Jesús Mariscal clearly remembers the question his bishop posed during a conversation with him and his then-fiancee several years ago.
“He said, ‘How long is it going to take for you to enter seminary?’” Mariscal recalled. “What he said shook me. My fiancee was there next to me and I introduced her.
“What he said didn’t leave me. Something sparked in my heart that I couldn’t extinguish.”
He broke off the engagement and began preparing for a different life.
A former migrant worker himself, Mariscal, 35, has found his place in the Diocese of Yakima’s Migrant Ministry, offering spiritual guidance and other support to those who work long, labor-intensive days, live in temporary housing and often endure lonely separations from family.
Now about two years away from priestly ordination, Mariscal has spent this summer working across Central Washington, helping hold Mass in fields and orchards and undertaking other efforts intended to reach migrant workers who often can’t attend Mass in traditional settings.
“Doing this ministry makes me feel fulfilled as a servant to the people of God,” Mariscal said.
Largely because of these efforts, Mariscal is a finalist for the 2016 Lumen Christi Award, the highest order of Catholic Extension, a national organization that works with dioceses where faith is strong but resources are thin.
The winner, who is likely to be announced in September, will get a $50,000 grant — $25,000 to support the winner’s ministry and $25,000 for the nominating diocese.
The other finalists are a nun who runs a mobile health clinic in Knoxville, Tenn.; a woman who directs a temporary shelter for abused children in Puerto Rico; two priests; a deacon and the Jesuits of the Kino Border, who provide outreach to refugees at the U.S.-Mexico border.
“I’m pretty humbled by that. I see the other nominees and I think any one of them could win,” Mariscal said. “I think all of our ministries are essential to the church, whatever God wants us to do.”
On a human level
On Wednesday evening, Mariscal helped with Mass in Mattawa, held outdoor near migrant farm worker housing. About 130 people attended. Almost all were farmworkers. Few spoke English.
Wearing jeans and an Oxford shirt, Mariscal moved among them in his usual low-key way, greeting worshippers and helping set things up. Afterward, everyone sat down to dinner prepared by volunteers and children took swings at a pinata.
Members of Mariscal’s family, most of whom live in the same neighborhood in Kennewick, also helped. They included two sisters, a couple of brothers and their wives and his mother, Camerina Marsical.
He downplayed his role, as always.
“Usually I just help a little bit during Mass, singing or (serving as acolyte) or something,” Mariscal said.
A native of the state of Zacatecas in north-central Mexico, Mariscal had just turned 13 when he came to the United States. He’s the second youngest of seven boys and three girls and started working in the fields at age 14.
Three older brothers came to the United States in the 1980s and received legal status through the federal amnesty program, then began bringing other family members, said Mariscal, who also gained citizenship.
Mariscal was 26 when he and his fiancee, then a senior at the University of Washington, were making final plans for their wedding. That included her confirmation.
“We were at the confirmation Mass for her and the auxiliary bishop in Seattle gave a really inspiring homily,” Mariscal said. “I was really happy for my fiancee. After Mass we wanted to greet the bishop.”
A bishop had greeted him after he was confirmed at age 9 in Mexico, Mariscal said, but he’d never really had a conversation with one.
The couple had finished their picking jobs and were laid off. Mariscal started going to daily Mass as they worked out final wedding details, but he kept thinking about what the bishop said.
“‘You should try it. You should try for a year,’” Mariscal recalled. When he decided to become a priest, his fiancee was “very understanding.”
“I just had to try it because I didn’t want to be, later on, thinking I could have been a priest,” Mariscal added.
He entered Mount Angel Seminary in Saint Benedict, Ore., in 2010, graduating with honors.
“When he showed up, he showed up in a bus,” Yakima Bishop Joseph Tyson recalled. “He’s got a huge family. He’s got a great family.”
Tyson explained that the educational path for men entering the priesthood is generally a four-year college degree in philosophy followed by four years in grad school for a degree in theology.
Every seminarian also completes a pastoral internship of nine months, which includes working in a Catholic school and demonstrating competency in administration.
Having completed his undergraduate degree, Mariscal is attending the Pontifical North American College in Rome; he will return to Rome next month.
The path to priesthood hasn’t been easy.
“At first, we wanted to get ordained right away and be priests and do something. That’s how I felt,” Mariscal said. “Then I felt I wasn’t doing anything, just going to school and classes.
“I needed to do something as a servant to God, something like that. I wanted to feel useful to the church.”
