Clergy Corner, Aug. 31, 2018

Clergy Corner, Aug. 31, 2018

Meet the Rev. FREDI GOMEZ TORRES — born and raised in central Mexico and now living in central Illinois, as the recently installed Catholic pastor of St. Patrick's of Tolono, St. Joseph's of Ivesdale and St. Mary of Champaign. The 48-year-old former high school swimmer sat down with staff writer Tim Mitchell for a wide-ranging discussion.

Tell us about growing up in a Catholic family in Toluca, Mexico.

I am the youngest of five children. I have two brothers and two sisters. My father is a retired electrician. My mother worked all the time as a homemaker, taking care of all my siblings. We attended Mass faithfully, but I was never an altar boy. I was not involved in any service in the church in my hometown.

What is your earliest memory of going to Mass?

I remember going to church with my grandmother. I was six years old, and I remember going to an early Mass at 6 a.m. because that was the Mass that my grandparents attended. That was my first memory of going to Mass.

What activities were you involved with growing up?

In the farm we had horses, so I rode horses and was involved with equestrian sports. At school I went to the swim meets and we went to some competitions. I used to compete in the 100-meter freestyle races.

What did you want to be when you were a young boy growing up in Mexico?

I was thinking about becoming a marine biologist. And, since so many members of my family are in the medical field, I was thinking about becoming a doctor or a psychologist. I have been around hospitals since a very young age. And now part of my ministry is helping at the OSF HealthCare Heart of Mary Medical Center in Urbana.

What led you to decide to become a Catholic priest?

I went to a university in Veracruz, Mexico. It was very far away from home, and I was very young. Then I went to the University of Mexico State, which was in the same state where I was born, looking to study psychology. I went to a retreat for young people that made an impact on me. At that time I also met a young priest from my home parish who caught my attention. I felt a need to know I little more deeper about God. Then I went to a second retreat, this time in the seminary in Toluca. It turned out to be the first seed for me to try to know God better and deeper. I decided to enroll in the seminary to become a priest. Attending seminary was very fulfilling for me. I found myself to develop a deeper contact with my faith.

What was the reaction of your family when you told them you were going to become a priest?

My family always supported our decisions, no matter what we wanted to be.

What led you to move to the United States?

Eighteen years ago in the summer of 2000, while I was in the second year studying philosophy at the seminary, I met a priest from the Diocese of Peoria, Father Brian Rejsek, in my seminary in Toluca. He had friends who also attended the seminary in Mexico. In fact, Father Rejsek's parishes sponsored scholarships for two of my classmates. Over time, Father Rejsek and I developed a good friendship. Every time he came to Mexico, he want to my family's home. One day he invited me to serve as a priest here in the Diocese of Peoria. I finished all my schooling in Mexico. I moved to the United States and was ordained in Peoria in 2002. I first lived at the Newman Center at the University of Illinois and went to Parkland College to study English. Then the Diocese sent me to Mount St. Mary's in Emmitsburg, Maryland, to take classes such as the history of the church in the USA and family and couples counseling that I did not receive in Mexico. Father Rejsek passed away in 2017, but he remains an important part of my life.

Your homilies are distinctive for giving the parishioners homework, such as talking to a person's guardian angel or having a husband tell his wife he loves her. How did this practice start for you?

I think it is important for us to keep the whole week connected with God. I believer that your faith needs to be at work. We want to keep the connection between our daily life and our faith. If you have homework, you find yourself more involved with the word of God and with your faith.

It is a challenge being the pastor for three different parishes?

It is a little bit. Since my first day as a priest I have always been working in multiple parishes. This is the first time I find myself working by myself without any assistants. I don't have enough time to really be a pastor, to be a little more close with the people. Sometimes it is hard for me to have more deeper relationships with the parishioners and the families around here. One thing that I try to do is share my traditions in the same way that I learn from the parishioners of different backgrounds and different ethnicities. So I learn and I teach.

Tell us about the international Catholic experience at St. Mary's in Champaign.

We have one Spanish Mass at 1 p.m. on Sunday's at St. Mary's. It is one of the biggest Masses at St. Mary's. The goal for the Spanish-speaking community here is to embrace where we are. We want to be deeper in the culture of the Diocese of Peoria and the Catholic Church in the USA. That will be the challenging thing, because every other ethnic group that I encounter want to do things the way they were used to in their homeland. For me it is enrichment. As St. Mary's I can see the Church is universal with different cultures and different languages. Everyone is welcome at our parish. We people who speak English and who speak Korean, Spanish, French and Portugese. And all of them are in the same parish. We are all one, by God.

Do you have ministry at the hospital as well?

Yes and no. I offer Mass there on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. We have a chapel there where I offer Mass. I visit the Catholic parishioners at the hospital.

How is Christ relevant today for the people of Champaign County?

There is a deep need for God. I think I have encountered this need in every single human being I have met. We were created in his image. We will never rest until we go back to our Creator.

Do you have any hobbies?

I still love to do to some swimming. I belong to the YMCA and swim there regularly. I like to bike. I ride my bicycle during the nice weather.

What is your favorite book of the Bible?

It would be one of the Gospels, probably the Gospel According to Luke. He was a little more human to me?

What is your favorite hymn?

"Shepherd Me, O God." The first time I heard it was when I was at Mount St. Mary's. The hymn asks that God shepherd each of us through our trials, through our sufferings. When you are by yourself, facing different cultures, different foods, different languages, sometimes you feel alone. That is when I feel the presence of the Shepherd God in my life.

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