July 11, 2016

While seminarians study diverse topics and acquire many skills as they learn to become priests, sometimes a specialty emerges. This is the case with seminarian Jesús Mariscal of the Diocese of Yakima, Washington, who is a master in migrant ministry.

As the second youngest of nine children who lost his father when he was 7 years old, Mariscal grew up in a hardworking, faith-filled family. He was a migrant worker himself in Yakima, starting in the fields at age 14.

He then pursued a career in plumbing and thought he would get married and raise a family. But the tug toward priesthood kept nudging him.

In 2010 he entered Mount Angel Seminary in Saint Benedict, Oregon, and graduated with honors. He is now attending the Pontifical North American College in Rome.

During his summers back in Yakima he participates in a migrant ministry program, organized by Bishop Joseph Tyson, to help engage this population in the Church.

Each summer migrants arrive in Yakima from southern states to help pick cherries from mid-June to late July. The work is labor-intensive, with migrants starting work at 4 a.m. seven days a week. Some stay only for the short season and others extend their time and harvest other crops such as apples and pears.

Migrants stay in temporary housing, typically trailers and tents, in 16 camps scattered throughout the 37,000-square-mile diocese. Some arrive alone and others come with families.

Most of the 100,000 migrants who arrive are Catholic, doubling the size of the Catholic population in the diocese each summer.

One challenge the migrants face is finding ways to practice their faith. In addition to their relentless work schedule, most do not have transportation options to the church.

This is where the Church needs to be flexible, says Mariscal. “We bring the Church to them.”

Echoing the sentiment of Pope Francis that missionary work means adjusting the “Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules,” Mariscal and his fellow seminarians have a two-pronged approach to serving migrants. First they work with them, side by side, in the fields. That way they can have hours together to hear the migrants’ stories and to share the faith. The seminarians pray with migrants and offer sacramental preparation.

The second approach is to organize weekly Masses at the migrant camps on Wednesday evenings. The Masses are enormous celebrations, followed by a dinner made by community members, a raffle for religious items, games and piñatas.

“Being able to attend Mass and have access to sacraments gives them a sense of peace, safety and hope,” said Mariscal. “Most migrants would say their faith in God and relationship with Mary is what carries them through the painful longing for their families, friends and familiar environments.”

Mariscal is a leader among the seminarians at the camps, often rallying and encouraging them when the days are long. At the end of last summer, he used his earnings to buy a case of Bibles — both in Spanish and English — to distribute to migrants.

Catholic Extension has sponsored the diocese’s migrant ministry program for the last three years, totaling $80,000. In addition, Extension has funded seminarians in the Diocese of Yakima since the mid-1950s, with $2.8 million overall and more than $750,000 in the last five years alone, since Mariscal entered the seminary.

With experience working the fields himself, and a compassionate heart for those who toil long hours away from their families and faith communities, Mariscal is helping thousands of migrants understand that the Church is willing to come to them because they are important. Each one of them matters.

Mariscal is transforming the experience of migrant workers. He is connecting them to the Catholic Church during their time in the fields and helping to raise their dignity as human beings.

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