Under Our Lady's Shadow and Protection
Gerardo Ceballos-González — Seminarian of the Archdiocese of Atlanta
I was born and raised Catholic in a little town called San Pedro in the state of Michoacán in Mexico, approximately two hours east of Guadalajara and four hours south of Mexico City. I remember beautiful times in that little town. We had, for example, Las Posadas, a nine-day Catholic celebration in December that stretches back four hundred years. We also celebrated the feast day of our patron St. Peter on June 29th every year, and of course there was the great feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe on December 12th.
I would say that in Mexico the line between culture and religion is so tiny that you can confuse them. The reason could be because the first flag of the independence movement was the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. This is why she is a symbol of national identity, liberty and faith. My whole family is Catholic and I grew up going to the Vigil Mass on Saturday and catechism class on Sunday. My reality was typical for any Mexican boy with his family in the United States who was working to provide a better future for the next generation (either in Mexico or in the United States). My mother comes from a practicing Catholic family and she has three uncles who are priests and one sister who is a religious. On the other hand, my father comes from a Catholic family who does not really practice the faith.
When I was a boy I remember my mom giving me five pesos when I went to Mass as a kind of “payment” to attend Mass. Three pesos were for me and two were for the collection basket in the church. I always took the last pew (as every Mexican gentleman does). My mom taught me how to pray to the saints and in a special way to the Blessed Mother through the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
When I was in fifth grade, my teacher asked the class to write down on a piece of paper what we wanted to be when we grew up. An idea crossed my mind that I had never thought of before, so I wrote sacerdote (priest). The teacher looked at me with the most alarmed face I had ever seen in my life. She asked me, “Are you sure?” I answered, “Yes, that is what I want to be.” However I never told my parents about it because I was not an altar boy even though everybody figured I was supposed to be one.
My relationship with the priests in my family was not close because they were out of the country pursuing advanced degrees. My sister Xochitl was a sacristan in my parish at that time, so my relationship with the pastor was very cordial. I remember one time the pastor joked with me by hiding his watch and telling my mom I had stolen it. I could not even talk. Instead I started to cry! I remember laughingly now the “bad” impression of the priesthood that I had at the time. By the way, the name of the pastor was also Gerardo; he was an excellent priest with “the smell of the sheep,” as Pope Francis put it. He was the first priest who directly asked me about the priesthood when I was only twelve years old. When I turned thirteen, a new pastor arrived, Fr. Javier Gutiérrez. He encouraged the parish to form a vocational team and asked the Archdiocese of Morelia to send a seminarian on weekends to inspire them. His name was Victor Alejandre, and at that time he was a senior in college seminary. I don´t know how it happened, but one evening while working on my homework I discussed with my mom which high school I would attend. I had to choose between private and public. She wanted private and I wanted public, so I said why not something in between. I told her my uncle had said that the seminary had a high school. My mom said in a very serious tone that the school was not for just any boy, but boys who wanted to be priests and that I shouldn’t joke about something like that. I was sad because at that time I saw God’s institution as any other school, so I discerned not to play around with that idea and I entered a private non-Catholic high school.
A month later a surprise visitor came to my house; it was the seminarian! He knocked on the door and asked my mom if he could see me. My face showed my confusion! His first words were “How are you? Are you Gerardo?” My answer was “good” and “yes.” He invited me to a Holy Week retreat at the diocesan seminary “with no strings attached.” In our house we prayed the rosary every night, and while I was praying I was thinking about what God wanted for me.
Where was Mary in all of this? She was the one who inspired me to say, “Yes, my Lord, here I am,” as she said at the Annunciation. I was afraid. I was only fourteen years old when I joined the minor seminary of the Archdiocese of Morelia in Michoacán. My very first night in the seminary I cried because I was missed my family and my warm little town. That was when I took refuge in Mary, Our Lady of Guadalupe whose image presides in the chapel of the minor seminary. Since then I have come to have a very deep relationship with both my mom on earth and my Mom in Heaven. I know that my mom prays for me every day because I can feel it when I contemplate the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. She was with me during the difficult times of adjustment to seminary life when I went from being the only child at home to one of thirty-five brothers sleeping together in the same large room.
