Face of Defense: Chaplain’s Journey Leads to Meeting Pope
By Marine Lance Cpl. Meghan McNabb
Special to American Forces Press Service
MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. , May. 1, 2008 At just 16 years old, Jose A. Bautista-Rojas left his hometown of Guadalajara, Mexico, for Los Angeles in hopes of creating a better life for himself and the parents he left behind.
At the time, he had no idea his journey would lead him into the priesthood, the military or the opportunity to shake the pope’s hand.
The road from Guadalajara was not short, and life in Los Angeles was not easy, Bautista said. Living with friends, working all day and attending English-as-a-second-language classes at Evans Community Adult School at night, Bautista focused on the chance to bring his family to the United States.
“There wasn’t much time for fun,” Bautista said. “I worked carpentry from 7:30 to 3:30; from 5 to 7, I worked at a car wash; and from 7:30 to 9, I went to ESL classes.”
After four years, Bautista’s family was able to join him, and he was able to turn his attention to new goals.
Because he worked so much, Bautista hadn’t focused on graduating from high school until he decided to enter the priesthood, a journey that would take 11 years to complete.
Bautista started attending church with a girl he liked, but ended up finding much more.
“I had stopped going to church,” Bautista said. “I had to fight off the pressure and temptations that come to young men. I wasn’t always perfect, but I had to get back on track. I enjoyed church and the sermons, and before I knew it, I was getting involved.”
Bautista’s interest coincided with a new initiative by then-Archbishop of Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Michael Mahoney. The cardinal established Casa Reina de Los Angeles, or House of our Lady Queen of Angels, as a place for young men who wanted to enter the priesthood but either didn’t have their high school diploma or needed to perfect their English.
Bautista studied hard for two years to earn his high school diploma and perfect his English. He spent a year studying for college-level classes, four years earning his college degree, and four years earning his divinity master’s degree.
On June 5, 1999, Bautista was ordained a priest and was assigned to St. Elizabeth of Hungary parish in Van Nuys, Calif. In 2001, Bautista was assigned to his next church, St. John of God in Norwalk, Calif. Two of his parishioners, a Marine and soldier, died in Iraq.
At their memorial service, busloads of Marines came from Camp Pendleton, Calif., to attend. Some of them told Bautista how they didn’t always have access to attend Mass when they were deployed in Iraq.
“I’m saying Mass, and I look up and thought of them serving without Mass,” Bautista said. “I thought to myself, ‘I need to put my words into action.’ I would always say, ‘Let’s pray for those serving,’ but it was time to act.”
Bautista received an endorsement from the Los Angeles archdiocese and was released to the Archdiocese for the Military. In January 2006, he entered the Chaplain Corps with the Navy.
Then a lieutenant, Bautista served as the Combat Logistics Regiment 27, 2nd Marine Logistics Group, chaplain for 13 months in Iraq’s Anbar province. Bautista was the only priest stationed at his unit’s base at Taqaddum, but said what mattered most was finally being able to minister to those he had prayed so long for.
“One of the most memorable times in Iraq was when a sergeant was going into surgery,” Bautista recalled. “He asked me to hold his hand until he went under, and I knew this is what ministry is about.”
Bautista said he doesn’t consider the priesthood a job, but rather, his vocation and what he is dedicated to.
“A job is something you are hired to do,” Bautista explained. “A vocation is love for God and what you’ve been called to do.”
Bautista said Marines and sailors can tell when a chaplain is acting only as an officer and isn’t ministering.
“You have to be an officer as well as a chaplain,” Bautista said. “But it’d be sad if they only recognize you as an officer. A ship that doesn’t float isn’t living up to what it’s supposed to be, just as a minister that doesn’t minister isn’t living up to their potential. You have the title, but you’re not living up to it. Marines can see through that.”
While ministering in Iraq, Bautista received an early invitation from the military archdiocese to attend Mass during Pope Benedict XVI’s recent visit to the United States. Amid shouts of “Viva la Papa,” Bautista watched as the pope arrived at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C.
“It was my oasis,” Bautista said. “It was nice to go from the desert to a sea of clergy, faithful people and peace.”
The next day, the chaplain attended the pope’s Mass at Nationals Park in Washington and heard the leader of the world’s Roman Catholics talk about being a witness of faith.
“[The pope] said those of hope must live different lives,” Bautista said. “We must point the way for others. Being seen as different is how people will recognize you as a person of faith.”
After the pope’s historical Mass, Bautista took meeting the pope into his own hands. He walked up past the security lines as the pope was walking off the stage. With outstretched arms, the pope grabbed his hand and shook it.
“I felt like a teenage kid. I was giggling and so emotional,” Bautista said. “The effect this man has on people is unreal.”
The pope reached out to Bautista not only physically, but also spiritually, the chaplain said, and even gave a message in Bautista’s native tongue. He said, “Paz a ustedes,” or “Peace be with you.”
“What made it so emotional was that he was reaching out to you,” Bautista said. “I felt like he was speaking directly to me, like he was reaching out to me personally.”
Bautista said it was a beautiful gift to meet the pope and be surrounded by clergy.
Although Bautista has appreciated every minute of his time as a chaplain, he said he eventually will be called back to serve in Los Angeles. He said he wants Marines and sailors never to think their dreams are too high or far away.
“I want them to know that every step they take, even the littlest step, is one step closer,” Bautista explained. “I am an immigrant from Mexico who didn’t speak English, and I never thought I’d become an officer in the Navy.”
(Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Meghan McNabb serves with 2nd Marine Logistics Group.)