Janna Reynolds, The Catholic Virginian

Perseverance has been a necessity in the formation of Deacon Julio Reyes on his journey to becoming a priest.

As with many things over the last few months, COVID-19 has presented some unique circumstances en route to his ordination day. 

Originally scheduled to be ordained a priest for the Diocese of Zacateocoluca by Bishop Elias S. Bolaños, bishop of Zacateocoluca, on Saturday, June 13, Deacon Reyes will now be ordained a priest of that diocese by Bishop Barry C. Knestout on Saturday, July 11, at the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, Richmond.

Deacon Reyes, 30, is the oldest child of Hernán Realegeño Gámez and the late Trinidad de Jesús Reyes de Realegeño’s children. He has a brother, Benjamin, who lives in El Salvador with their father. His sister, Abigail, lives in Italy. 

Growing up, his mother, who passed away in April, made and sold pupusas, a traditional El Salvadorian food. His father was a member of the national police and then became a security guard.  

Where best to serve

In 2008, at age 18, Deacon Reyes finished his bachillerato (baccalaureate), which he described as being similar to high school in the United States. He began discerning his future.

“I was trying to decide what to do next in my life. Somehow during my prayer time and being in the church – because I spent a lot of time in the parish – this came into my mind, into my plan for the future. What am I going to do with my life?” he said. “During my prayer, the main question was where can I serve better?”

Service to his country was an option.

“I wanted to be a soldier like my father was at some point, and some uncles. And actually, I wanted to become a member of the special forces. And then I had also this other way of life, this priesthood,” he said.  “I was realizing that as a soldier, as a member of the army, I would be good serving people like soldiers should do, but then I realized that I would serve better as a priest. So that is how I decided for the priesthood at some point.”  

With the support of his pastor at Nuestra Señora del Rosario (Holy Rosary) at El Rosario de la Paz, El Salvador, and the parishioners, Deacon Reyes decided to answer God’s call. 

He entered the seminary in El Salvador in 2008, but left formation after a few months due to circumstances at home to help support his family.

Deacon Reyes worked at a distribution warehouse that supplied plastic products to supermarkets and other places for about a year and a half. He also worked in a place where clothes were made, helped with inventory in stores and worked in a factory where the plastic products were made. 

“When I was out, I missed all the spirit that I had in the seminary,” he said. “And then when I came back, I was doing well at this life, and I feel happy.”

Coming to America

In 2012, he returned to the seminary in El Salvador to study philosophy and remained there for three years before Bishop Bolaños and the late Bishop Francis X. DiLorenzo of Richmond made an agreement whereby the Diocese of Richmond would pay for Deacon Reyes to complete his seminary formation in the United Sates in exchange for him serving in the diocese for several years after ordination. 

Deacon Reyes said that Bishop Bolaños gave him the option of studying in America.

“He made the offer, ‘Would you like to go to the U.S.? Because the formation team and I have decided that you are a possible candidate to go to the United States to study,’” he recalled.

He accepted the offer and began preparing for life in a new country. 

For months, Deacon Reyes took English classes with a professor who was a parishioner at one of the churches in his home diocese and undertook the preparation of all the paperwork necessary for a U.S. visa. He also took the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) exam in El Salvador.

He arrived in the United States in September 2015 and entered formation at St. Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary in Boynton Beach, Florida.

New experience 

Deacon Reyes said he was “shocked” by the freedom he had at St. Vincent, where he was able to leave campus to shop, have dinner or pursue other interests so long as he was present when needed. In El Salvador, seminarians were only permitted to leave campus on a designated day to attend to personal business.

He said that the facilities were different in that he had his own room and personal space, which was “completely different from El Salvador and my experience there.”

Seminarians in El Salvador, he said, receive the pastoral, academic, spiritual and human formation that is taught in the United States, but there were differences in how learning takes place.

