Father Manuel De Jesus Rodriguez
Pastor of Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church in Jamaica, Queens, NY
Father Manuel De Jesus Rodriguez is the pastor of Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church in Jamaica, Queens. Born in the Dominican Republic, Father Manuel is a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn, N.Y. In this episode of Sunday to Sunday, we witness Father Manuel’s apostolic zeal that marks his every more. In preaching, he says: “It’s all about Jesus. It’s about his values, and the more we witness to that, the better.”
Runtime: 26 mins, 37 secs
America Magazine Video
Runtime: 9 mins, 48 secs
Episode transcript and study guide.
Q: Pre-written question
R1: Father Mike Russo
I1: Father Manuel
I1: I am just a priest who walks with his people, trying to be a witness of the Lord Jesus, trying to cry with them when there is a time of crying. Trying to eat with them when it is a time of eating. Trying to have fun when the time of having fun is required and trying to be a companion in our common journey of faith, following in the Lord Jesus as his disciples. I am very happy for the opportunity of sharing my faith with my community and grateful to the Lord for the vocation of being a priest.
R1: I am at the Church of the Presentation of Mary on Parson’s Boulevard in Jamaica, Queens. It is one of the most densely populated and ethnically diverse places in the city of New York. We are here to meet the pastor, Father Manuel Jesus Rodriguez. Father Manuel is a man of considerable talent, who came to the Brooklyn Diocese in 2009 from the Dominican Republic. As a young seminarian, he worked as a missionary in Cuba where he witnessed both its conflicts and its joys. After his ordination, he studied cannon law in Rome. Presentation Parish is 75% Hispanic and draws its population from Central America, the West Indies, and the Caribbean. The parish embraces a large Guatemalan community. Father Manuel is fluent in four languages. In preaching he says it’s all about Jesus. It’s about his values and the more we witness to that, the better. Let us meet Father Manuel Jesus Rodriguez.
Father Manuel, it’s wonderful to be with you.
I1: Thank you so much. Me too, I am so happy to be here.
R1: I followed you this past weekend at a presentation. How do you keep up the stamina?
I1: Well, first of all it is always a joy to be with our people and to be able to share our faith, my faith with them. It is an amazing community and it’s a joy. It’s just a joy and there is also the need of going out and preaching Jesus and sharing the faith and helping. So, it is not certainly a burden, but it’s a joy.
R1: Well, I would—Pope Francis would call it apostolic zeal. You have plenty of it.
I1: I try. I try. I must say though that I am well supported by the community, which is an amazing community. Very committed, very convinced of their faith. I do have an amazing team both clerics and priests and deacons and the lay leaders from the parish who work very hard to keep the parish going and to respond to the needs of our reality in Jamaica, Queens.
R1: You do many tasks. I notice that you know people by name. The young people especially. Is that part of the work of Don Basco? It strikes me as such.
I1: Don Basco is a great man and is a great saint who understood that in order for you to communicate Christ, you are to understand that the person of the one you are trying to achieve, and this communication comes first. So, he used to say try to make sure that they love you first before anything and try to make sure that you create this connection with the person that you are trying to work with. In Italian—studia defiety amare. Try to be loved. Try to for them to love you first. You know, meaning that it is important to establish that emotional connection as a bridge that will allow you convey the gospel message and the values. Also, because if you are trying to build a community then we need to know each other and knowing the name is the first step to a human communication that is effective and based on good communication.
R1: So, as a trained cannon lawyer, you do work in the tribunal, but in fact it doesn’t stop you and Father Victor from teaching confirmation class.
I1: No, no, no. It’s so important. I have to say though, that I started that in continuation, you know, with the previous pastor, Father Christopher Connor who did that in that parish, in Presentation. I didn’t do it before. Before I did Presentation—also because I was by myself in the previous parish. But here in Presentation, I found it exceedingly useful and effective because it gives you the opportunity to know the kids, to know the kids personally and it gives the kids the opportunity to have a priest involved with them in their educational itinerary and that is quite something for them because most of these teens attend public schools and they don’t have the opportunity to have a religious person as a teacher, as an instructor in their lives on a weekly basis. So, I think it’s very important. You know, the communication with them becomes empowered. After a while they really stop you while you are attending masses or walking in the church and ask you questions and after they finish and they do the sacrament, they come to you, they talk to you, they—it’s quite a strategy and I am very grateful for that. That was a great discovery for me. I am very happy, and I say all the time that I enjoy so much, you know, because when you talk to them or when you listen to them, when you are exchanging all of these experiences with them, it is something truly unique and important.
