The following story appeared in the August 26 Idaho Catholic Register.
It took conversion in India to get Father Mendez to Idaho
Father Robert “Toto” Mendez, a member of the Neocatechumenal Way, is one of two new parochial vicars at St. Paul’s Parish in Nampa. (Courtesy photo/Father Robert Mendez)
By Emily Woodham
Father Robert “Toto” Mendez never considered becoming a priest until, at age 24, he went to India. After nine months of being a part of a mission there for the Neocatechumenal Way, he felt a call to the priesthood. (The Neocatechumenal Way is a Catholic association founded in Spain during Vatican II that provides post-baptismal formation to adults who are already members of the Church or to those far from the Church who have been attracted by the testimony of Christian life.)
“I fell in love with the Church; I fell in love with God,” Father Mendez says of his experience in India. “Deciding to become a priest was the best decision in my life. Because once you say yes to God, He starts moving things in your favor.”
Father Mendez serves as a parochial vicar at St. Paul’s Parish in Nampa.
Father Mendez grew up in a small city on the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica. Although his family was faithful to the Church, he was not very religious.
In 1996, when he was 16, his father passed away suddenly from a heart attack. The tragedy strengthened the faith of his family, he said. “Through his death, I realized how God becomes the father of the family, that He really does not abandon the orphan or the widow,” Father Mendez said.
He stayed in Costa Rica to pursue his bachelor’s degree in International Relations and his master’s degree in International Cooperation, which he finished when he was 23. But, he says, he did not find happiness in his success as a student or in his career.
“I was lonely. I was bored with money, work, girlfriends, the things of the world,” he said. In 2004, he decided that life had to have more meaning than he was experiencing.
“If God exists, I thought, He cannot want for us this miserable life,” he said. “I prayed, and I realized that there is something beyond earthly happiness, so I decided to go and to search for it.”
Father Mendez spoke with people in his parish, who were members of the Neocatechumenal Way. The association sent him to Italy for a week of prayer and discernment. At the end of the week, he was asked if he was ready to go anywhere in the world. Even though the place he was to serve – India – was drawn from a basket, he believe the call was providential.
“I traveled half the world without speaking English, just trusting in God and His Providence,” he said.
In the Neocatechumenal Way, missionaries live among the poor, adapting to their customs and preaching the gospel through the way they live. Of all the difficulties of adjusting to a life without any connection to his home in Costa Rica, learning English was among the most difficult tasks for Father Mendez. After six months, he still was unsure of where God was calling him. He stayed another three months, and that’s when his heart opened, he said.
He attended seminary at a Neocatechumenal Way seminary in Bangalore, in the south of India, the safest area for Catholics. Catholicism only makes up 1 percent of the population, which is predominantly Hindu. Because it is illegal to convert others, the missionaries must present the gospel through the way they live and act, without speaking directly about Jesus.
This witness-in-action has converted many to the Church, Father Mendez said. As people notice the difference in the lives of Catholics, they become curious about their beliefs and motivations. Finding out about the love of Jesus is so powerful that the people are willing to be baptized although it might cost them relationships with friends and family, or even their lives, he said.
“One man said to me, ‘We have 30 million gods, and none of these have ever told me that he loves me. Only your God has told me that He loves me as I am.’ ”
The Neocatechumenal Way has seminaries and communities around the world, including in several cities throughout the United States.
“The aim of their seminaries is to form missionary priests. The only condition is to be open to the will of God, to be open to whatever He wants,” he said. In abandoning oneself to Providence, he said, one experiences God’s love and provision in a profound way, he said.
In 2015, he went to Rome on a pilgrimage with missionary families of the Neocatechumenal Way.
“Pope Francis met with us, and then laid hands on us and sent us. We cannot go anywhere in the world if the Church does not send us,” he said.
Father Mendez was ordained to the priesthood in 2016. Two years later, he returned to his native Costa Rica to reconnect with his family, especially his mother. He worked in three parishes in his diocese. Then in 2021, he began working in a Catholic school.
During his vacation this summer, he decided to meet an old friend who lives in the Diocese of Brooklyn. At first, he thought of going to Brooklyn to serve, but he decided to consider other dioceses in America who needed priests. Among the dioceses that stood out was the Diocese of Boise. He contacted several dioceses. Father Caleb Vogel, vicar general of the Diocese of Boise, replied to him the most quickly.
After staying in New York for a month due to paperwork, Father Mendez arrived in Boise at the beginning of August. He was assigned as a parochial vicar at St. Paul’s.
Not having seen Idaho before he arrived, he is delighted by the state’s beauty and is impressed by the population growth in Idaho, which presents opportunities for building up those in the Church as well as evangelizing those who do not know Christ or who have fallen away.
“Our God is a God of life,” he said. “The most important thing is to announce to the people the love of God. We need to especially bring back our youth … The Word of God brings happiness. We need to show them this happiness in God.”
Diocese of Boise gets two more priests from Sons of Mary Mother of Mercy
Father Benjamin Onyemachi, SMMM and Father Goodluck Ajaero, SMMM
By Emily Woodham
The Diocese of Boise welcomed two more priests this summer from the religious congregation, Sons of Mary Mother of Mercy.
Father Goodluck Ajaero, SMMM, and Father Benjamin Onyemachi, SMMM, arrived in Boise at the end of July.
The Sons of Mary Mother of Mercy arrived in the fall of 2018. Other priests from the order serving in the Diocese of Boise include Father Anthony Amadi, Father Emmanuel Chinedu, Father Hippolytus Ezenwa, Father Bruno Mbamobi and Father Vitalis Onyeama.
