The gift of faith, not cows, made a bigger impression
by Joe Bollig
ROELAND PARK — If things had been just a little different, Father Jerry Arano- Ponce, pastor of St. Agnes Parish here, might have been a cowboy.
It all started when, as was the custom in his native Mexico, Jerry and his sister would receive their Christmas gifts from the Three Wise Men on the feast of Epiphany.
One year, his rancher grandfather gave him a cow. Not a toy cow, mind you, but a real one. Since he was too young to care for his cow, it was sent to a “foster family.”
When he was five years old, the youngster’s family moved from the country to Veracruz, a Mexican port city on the Gulf of Mexico.
But that didn’t stop his grandfather from sending the boy Epiphany cows, until, at 15, the youngster had amassed a little herd of nine.
The city boy felt nary a twinge, however, when the herd was subsequently sold; his cowboy career was over before it hardly began.
Today, Father Arano-Ponce’s connection to the beef industry is limited to: “It’s what’s for dinner.”
TO JESUS THROUGH MARY
Father Arano-Ponce’s true vocational foundation was laid when his family would visit his great-aunt, who was also his baptismal sponsor.
“I remember when I would visit her at her home, I would see her praying the rosary every night and having a private dialogue with the Blessed Mother,” he said.
“Faithfully, whenever we visited her home, I would see her engaged in this meditation and prayerful dialogue in front of the icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help,” he continued. “That image has remained in my mind and heart so vivid, and it inspired me to pray more and have a greater devotion to our Blessed Mother.”
The deal was sealed when Father Arano-Ponce’s parents took the family to the center of Mexican spirituality — the Basilica of the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City.
It was at that shrine that he first thought the words, “I’d love to be a priest.” After that, he began to “play Mass” with the other kids, utilizing cookies and soda pop.
Faith in Jesus through Marian devotion — especially through the rosary — had been the starting point of his priestly vocation. So, not too surprisingly, it is still a big part of his life.
“I’ve been given so many rosaries throughout my life, but the ones I treasure the most are these,” he said, laying three rosaries on his office desk.
The first two are from his mother. One is a rosary of dark purple beads that he re- ceived as a seminarian; the second was an ordination gift from his mother, made of Mexican silver.
“My mother told me, ‘I may not be where you are, but the Blessed Mother will always be there with you,’” he said.
She also told him this: The road to the priesthood will not always be roses.
A third rosary features a miniature crucifix of the kind on the staff used by Pope John Paul II and his coat of arms. This was a gift from the late pope to Father Arano-Ponce, received during a private audience.
These days, however, the young pastor finds himself on the giving, rather than the receiving, end of the rosaries. When he visits people in the hospital or those restricted to their homes, he will usually give them a rosary, a prayer book, and a parish bulletin.
“Most times they are moved to tears,” he said. “They are very touched by that gesture done on behalf of the parish — that they are part of the parish family.”
THE PADRE AT LEISURE
Although he has only been pastor of St. Agnes since October 2008, his return to Roeland Park felt like a homecoming. That’s because the parish had “adopted” him in 1999 while he was still a seminarian. He spent his summers and holidays there, and the parishioners gave him a chalice and vestments upon his ordination.
“I never felt I was a stranger,” said Father Arano-Ponce. “People made me part of the family of St. Agnes.”
While he was welcomed back warmly as pastor, the appointment was intimidating.
“Even in my wildest dreams I never thought I would ever occupy the position of St. Agnes pastor,” he continued. “Even now, I don’t like to entertain the thought that I am the office holder of this position.”
The position doesn’t leave much time for traditional hobbies, but he does enjoy a variety of activities that serve to recharge his batteries.
“My habits change depending on where I live, but basically I consider myself an outdoors person,” he said. “Because of my vocation, I spend so many hours indoors — the church, the office, the hospitals. I love taking walks, just going window-shopping.”
He likes to go to bookstores and check out the latest thing, but he especially likes magazines.
“I like to go to the magazine section because I want to know what people are reading, because that’s a conversation piece,” he said. “I want to know what the headlines are, the cover picture. I like magazines about American culture, politics and religion. I like to read about wine.”
Fiction is his favorite genre, and he particularly enjoys short stories. His favorite writer, since his college years, is Anton Chekhov.
He also likes what most of the world calls football, but we Americans call soccer.
“As a Latin American man, I like soccer,” he said. “I just watch that on TV.”
Many of the really good games are on weekends, however, so he misses a lot of them. But that doesn’t stop him from sometimes praying for his hometown team, the Tiburones Rojos de Veracruz (the Red Sharks of Veracruz).
“They’re bad,” he admitted bluntly. “Maybe they have a connection to the Kansas City Chiefs, because the Chiefs’ official color is red, too.”
The closest things Father Arano-Ponce has to hobbies are his love for good, red wine and coffee. But while he appreciates good wine, he is an absolute fanatic about his coffee.
“If there is something that I’m very picky about in my life, it’s coffee,” he said. “I consider that enjoying good coffee is not offensive to the simplicity of life that a priest promises at his ordination. It doesn’t give a bad witness to the world.”
People have given him various brands as gifts, but only one truly satisfies — Verona, a blend.
“I like my coffee to be freshly brewed,” said Father Arano-Ponce. “I drink the coffee first through my nose, so coffee first gets to my brain through smelling. I like to grind my own coffee, so it is a complete experience.”
Sometimes he uses a regular coffee machine and sometimes his own espresso machine. It’s cheaper that way. His routine is: latte in the morning, café Americano at mid-morning, and espresso in the late afternoon when he needs a boost. It reminds him of Rome.
“You swirl it, smell it, and sip it,” he said. “It is like drinking wine.”
Coffee even made it into his “Pastor’s Desk” memo in the bulletin:
“Freshly brewed coffee is a must in my daily routine. It makes my entire day. I love drinking coffee all day long. . . . Coffee is like the fuel that empowers me to perform well each day along with prayer.”
Father Arano-Ponce was studying for another American diocese in Rome when he first met and got to know some priests and seminarians from the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas.
They, in turn, introduced him to Archbishop James P. Keleher, who immediately warmed to the young seminarian and invited him to cast his lot with Kansas.
“The camaraderie between the priests and seminarians from the archdiocese in Rome — I was just amazed how these guys were down-to-earth and friendly,” said Father Arano-Ponce. “I [said to myself], ‘I would love to be a part of a group of priests like that.’”
One of the things that surprised him most in his transition from Mexico to the United States is the difference in the way priests are regarded.
In Mexico, the priests are loved and respected from a distance. In the United States, priests are loved and respected — and embraced.
“[In Mexico] there is not a close relationship with the priests and the people,” he said. “They respect their priests. [But] American Catholics love their priests to death. They take good care of, pray for, and support their priests.”
Even as a seminarian, he said, he experienced the difference.
“I received so much support from the archdiocese, the Serra Club and the Knights of Columbus,” he said. “And now as a priest, how the people stand with their priests! It was something I never experienced before, not even in my Mexican Catholic experience.”
The level of lay participation in church activities, he said, was another thing that surprised him about life in the American church.
“People do so much for the church,” he said. “They take ownership of the ministries. It is something that still has to be fostered in the church I came from.”
In some parts of Mexico, he said, the priest does everything. So when he was first ordained for the archdiocese, he wondered what would be left for him to do.
As it turned out, he needn’t have worried. There’s plenty to do.
“Now I can see all the priest does,” he said. “Now that I share the priesthood, I can see how busy a priest is. I had no idea before I became a priest.”