R1: And as an observer, that joy is obvious to me. One of your choir members stopped me and said Father Manuel, he is our humble giant. So, you have had quite an effect on these people personally.
I1: Well, you know I am happy to hear that. You know, I try to—I try my best to serve my people and to be with them and not to impose things but to explain things and try to do the best we can. I have to say that I have never found myself kind of you know, preaching in the desert or feeling that there is no response. This is a community that is made of people that are convinced of the power of the Lord Jesus Christ in their lives and they are eager to serve Jesus, to serve the church. We have been having successful Catholic appeal campaigns over the years because of this, because of how convinced they are in their faith. I am very happy and in all aspects of our pastoral reality and I am very satisfied and grateful for this opportunity.
R1: Fifty years ago, I met a Jesuit priest by the name of Joseph Fitzpatrick who was a sociologist of the major sort and he once said; “Our task as a church is to explain new immigrants to old immigrants.” Now you have seen the challenges of many people in your home parish. How does that enter into your own preaching?
I1: Well, I didn’t know about this quotation from Father Fitzpatrick, but I agree. It is quite right. Yes, you know, we are in this—in a true sense—we are all immigrants because some of us came later, others came before, and we always are moving around. St. John Paul II used to say that there are no strangers in the church. There are no aliens in the church because the church is a family wherever the church is present, the church is a family. A family of brothers and sisters in Christ. Therefore, in the church, you are never an alien. This is particularly true in this reality. In this reality where you have so many people trying to work hard to better help their own families. To better raise their children. To give their children, their people a future. If you think that for example I have had in my own hands l have had letters, letters—well better than letters—ultimatums given to people from El Salvador while there in their own country telling them that if they didn’t give $200,000 in the matter of a few days, their entire family would be killed and they had to escape in hours. Leaving everything behind just to make sure that they save their own lives. That is why they are here. So, I have seen those letters myself because they kept them as a proof of the situation, the desperation. So, when you think in that, I also had another situation, for example, of a family that they were celebrating their father’s birthday specifically in El Salvador and someone came and told them they are going to give you two hours to give us this amount of dollars. If you don’t give it to us, we will come and kill everyone in this party. So, they have to escape to the airport right there, you know—when you have these situations, these extreme situations, you feel that really the only thing that can help make these people to make a little bit of a sense of themselves and their lives is Jesus Christ. Nothing else.
R1: How do you express this in your homilies?
I1: Well, you know, first of all I try to you know, try to make it personal. Sharing Jesus Christ is not about ideas or thoughts or nice reflections, clever inputs, but it is about the experience of having Jesus actually running your life. So, I try to make sure that is the case, that I speak from my own experience and my own reality also and sharing that with them in a way that is personal. I try always to look at the people’s eyes and even sometimes mentioning their names while talking. Doing the homily, I always walk. I don’t know if you notice that, but—
R1: We did.
I1: I always walk because I feel it is important because the homily should be a moment—not a conference, not a speech moment, but a moment of integration of an experience of life in the life of the word of the Lord for that week. The Lord is always reaching out to us with the appropriate message at every time. It is my job—I see my job as a facilitator between God and the people, so we are able to assume the message, to receive the message, and apply it to our everyday life, to our everyday experience. I usually read the newspaper before going to mass. Just to make sure that I don’t go too much away from the reality that we are living. I usually commend what is going on also at a national level or international level with them just to try to make some sense of what we are living as a community, as a nation, as a country, as an international community because that is the idea with the celebrations that we have, that we are able to make sure that the word of God really shows the way, shows the path that we are invited to, to walk together as a community, guided by God’s orientation and becoming also for us the source of our inspiration to do things.
R1: On Saturday morning, after the early morning mass we followed you and a group of your parishioners to an abortion clinic where you protested with—as you were praying the rosary there right down in Jamaica. You do this monthly, I gather? So, how do you preach prophetically in your mind? I mean that symbol of trying to hold up for moral and ethical standards? What is the prophetic aspect about preaching?
I1: We are all prophets because of our baptism. We are to live that vocation at all time. Not only when it comes to these extreme moral challenges, but in general. What we do regarding the abortion clinic and the pro-life every last Saturday of the month is I don’t see that as much as a protest, but as a way for us to come along to a challenge that we have in the neighborhood because this clinic is not in Jamaica, Queens for a coincidence.
