When Daniel Rivera was 18 years old, he left his home and his family in El Salvador to come to the United States and find work.
He entered the country illegally, crossing the Arizona desert on foot, and he eventually made his way to Hempstead, New York, where one of his brothers already lived.
“I came to the United States not to become a priest but to work and help my family,” said Father Rivera, now 33 years old and ordained on June 25.
He found work quickly enough, in a warehouse that stored and distributed religious goods, and he found something else as well: an active group of young people at Our Lady of Loreto Parish, where he became more and more involved, not just in the group, but in the Faith.
It wasn’t long before he caught the attention of other group members and clergy, and he was invited to a discernment weekend hosted by the Congregation of the Mission, also known as the Vincentians.
“I didn’t think I wanted to be a priest,” he said, “but I wanted to be a missionary, so I went.”
While the weekend didn’t convince him that he had a vocation right away, it started a relationship with the Vincentians.
Back in his parish, he stayed active and kept talking with a retired priest, Father Jose Garcia, who would come and give retreats for the young people.
“He kept saying to me, ‘When are you going to go to the seminary?” Father Rivera said. “And I would say, ‘but you have to have a vocation to go to the seminary.’ And he would say, ‘Vocations come from the Lord, so let’s talk to him.’ But I had my own plans, to support my family.”
It took another two or three years, but eventually Father Rivera discerned that he might have a vocation to be a Vincentian.
Before he entered the seminary, he talked with his brother, wanting to make sure their mother would be taken care of. His brother, he said, was not pleased.
“He said, ‘You want to serve people but not serve your own family?’” Father Rivera said. “It was kind of a surprise to them, because even though they believe in God and they’re Catholic, they didn’t really practice.”
His brother eventually came around, and Father Rivera spent the next seven years in Vincentian formation.
He was 23 when he entered the seminary and had been working and providing for himself for several years already. When the Vincentians accepted him, they also paid for his education and his basic needs so he could focus on his studies. He was grateful, but he chafed at not being able to do as he pleased.
He ultimately came to the understanding that being a missionary — at least in that traditional sense — was not what he was called to. He was called to minister where the Lord put him, to the Spanish- and English-speaking Catholics in the Diocese of Rockville Centre, New York, where he had first understood that he was called to be a priest.
“When we speak of mission, every place is a place of mission, and according to the Church documents, we are all missionaries,” Father Rivera said.
His mission may have been to leave El Salvador and come to the United States, although he didn’t know it at the time. “I went through all the phases and difficulties of coming to the United States, crossing the desert, not knowing the language, finding work,” he said. After the religious goods warehouse, he found another job printing T-shirts. That’s the job he left to enter formation.
“I had been avoiding answering the call,” he said. “But when you’re avoiding God’s call, it’s like you’re in a locked room, and then God slips the key under the door. All you have to do is unlock it and let yourself out.”
Letting himself out — letting himself listen to all the people God put into his life to ask about his vocation, letting himself really listen for God’s direction — has led him to joy and freedom, Father Rivera said.
“You are not wondering what you are doing with your life,” he said. “You are doing not what you want but what God wants. Every day is a reaffirmation of that when I get to see the people in the parish and the children call me ‘Father’ and I talk to people and celebrate the Eucharist. If you are not a priest, you cannot understand the beauty of Jesus becoming the body and blood, and of being his instrument.”
Michelle Martin writes from Illinois.