Former ‘troublemaker’ finds peace in service to the Lord

If you ask Father Raúl Lemus, vocations director for the Diocese of Santa Rosa in Northern California, about his vocation, he still admits that it’s all been a bit of a surprise. 

“Twenty-five years ago I wouldn’t have believed it,” he told Our Sunday Visitor. “Here I am, at age 45, doing the Lord’s work as a priest. And I’m very happy.”

Father Lemus was pastor of St. Sebastian Parish in Sebastopol, Calif., when Bishop Robert Vasa asked him to be vocations director last year, as well as serve as chaplain at the only diocesan-run high school, a potential source of new vocations. 

‘Priest from the hood’

Being the diocese’s chief promoter of vocations is a seemingly unlikely place for him to be today, considering he was away from the Church for eight years and was a self-described “troublemaker” raised in San Francisco’s toughest neighborhoods. In fact, today he refers to himself as “the priest from the hood.”

Father Lemus was born in El Salvador and was brought by his parents to San Francisco when he was 4. His father was a dishwasher; the family moved around to different neighborhoods in the city. “It got me used to moving around a lot, which is helpful when you’re a priest,” he quipped.

As a boy, Father Lemus went with his mother to Mass at some of San Francisco’s most beautiful churches, including the Jesuit-run St. Ignatius. He said, “I was excited when my mom would give me a dollar to put into the collection.”

From age 14 to 22, however, he stopped going to church. He was a “smart aleck,” he said, and aspired to become an actor and comedian. His brother, Joe Lemus, recalled that despite Raúl’s rough edges, he was well-liked. Joe said, “Raúl was a playful kid. He liked to tell jokes and was fun to be around.”

Father Lemus got involved with drama and managed to steer clear of the worst aspects of the gang and drug culture that afflicted many in his community. His late brother, Carlos, however, was not so fortunate. He developed a severe drug and alcohol problem, and the family moved to Petaluma, about 40 miles north of San Francisco, so Carlos could receive treatment.

Drawn back home

The family’s new parish was St. Vincent de Paul, a historic church founded in 1857. The magnificent structure has beautiful marble altars, mosaics, statues and stained-glass windows, as well as impressive domes and twin towers. Although Father Lemus wasn’t practicing the Faith, the traditional structure appealed to him. “It has a lot of what I call ‘holy distractions,’” he said. 

While driving his parents to church, he realized that St. Vincent’s was a great place to meet women. “God did a ‘bait and switch’ on me,” Father Lemus said. “I was attracted by the women, but I wound up becoming an altar server, lector and minister of Communion.”

He joined the Jovenes young adult group and discovered he was a natural leader. It was during this time that he “fell in love with God and the Church, and realized something was missing from my life.”

Father Lemus was impressed by some of the priests he had met, especially a family friend from El Salvador, Father Emiliano Caballero. 

“I liked Father Caballero because he was ‘normal,’” Father Lemus said. “You’d ask him questions about God, and he’d answer them in plain Spanish.”

Happy priests play an important role in attracting young men to the priesthood, Father Lemus believes. 

“Father Caballero was a light-hearted man who’d tell jokes,” he said. “He planted the seed of my vocation back when I was 10 years old.”

When Father Lemus was ordained a priest in 2002, Father Caballero attended the ordination Mass and helped him vest.

Since being ordained, his years of priesthood have had their ups and downs. “Have there been difficulties?” he said. “Yes. Has it been worth it? Yes.”

Some of his greatest rewards, he said, have been in preaching the word of God. He recalls celebrating one daily Mass, and, as he was rushed, thought he’d skip the homily. A thought came to him while reading the Gospel, however. He ended up preaching for several minutes. After Mass, a woman in the congregation told him that her husband had recently died, and that his homily seemed to be “geared just for her.” 

“I couldn’t believe it,” he told OSV. 

Father Lemus loves traditional Catholic practices and devotions, telling his parishioners: “I’m not conservative, I’m ‘old school.’” 

A priest friend, Father Frank Epperson, introduced him to the Latin Tridentine Mass, which he learned to say and recently celebrated for the first time. 

“I like its sacred silence,” he said. “It’s beautiful.”

Echoing the words of St. John Vianney, patron saint of parish priests, Father Lemus tells his congregations, “My job is to help you get to heaven.”

Challenges ahead

As vocations director, his chief job is to promote vocations. Santa Rosa had two ordinations to the priesthood this year, and has another seven men in the seminary, respectable numbers for a diocese of 140,000 Catholics. He’s hoping to attract several more seminarians for the new academic year, which can be a challenge, particularly in his own Hispanic community.

The dearth of vocations to the priesthood is particularly noticeable among Hispanics, he concedes. 

“Most Hispanic children go to public schools, where they can’t talk about God, but they can talk bad about God. They become immersed in a secular culture, and lose their faith,” Father Lemus said.

Not helping the situation are the recent scandals in the priesthood, which have hit Santa Rosa particularly hard. In 1999, the previous bishop of Santa Rosa, Patrick Ziemann, was forced to resign due to his own sexual and financial wrongdoing. Father Lemus was in the seminary at the time. 

“It shook me up, but it didn’t make me want to leave. My vocation was not from the bishop, but from God,” he told OSV.

Father Lemus encourages Catholic parents to expose their children to positive priestly role models, whether it be through inviting a priest over for dinner, watching movies which positively portray priests or even making little boys “Mass kits,” which they can use to pretend to celebrate Mass. In fact, he recently gave some unconsecrated hosts to a family for such a kit.

Besides his vocations talks, Father Lemus hopes that his own example as a faithful priest will plant the seed of a vocation in young men he meets “as Father Caballero’s example once planted a seed in me.” 

Jim Graves writes from California.