At St. Vincent, Deacon Reyes had an advisor with whom he met periodically to track his progress. The final evaluation took place with the entire formation team together, and he was able to write the evaluation with the team adding elements to it. 

In El Salvador, he met periodically with all the formators separately, and the final evaluation was written by the director and sent directly to the bishop.

‘Be there for community’

Four semesters of homiletics courses helped Deacon Reyes overcome a fear of public speaking.

“I hope and I think that I am a good preacher, so that is something I’m sure I will share with the community. I love to be close to the people and serve them as I can, especially with the sacraments,” he said. “The main gift that I can give to the community is to be there for them and to pray for them as a priest, as a minister of the Church.”

As a priest, Deacon Reyes is looking forward to celebrating the sacraments that he could not perform as a deacon – Eucharist, reconciliation and anointing of the sick. 

“Mostly to celebrate the Mass. I think that is something I really wanted to do all these months,” he said, adding that the last few months in the seminary were spent practicing for that eventuality.

Had his ordination taken place as originally planned, Deacon Reyes’ first Mass would have been on the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, or Corpus Christi. 

“I was so excited about that because of all the meaning that the celebration of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ has, and one of the most important things I am looking for is celebrating the Eucharist,” he said. 

Deacon Reyes hopes to be home in the Diocese of Zacateocoluca to celebrate the patron of his home parish on October 7, the Memorial of Our Lady of the Rosary. 

In his free time, Deacon Reyes listens to music, reads, watches movies and occasionally plays video games, and also makes time to connect with his family and friends. He is learning Italian because his sister, who lives in Italy, is planning to be married, and she and her fiancé want the future Father Reyes to celebrate their wedding Mass. 

With his ordination rescheduled, the deacon said he hopes for things to get back to “the way it was before” and that he is prepared to serve the community wherever he is needed.

“It makes me feel happy and just trying to get ready to serve the people in the parish where I am assigned. That is my hope, and that is what I ask God for in my prayers – to give me hope and to give me joy any time to be always a joyful priest for the people,” he said.

Editor’s note: Due to social distancing, attendance at the ordination Mass is by invitation only. The livestream of the Mass will begin at 10:30 a.m., Saturday, July 11, on the diocesan website, www.richmonddiocese.org.    

Inspired by saints 

Catholics admire the saints for many reasons: their contributions to the Church, the way they lived their lives by Christ’s example, and the way they adhered to their beliefs despite social pressures to abandon their faith.

Through discerning a vocation, one might come to admire or feel close to a particular saint. 

Deacon Julio Reyes, who will be ordained a priest on July 11, said he has “many favorite saints.”

He named three in particular.

St. Oscar Romero, the first saint from El Salvador, Deacon Reyes’ home country. 

Pope St. John Paul II, who led the Catholic Church for nearly 27 years.

St. Ignatius of Antioch, a bishop of Antioch who refused to deny Christ and was sentenced to die.

“But if I had to choose one of the three, I would choose St. Ignatius of Antioch,” Deacon Reyes said.

St. Ignatius was a disciple of St. John the Apostle. 

“He even wrote a letter to Our Blessed Mother, and she answered him. He was asking about Jesus, and he was telling her about Jesus and how he had become a believer to the testimony of St. John,” explained Deacon Reyes. “And then she answered him that the next time St. John was going to visit them, she would go with John to meet them.” 

The saint is also known for the letters he wrote on his journey to martyrdom in Rome, which encouraged Christians to stay true to the faith. 

“I love how he was going to become a martyr. And he was, even on the way (to his death), giving hope to the people in teaching the right doctrine of the Church,” explained the deacon. “But you have to be in the right church, the Church of Christ.”

Deacon Reyes also spoke of how St. Ignatius told Christians in Rome not to stop his death.

“That is what I like from him — the courage that he had to go, even knowing the kind of death he would have, and go with a joyful heart because he was going to come to Jesus,” he said. 

  Janna Reynolds