Father Chris Saenz, Chile and Peru

Growing up in Bellevue with faith-filled parents who spent time with the Columban Fathers, and a dad who traveled the world as a major in the Air Force, helped sow the seeds of mission for Father Saenz, 50.

"I think at a young age, there was a seed of ‘going out,’" Father Saenz said.

But a vocation to the priesthood was not the first thing on his mind.

He tried the Merchant Marines academy, studied computer science and worked manual labor.

Until he hit on a book titled "The Song of Bernadette," by Franz Werfel, which tells the story of a feisty teenager, later canonized as St. Bernadette, and her visions of the Virgin Mary in Lourdes, France. Bernadette was willing to die for her Catholic faith, Father Saenz said, and that left open the question: "What about me?"

Acting quickly, Father Saenz immersed himself in church teaching by going to classes in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. "It was a wonderful experience," he said, and after a year, the thought of the priesthood "bubbled up."

"It had to be from God," Father Saenz said. "It wasn’t from me or anyone else."

Interest in other cultures remained, while the desire grew to bring Christ’s love and service to others, he said. Those interests brought him back to the community so well known by his parents – the Columban Fathers. With them he currently is serving in the Omaha area, helping the Columbans’ ministry to Latinos in the United States.

"We walk with the people," Father Saenz said. "You do bring God, but God is with them as well. It keeps you humble."

Being among people in other cultures, such as his 17 years in Chile and one year in Peru, means going beyond what is comfortable and familiar, and relying on others, Father Saenz said. It can be exhausting and unnerving, he said.

He recalled his first assignment in Chile, in a town of 1,000 people, struggling still with Spanish, and crying at night out of frustration.

"You’re trying to be understood, but you realize people don’t know what you’re saying," Father Saenz said. He told himself he didn’t come to Chile to suffer, to fail.

Then two things happened:

Teenagers saw him praying in despair in church, and asked what was wrong. He told them they needed a Chilean to help them, someone they could understand.

"That’s why we love you, brother," they said. "Because you are just like us," as they struggled to be understood by their parents and others.

The second confirmation he was in the right place came one day as he prayed alone, feeling melancholy, and watched a little girl enter the church, go straight to the altar, curl into a little ball on the floor for a moment, then get up, cross herself and leave, Father Saenz said.

"That complete giving over to the cross," he resolved to take on for his own.

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