It is not there just by chance. It is there because it was decided that it could be a good place for an abortion clinic to be because of the customers because they discovered that from that area is a lot of people that really practice abortion. In New York state, in New York City, right now, Latinos are the second largest group just after a little bit of the African-Americans having abortions. It’s—if we don’t do something about it, it will soon become the first group. You know? In New York. So, the first group in abortions—so we need to do our part as a Latino parish to help our people our own people understand that this is not an option for someone that has accepted Jesus in their lives because we are people of life, we believe in life. We don’t judge. We don’t condemn. We respect women’s rights. We respect the dignity of women and we respect also the freedom of women. This is not about women. This is about our faith and about our great respect for the. Mystery and the gift which is life. That is why this is not an initiative we just do on our own. We work very closely to a center, named New Beginnings, which is on Jamaica Avenue founded by an evangelical lady who is also a nurse. She founded that with her own resources to offer women an alternative if they are not willing to keep the baby. She helps them to receive the baby and take care of the baby, so the baby doesn’t die. You know, we try to build some bridges in this regard and that is why we go to the clinic, that is why we continue supporting all of these initiatives, this pro-life initiative. So far, you know, we—although the numbers—the abortion numbers are challenging, still challenging in our neighborhood, in our community, we feel that this is something that is important that we keep and that is why we continue doing these here. So, it is certainly a prophetic dimension in our particular reality. It is certainly a call that we must answer. Yes.
R1: And the cross itself that is in the church?
I1: This is called the Black Christ of Esquipulas. They call it El Señor de Esquipulas. It’s the most important Catholic devotion in Guatemala. This is also something that makes Guatemalans so unique. Instead of the—you know in most Latin American countries as the main religious devotion they always have a Marian devotion. They have a particular devotion to the Blessed Virgin in each country of Latin America, beginning with Mexico with Our Lady of Guadalupe and then all of the Latin American countries. But, in Guatemala, the main devotion is to Jesus. It’s this Black Christ of Esquipulas. It is El Señor de Esquipulas. It’s a very Christos centric devotion. It is a very Christos centric religiosity, the Guatemalan one. I think that is one of the factors that makes it so special and so unique, It’s very profound and very deep. Yes.
R1: According to the Pew Organization that does polling, one in four priests in the United States are called “internationals”. That is people like yourself who were born in other countries to come to serve in the United States. What is your best advice to incoming priests, deacons, and laity who come to do the important work that you are doing? You have any advice for them in terms of arrival? It works both ways in terms of having that kind of intercultural what I call sensitivity to the communities that they are going to serve, and the community that welcomes them.
I1: I just have two advice—very easy and at the same time in my experience very important. Number one, be yourself. Everywhere you go, be just yourself. You are a gift. If you are a priest, you are a gift to the community where you are sent in the name of the church. Second of all, try always to be open to learn. Try always to be open to learn. Try to be always a learner. Someone that is open to receive from the community, from your brother priests, from your bishop, from your diocese inputs that could improve what you do, because at the end of the day, if we stop learning we die.
R1: You spent some time in Cuba and that affected your growth as a seminarian and later as a priest. You have any insight into your time in Cuba and how it’s affected your ministry?
I1: I am a priest today because of that year that I spent in Cuba. That was when I first realized why it is important to serve Jesus as a minister. I had the great luck—unexpected—unexpected—to be sent there. As an experience, as a pastoral experience, before the beginning of the theology which is the last portion of the formation for the priesthood. That was the first time for me being away from my country for so long and also the first time living in a communist country. Actually, the only time I have ever lived in a communist country for so long. The experience is still alive in my heart and still keeping me thinking and you know feeling with these people. It was the toughest experience that I ever had. I lost over 40 pounds. I was younger, way younger but my mother when I returned to my country she cried when she saw me because I was very, very, very skinny. But it was the happiest time in my entire formation because I—being there with people that don’t have anything including freedom, people that have been deprived of important portions of dignity and respect and when you are with—you know involved in that kind of situation with the poorest of the poor then you understand Jesus more and then you understand what Jesus is about and what is the gospel is about, what is the faith about. So, I really think that that was for me a major, major, major component, major reason for me to continue going ahead in my decision to follow the Lord as a priest and it really contributed a lot in the way I think, the way I see things, and in the way I think and the way I also conduct myself as a minister.
I1: Noted for his preaching, Archbishop Oscar Romero, the saint of El Salvador once said; “Let us not tire of preaching love. It is the force that will overcome the world.” I want to thank Father Manuel Rodriguez and his staff here at the Church of the Presentation for all of their assistance. In Jamaica, Queens New York, and for Sunday to Sunday, I am Father Mike Russo.