After his first year in seminary, Mariscal missed his fiancee and doubted his future. That’s when he learned that the man who had planted the idea of his becoming a priest was the new bishop of the Diocese of Yakima.
“I said to myself, who is it? I wonder if he’s that bishop. I didn’t know his name; I just knew his face,” Mariscal said.
“I went and looked at the newspaper and it was him. It was like he was talking to me again to stay.”
Indeed, the new leader of the Diocese of Yakima was the man who officiated at that confirmation Mass in Seattle years ago and posed that life-changing question — Bishop Tyson.
“I thought that was cool and I stayed,” Mariscal said.
Making the time
The Diocese of Yakima comprises Benton, Chelan, Douglas, Grant, Kittitas, Klickitat and Yakima counties. There are about 80,000 Catholics in Central Washington, with the diocese about 75 percent Hispanic.
“In a certain sense, most everybody we run into out in the fields is Catholic or is baptized Catholic. But oftentimes when they are with our seminarians, it’s really the first time they’ve really talked to someone from the church,” Tyson said.
Mariscal’s family is well-known and well-regarded for its connections in the agricultural community, according to Tyson, and his personal approach has helped, too.
“He’s very humble and has the demeanor of the people he’s serving,” Tyson said. “His humility and his demeanor are kind of a fit in the entryway for working with our folks.
“He’s a man of prayer, but he doesn’t wear it on his sleeve. It’s not offputting. He has a way of conveying that without imposing it. He’s very propositional; he does not impose.”
Tyson has seen that approach many times, even when Mariscal was packing fruit a couple years ago.
“He’d get a little ahead on packing cartons for the apples so he would have a couple minutes to talk to the workers,” Tyson said. “He’ll try to finish his row a little faster so he has a couple minutes at the end of his row for a little exchange.
“... He has a way of doing a good job but working ahead. He thinks about how he can work in order to have a little space for people who want to approach him.”
His dedication to reaching Catholics on a personal level really began even before Marsical entered the seminary, Tyson said.
It’s all about connecting with people who cannot participate in the church in the traditional ways.
“If people can’t come to church. we can go to them,” Tyson said. “That’s kind of the way the seminarians are being trained.”
Today and beyond
Marsical’s mother was upset when he told her he wanted to become a priest and wouldn’t be getting married.
“She wanted me to marry my fiancee; she really liked her,” Mariscal said. “Now she’s kind of OK with it; at first she wasn’t OK at all.”
His former fiancee is still close to his family, Marsical said. She dates but also spends time with his family, sometimes going on camping trips with them. She’s invited to all the birthday parties, and his mother always calls her on her birthday.
As one of 12 seminarians in the Diocese of Yakima this summer, Mariscal served in many other ways besides the Migrant Ministry. As part of their “cross-training” in other cultures, all seminarians are immersed in languages other than their first.
“Everybody has to be walking the journey and reaching out and not being with themselves but being with others,” Tyson said.
Because many migrant workers return to their home countries after harvest, people sometimes ask how ministering to them helps the diocese, Mariscal said.
It helps because seminarians work together to serve the migrant workers — and everyone in the Diocese. They have to live together, get to know one another “and like each other and be brothers,” he said. “We grow in fraternity with each other.
“So as priests, we will already be getting along with each other and united as a priestly community. That is very good for the community in general, when the priests are all on the same page.”
In a little more lighthearted (though still serious) way of bonding, the seminarians played the priests in a friendly (at least on the surface) charity game of soccer on Aug. 7 at Marquette Stadium in Yakima. Proceeds support seminarian education.
“We won, 6-2,” Tyson said with a hint of wonder in his voice. “I had never played a complete soccer game in my life until I became Bishop of Yakima.”
With Mariscal and the seminarians practicing a couple times a week, the priests appeared to be big underdogs. So when the priests won, some tongues were wagging.
“The rumor was they let the priests win because they were worried about how they would be treated by their future bosses,” Tyson joked.
Tyson, Mariscal and others joined the Ride d’Vine on Saturday. The annual fundraiser for Catholic Charities Housing Service. Speaking on Friday, Mariscal wasn’t sure how he would do, though he admitted looking forward to lunch afterward.
Mariscal is sure about his chosen profession. So far it has been what he thinks God has called him to do.
“I’m just grateful for everything. Everything is a gift,” Mariscal said. “... I’m just trying to serve God and follow His will one day at time.”