In the spring of 2006, I went to a presentation at my minor seminary given by the El Paso program. This program connects helps interested candidates become seminarians of American dioceses and provides English immersion experiences for Mexican seminarians in Texas. Multiple directors of vocations gave short presentations on the need for Spanish-speaking priests in their dioceses. I heard the presentations from the Diocese of Biloxi, the Diocese of San Bernardino and the Archdiocese of Denver. At the end those who were interested could take business cards and after a prayerful discernment could contact a diocese. So I took the business cards of the Diocese of San Bernardino and the Archdiocese of Atlanta, which was a “leftover” from a previous presentation that same day. Two weeks later I sent emails to San Bernardino and Atlanta at the same time so that I could “let God decide.” The Archdiocese of Atlanta soon answered the email saying that they were interested in knowing more about me. Not too long after that, the Associate Director of Vocations of the Archdiocese of Atlanta visited me and accepted me as a provisional candidate for one year.
When I finished minor seminary, I officially joined the Archdiocese of Atlanta as a seminarian and the new vocation director sent me to study philosophy not in El Paso but in Mexico City, the place where the inspiration of my vocation (Our Lady of Guadalupe) resides. I began my philosophical studies at the Pontifical University of Mexico. Sometime later in October of 2007, the rector of the Pontifical University assigned me to be the weekend acolyte at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. That was a great experience and a joy. I had the opportunity to touch Juan Diego’s tilma, the cloak that features the original heavenly image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. It was such a wonderful experience; in tears I prayed for my family and my beloved ones, and I consecrated my vocation to her.
After two years, the new vocation director of the archdiocese sent me to Monterrey, Mexico to finish my philosophical formation and to study for a degree in philosophy. There I had a beautiful encounter with our Blessed Mother under the name of Our Lady of the Oak Tree, patroness of both the city and of the Archdiocese of Monterrey. It was there that I had my “second conversion,” as Catherine of Siena puts it.
On December 12th of 2008, I was diagnosed with chronic renal insufficiency. My kidney function was going down and the doctor told me that I needed a kidney transplant before May in order to survive. I felt as if the world was falling down on top of me and everything was over. I never imagined that in my youth I would deal with such a big problem and I fell into a deep depression. I could not believe that God had permitted that to happen to one of the men who wanted to give his whole life for his service. I could not comprehend it at that moment. I considered everything lost: my vocation, my life, my joy. Everything just fell apart at that very moment.
In the hardness of my heart I did not feel either the consolation of God or the love of my heavenly Mother; I was totally blind. This was when I learned that the silence of God does not mean He or our Mother is absent. I lived and enjoyed every second of that Christmas break because I thought it was the last one of my earthly life. At this point I had not told my family about my illness. In my heart there was a shadow of sadness and only in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament could I be in peace. I prayed the Rosary with so much fervor; however, at one point I decided to stop praying it, arguing that no matter what I did the time was coming when I would meet the One who had called me to serve.
On New Year’s Day of 2009 I decided to tell my family about my illness and they reacted by offering me their kidneys in order to survive. At one point I said that if it was God’s will that I should die then I would die without fighting for my life. I returned to the seminary and planned to say that I had discerned out and that the priesthood was not my vocation. I wasn’t going to tell them that I needed a kidney transplant. I planned to live with my illness alone. Sometimes God works in funny ways though. I did not know (and still don’t know) how the Archdiocese of Atlanta arranged everything for my kidney transplant. However, I am sure of one thing; it was by the intercession of our Lady, my heavenly Mother and, of course, the wonderful mother that God gave me for guidance in my pilgrimage on this earth. That time was my “dark night,” as St. John of the Cross calls it.
I finally had my transplant on March 29th of 2009 at two in the afternoon, two weeks before Easter. For two weeks, I was in the hospital in Morelia, less than a mile from the seminary where my first conversion began. I was away from the seminary for a semester. I then continued my studies in the fall of 2009 at the seminary in Monterrey. On May 13th, I received a letter saying that I would continue my studies of English and theology at the Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus, Ohio. Mary has been with me all the time because the Lord gave her to us when he was on the Cross: “Woman, behold your son… Behold, your mother” (Jn 19:26-27). Centuries later, Mary said to Juan Diego, a man of my race:
Hear and let it penetrate into your heart, my dear little son:
Let nothing discourage you, nothing depress you.
Let nothing alter your heart or your countenance.
Do not fear any illness or vexation, anxiety or pain.
Am I not here who am your Mother?
Are you not under my shadow and protection?
Every day I remember those words in my mind and in my heart.