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May 28, 2012 | Volume 87, Number 15
 

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photo: Deacon Carlos H. LermaCarlos Lerma: Hispanic man calls Virginia home

When Carlos H. Lerma was in his early 20s and looking for direction in his life, he went to his parish priest for guidance.

There at Sacred Heart of Jesus Church he began helping minister to the poor in his small hometown of Buga, Colombia. After a year, he sensed that this was the life to which he was called.

With the help of his pastor, Lerma immediately set in motion a path to the priesthood. It would take him 12 years to get there.

Now age 40, speaking a new language in a new country, with a wealth of education behind him and still more experience caring for God’s people, Deacon Lerma will be ordained on June 2.

Looking back he realized that the desires he brings to his priesthood are the very same desires he felt when he first began assisting Father Jaime Robledo in Buga: to be present to the poor, the sick and other people in need, “to listen to them carefully and respond with a word of encouragement and bring the message of Christ to them.”

On the eve of his ordination, he added, “I want to be a priest, not for me, Carlos Lerma, but for the people, to help them find Christ in their lives.

“I see all people as brothers and sisters to me, no matter who they are or where they come from,” he continued. “I want to accept them and bring them to the church where we can work together on our journey and celebrate the sacraments together.”

Deacon Lerma’s journey to the priesthood was long and arduous partly because he first needed to learn English and learn it well enough to study theology and philosophy and minister effectively in parishes in the U.S. In the process, he attended three different seminaries and two colleges and served 10 summer assignments in parishes in the Richmond diocese.

“It was tough,” he recalled. “Sometimes I would get a little discouraged, but I would pray to God for strength, knowing that my struggle would be worth it.”

Deacon Lerma grew up in Colombia’s middle class, the only child of Pablo and Nubia Lerma, a truck driver and a homemaker. He earned a degree in agricultural business.

He says that his faith didn’t begin to mature until the time he went to Father Robledo for guidance. The parish priest “put me on his team” of lay ministers, and as Lerma assisted his pastor he also began asking questions and probing the deeper meaning of his faith.

Meanwhile, he saw that the poor of his community needed more attention and he took on the task of providing it, through both practical and spiritual means.

Father Robledo encouraged him to become a catechist and within a short time Lerma realized he wanted to be a priest. Since the local diocese had more than enough priests, the pastor suggested Lerma seek a diocese in the U.S. to sponsor him as a candidate for the priesthood. He originally found sponsorship through the Diocese of Raleigh.

But when the vocational director had to turn him down for lack of seminary experience, he passed his name on to Father Michael Renninger, then Vicar for Vocations in Richmond.

At the time, Lerma spoke no English. He was invited to come work for the diocese while learning English with the goal of eventually entering seminary. Having never been to the U.S., not speaking the language and having no idea where he would be sent or what work he would be doing, Lerma accepted in a leap of faith, believing it would be a great adventure toward his dream of becoming a priest.

Three days after arriving from Colombia in February, 2000, he was sent to St. Joseph’s, Martinsville, where he helped the Hispanic community while being tutored in English.

After a year and a half, he entered bilingual Assumption Seminary in San Antonio to continue honing his English skills. Later he would study religion and philosophy at Our Lady of the Lake College in San Antonio and St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore.

He finished his undergraduate studies at St. John Vianney College Seminary in Miami and completed his preparation for the priesthood at St. Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary in Boynton Beach, Florida, graduating May 12.

Deacon Lerma said he especially enjoyed pastoral care ministry, visiting the sick in hospitals and homes. Among the parishes he served in the summers were Holy Trinity in Norfolk, and St. Augustine’s in Richmond.

Deacon Lerma considers Virginia and the Diocese of Richmond to be home.

“This is the place where my priesthood has been confirmed,” he said. “My heart is here with this diocese.”

The newly ordained Father Lerma will celebrate a bi-lingual Mass in English and Spanish on Saturday, June 2, at 5:30 p.m. at St. Augustine’s. Then he will celebrate Mass on Sunday, June 3, at St. Joseph’s in Martinsville at 10:15 a.m. in English and 11:45 a.m. in Spanish.

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