Rome, Italy, Sep 8, 2020 / 04:00 am (CNA).- New priest César Izquierdo knows God is calling him to serve the Catholic population of central Washington. And with his newly completed degree and an assignment from his bishop, he’s ready. All he needs is a visa.
The Mexican-born priest is stuck in Italy, where he studied for six years, while he waits for the renewal of his R-1 religious worker visa by United States immigration services.
But with added delays from the coronavirus pandemic, the 32-year-old priest does not know when that moment will come.
“The situation is very uncertain,” Izquierdo told CNA. “I have to wait. In a way, I cannot leave Italy. I was telling an Australian friend that I’m ‘trapped’ in Italy, and she said ‘What a nice place to be trapped!’” he laughed.
“But I’ve already been in Italy six years and I know my vocation is not to be a missionary in Italy… My calling is to go back to my diocese for some time, at least the five years I am eligible,” he said.
A priest for two years, Izquierdo said his vocation was “nurtured and developed” by the Diocese of Yakima in Washington, his home from age 16 to 20, and he was looking forward to serving some of its 188,000 Catholics.
He explained that COVID-19 had caused delays in services at the U.S. embassy in Rome and tightened restrictions on entering the States. He also noted that the country was prioritizing other types of short-term visas, such as for professional athletes, investors, and research scientists.
The priest and his diocese have asked for prayers that his next scheduled appointment, Oct. 13, will take place and his visa application will be approved, so he can begin his pastoral assignment at St. Joseph Parish in Kennewick.
Msgr. Robert Siler, episcopal vicar and chancellor of Yakima, told CNA “the pandemic has complicated matters a great deal,” but having Izquierdo and other priests from Mexico serve in the diocese is “worth the extra hassle, trouble, and difficulty.”
The Yakima diocese is 72% Hispanic and 60% of Masses are said in Spanish, he said, because even though people may speak English well, “they want to pray in the language of their heart.”
“While many of our Anglo priests speak Spanish … we’re missing that cultural piece,” Siler explained. For the diocese, “fostering vocations from Mexico, with young men who feel called to be missionaries, to go out of their home countries and serve … brings a great richness to the Church and meets some very practical needs.”
The R-1 religious worker visa is a non-immigrant visa allowing Catholic priests, religious, and other ministers without U.S. citizenship or residency to serve in the U.S. on a temporary basis. It’s usually renewable for up to five years. The priest or religious must then spend at least a year outside of the U.S. to be eligible for the visa again.
Izquierdo said that during his unexpected extra time in Rome he had “been thinking and praying a lot.”
“This has increased my faith in many ways. My trust in God, my hope, and also my charity. Just to think that it’s not only my situation,” he said. “I think my case, my situation, just reflects the situation many people are facing.”
The young priest said that he united his difficulties to the suffering of those in his diocese also facing immigration problems or family separation.
On the issue of family separation, he said he wanted to share his experience “in a spiritual way,” rather than in a political one.
A good point for reflection is thinking “what can the social teaching of the Church give to the whole situation,” he said. “What is God asking us to reflect and pray about? I think we go back to the basics, to the essential things: faith, family.”
Izquierdo knows what it is like to be far from one’s family. In the last 12 years, he was able to return to the U.S., where his family lives, one time: for his ordination as a priest in 2018.
As he was undocumented when he was brought to Washington as a teenager, he had to wait 10 years to re-enter the country when he left the U.S. at age 20.
Izquierdo was born and mostly grew up in central Mexico — and that is the country he considers his home. But much of his extended family has lived in Washington for years, since his grandfather first brought them there for work under the World War II Bracero program.
His father would go back and forth between Mexico and the U.S., until finally bringing his family to Washington right before Izquierdo’s 17th birthday.
Izquierdo attended high school, learned English, and worked in the fields, in construction, and in warehouses. He was also very involved in his parish and in its youth ministry and choir.
“My vocation was born there,” he explained. He thought he’d have to go back to Mexico to be a priest, but the then bishop of Yakima, Carlos A. Sevilla, said he wanted to sponsor him through the diocese.
“It would have been very hard for me to do discernment if the diocese would have said ‘No, we will not sponsor you because of your situation,’” he said. “For this I’m very grateful, because I’m here, I’m a priest for two years already and I’m just grateful for God’s will in my life and in the life of the people.”
Izquierdo studied for the priesthood first in Mexico and then in Canada. Bishop Joseph J. Tyson sent him to Rome to complete his theology degree, where he was ordained a deacon.
When he turned 30, he was finally able to return to his diocese to be ordained a priest.
“It was a long process,” he acknowledged, “but because I was in formation, formation keeps you busy.”
During the summers as a seminarian, since he could not return to Washington, he was sent to do missions in Central America, China, Italy, and Canada.
In late June, the priest graduated with his licentiate in sacred theology from the Pontifical Gregorian University, where he studied public ethics and the social doctrine of the Church.
His advice for people facing the uncertainty involved in immigration situations is “to trust God.”
He added: “Uncertainty is not easy to endure. And we endure with faith of course, and we trust God, but I think: accompany people, that would be my advice, also to priests, to accompany people facing this situation.”
“We understand that it is not in our hands; it’s in God’s hands.”
And meanwhile, what is the young priest doing while he waits? This summer he has been helping out at parishes in San Remo and Naples. He said that on Saturdays he was also helping a professor with an online course and he might do some video commentaries for Vatican Media.
And since he’s stuck in the Eternal City — he might make some time for sightseeing.