“GOD HAS PLANS FOR US… AND GOD IS IN CHARGE”
—FRIAR ALBERTO VILLAFAN IN GUADALUPE, ARIZONA
It’s 7 o’clock on a Saturday morning–another muggy day in Phoenix. Father Alberto has been up since 5 for his run and breakfast before work. It’s going to be busy: a morning retreat with 40 choir members, followed by a chat with Deacon Santino Berasconi before a scheduled baptism. Then, a quick lunch with his associate, Father Louis Khoury, at nearby Rosita’s café. Next, another baptism followed by a 3pm wedding, followed by a quick rest, some phone calls, and prep work for the 7pm Vigil Mass. Dinner will get squeezed in there somewhere. With luck, Alberto will be home by 9 pm.
Welcome to the life of Franciscan Father Alberto Villafan, pastor at the 100 year-old church and parish of Our Lady of Guadalupe (Guadalupe, Arizona). Alberto had been here just six weeks when I first visited last August, but he already had a handle on things and some definite ideas of what he would like to do, and how he would like to do them: “Poco á poco. One step at a time. I want to get to know the people and secure their trust first. That’s the most important thing. I’m happy moving from the ground up—starting right away while I am still new and the people are most open to fresh ideas”.
Fr. Alberto, age 50, is a native of Chavinda, Michoachan, Mexico. After immigrating to the United States, he studied in the ESL (English as a Second Language) program of the province before entering postulancy (early formation) in 1993. He was ordained a priest in 2005 and has worked in both St. Francis Parish (Los Angeles) and more recently at St. Elizabeth Parish (Oakland) for six years prior to his current post. Father Louis, who assists Alberto, is a native of Amman, Jordan, and was ordained at the parish on October 22—the first ordination in its history. The parish was founded by Friar Lucius Zittier, who helped the indigenous Yaqui people of northern Mexico escape persecution by securing them land for a reservation and helping them to immigrate. The Franciscan presence in the area has continued uninterrupted ever since. Most recently, Friar Joseph (Joe) Baur retired from his ministry here after nearly 30 years of service.
“I guess this is my honeymoon period,” Alberto reflects. “But I have to say I am so happy right now and I really enjoy every minute of it.” He has a special love of liturgy and sacramental ministry: “I am grateful for my experience at the Franciscan School of Theology (FST) . I am practicing what I learned there. It gave me the resources to do and to enjoy what I am doing right now.” Education and spiritual formation are top priorities for the new pastor. “I tell the people ‘You need to do your ministry with love and with joy.’ Plans are afoot for additional ministry retreats: “ I joke with the ministers. I tell them: ‘Come to the retreat I am organizing for you, or else I will give you a penance!’” There are also long-terms hopes for reaching out to the teens and young adults: “ I hope we can build up the religious education program—catechism classes, Confirmation preparation, and then a youth group. There are big problems with the young people in the community—with gangs, drugs, and alcohol.”
While Alberto is not afraid to step in when needed, he is also clear that he wants to share responsibilities with the lay members of the parish. He is also quick to recognize the generosity of the people and trusts that they will be given the resources they need: “I tell the parishioners: ‘Thank you for whatever you are able to offer.’ And then, we have gotten so much from people outside of the parish in donations—especially from the Casa in Scottsdale! People brought us beds, furniture. A woman even came to me: ‘Father, I heard you need a car. Here are the keys and here is the title. It’s yours.’ She gave me a car that belonged to her husband who passed away—just like that!” As for the future? Friar Alberto is confident and clear: “God has plans for us. And God is in charge.”