I would describe it as trying to fall into Love—to let myself be enveloped into [God’s love].”
As Vásquez fields questions about his daily life, he runs down a theological rabbit hole for a moment or two, but then he stops himself: “We religious can lapse into navel gazing,” he chuckles. Soon he’s speculating on a practical matter: the dire state of the parish budget. “Luckily, we’re poor enough that it keeps us from becoming fat and sassy!”
Laughter through tears indeed.
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