Father Ajaero and Father Onyema-chi are both from Nigeria and studied at the Seat of Wisdom Major Seminary in Owerri, Imo State.
Father Ajaero, serving at Our Lady of Good Counsel Parish in Mountain Home, grew up in a devout Catholic family. He initially felt the calling to serve as a priest while he was a young boy. But, as a teenager, his interest changed, wishing instead to study chemical engineering.
“After college, the inner calling to become a priest came back more vividly,” he said. Two different people told him that he had better go to seminary and that he would find his vocation there.
Father Ajaero had a dear friend, Ifeany Oguinye, who also wanted to be a priest, he said. Oguinye brought a calendar to Father Ajaero, which listed the vocations directors of different religious Orders.
“Immediately, I was attracted to the religious congregation of Sons of Mary Mother of Mercy because of the name,” he said. He sent inquiries to SMMM and two other congregations. He and his friend also sent letters to the archdiocese to inquire about the priesthood, but they sent them to the wrong address.
Father Ajaero was invited to interview with the SMMM. After passing the interview, he decided to become a part of the congregation in 2006. That same year, his friend, Oguinye, who had been such an encouragement to him, died in a car accident before entering seminary.
Father Ajaero continued to pursue his call to religious priesthood. He did all his seminary studies with the SMMM and was ordained in 2017.
After ordination, he served in parishes as a visiting priest and as assistant to the secretary general of SMMM. He also was an assistant spiritual advisor.
Father Onyemachi, serving at Holy Apostles Parish in Meridian, also grew up in a faithful Catholic family. His parish used to pray regularly for vocations to the priesthood and religious life. “As young people, we wondered why that was so important to our people, and for that reason many of us decided to give it a try,” he said.
Two seminarians doing apostolic work also influenced his decision to become a priest through their preaching, he said.
It was strictly providential, he said, that he went to the Sons of Mary Mother of Mercy.
“I was told that the minor seminary for my home diocese in Mbaise did not admit anyone who had attempted secondary school in a secular institution,” he said. The restrictions were in place because the diocese had such an abundance of priestly vocations, he said.
“This made me go to a minor seminary, the Mercy Seminary Bende, that belonged to Sons of Mary Mother of Mercy.” From then on, he stayed in the religious Order.
“Pure providence took me to the Congregation, and I am so happy that I am part of the Sons family,” he said.
Father Onyemachi was ordained in 2010. After ordination, he served as project coordinator for SMMM, then served in various parishes as a visiting priest and as a confessor for the novitiate. He also served as a school principal for 10 years.
Not knowing what tomorrow will bring, Father Osuafor chooses Diocese of Boise
Father Boniface Osuafor
By Emily Woodham
After six years focusing on academics, Father Boniface Osuafor wanted to do full-time pastoral work for a diocese in the United States before returning to his home in Nigeria.
His coursework completed for his doctorate in ecumenical ministry from the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, Father Osuafor checked three dioceses outside the Chicago area: New York, Washington and Boise. After speaking with Father Caleb Vogel, vicar general for the Diocese of Boise, he decided Boise was the best fit.
“Initially, I told Father Vogel that I would come next year,” Father Osuafor said. But later, he said, he felt the Holy Spirit say to him, “Go immediately. You don’t know what tomorrow will bring.”
Father Osuafor called Father Vogel back and offered to come on June 30. “Then I was invited to come and serve,” he said. Of all his many tasks, pastoral work is the most important to him, he said. He serves at St. Paul’s Parish in Nampa.
Father Osuafor went to Chicago in 2019, after studying ecumenical theology and receiving his license in sacred theology at the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium. He met an American at Leuven who told him about the Bernardin Scholarship (named after Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, the former late archbishop of Chicago) offered at the Catholic Theological Union.
The scholarship, according to the Catholic Theological Union website, is for those “inspired by the vision of Cardinal Bernardin in the areas of reconciliation and peacemaking, interreligious dialogue, leadership development for the Catholic Church, the consistent ethic of life, or the search for common ground in the Church and the world.” His application was well-received, and he was given a full tuition scholarship to work on his doctorate on inculturation, or the adaptation of Christian liturgy to a non-Christian cultural background.
While studying at Catholic Theological Union, Father Osuafor worked at two parishes for the Archdiocese of Chicago. One of the parishes was mostly Hispanic, giving him the opportunity to learn Spanish and to celebrate Mass in Spanish. “In the United States, I have found it is important in pastoral work to speak both English and Spanish,” he said.
Father Osuafor was raised in Nigeria. He was interested in the priesthood from the time he was a child. “By God’s mercy, I continued in my vocation and was ordained in 2001,” he said.
Among his assignments after ordination was serving as the personal assistant to his bishop. He was the coordinator of hospital ministry and a pastor. He went on his academic sabbatical in 2016 at Leuven.
Father Osuafor is grateful for the opportunity to serve in Idaho for the next few years. “It’s a beautiful place. I have never seen a parish (St. Paul’s in Nampa) this active. I love it,” he said.
His dissertation focuses on traditional Igbo-Nigeria marriage, which is crucial to their culture. Because of the financial strain on couples from the elaborate traditional and sacramental ceremonies often performed separately, Father Osuafor is hoping to find a way to combine the traditional and sacramental marriages into one new liturgy. This would serve to bring the sacrament within the context of culture, he said.
“The issue of the Incarnation is that Jesus came and took human flesh within the context of a culture. So how do we make Christ manifest in our culture?” he said.
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