With over 400,000 Latinos in the Boston area—many of whom are Catholic—the Church has its work cut out for it in reaching and enriching the faith lives of this growing population. Enter Brother Mario Gomez-Tejerina, OFM.
Director of Latino ministry at the St. Anthony Shrine and Ministry Center, Brother Mario brings not only his energetic faith, but also the language and cultural background of those he serves.
“I think that knowing the language definitely helps (especially if we want to catechize the community or preach the word),” he says.
Born and raised in Lima, Peru, Brother Mario joined the Franciscans in 2005. He was invited to a retreat in Philadelphia that was led by Franciscans, and he immediately fell in love with their spirituality and concern for the poor.
This Peruvian Franciscan is sensitive to the needs of immigrants in the United States, which flows out of not only his own firsthand experience as an immigrant, but also his faith.
“I wonder how small Jesus might have felt after being abandoned by the apostles and their incredulity after he was crucified,” he says.
“I have also wondered how marginalized Saint Francis felt when his father, former friends, and the people of Assisi looked down on him after he walked away from materialism and started living a life of penance.”
The ministry began 12 years ago, when Father Brian Smail, OFM, started a Bible study group in Spanish in the basement of the shrine. The group still meets every Wednesday.
As an intern in his Franciscan formation, Brother Mario started helping out with the Bible study in 2011, while “people in the Latino community increasingly started asking for ‘a little more,’” he says.
The weekly Spanish Mass on Wednesdays wasn’t meeting the needs of their parishioners, so a Sunday Spanish liturgy was added.
“There were only 15 people sitting in the pews that first Sunday. But that rapidly changed. We’ve grown to a steady 80-90 people every Sunday—and even more than that when the crazy Massachusetts weather allows!” Brother Mario exclaims.
His passion and commitment to the ministry led to him becoming director in November 2013.
“Faithful to the shrine’s motto, ‘All Are Welcome,’ the Latino ministry at St. Anthony’s strives to offer the Latino men and Latina women of the city of Boston the opportunity and the space to express their faith in their own native language and according to their own cultural background,” he says.
Brother Mario and others at St. Anthony’s want the ministry to become an “oasis of peace and prayer.”
Besides Spanish Mass and the weekly Bible study, the Latino ministry also provides confessions in Spanish, offers retreats throughout the different liturgical seasons, and encourages participants to engage in other ministries at the shrine.
The fear of reaching out to others who are culturally different from us, as well as bringing the Latino ministry into the larger community, are barriers with which Brother Mario has to grapple.
However, the Peruvian friar has a simple Franciscan antidote at the ready. “A welcoming smile, a warm embrace, or maybe just a genuine ¡Hola! are
sometimes all that’s needed to open the door,” says Brother Mario.