By IMELDA RICHARD, Special to the Bulletin | Published July 18, 2022 | En Español
SMYRNA—A love of music, the support of a Smyrna parish community and the example of dedicated clergy inspired Father Rodrigo Padrón-Pérez in his own priestly vocation.
Father Rodrigo Padrón-Pérez, recently ordained to the priesthood, immigrated to the United States with his parents and siblings from San Luis Potosí, Mexico when he was 8 years old. They arrived in Georgia and became parishioners at St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Smyrna in the early 2000s.
There, they met Father Jaime Molina, MNM, who had implemented an evangelization plan he was familiar with in his native Mexico, developing small faith communities to walk with parishioners in their faith journeys. One of the ministries that came out of these communities is “Los Amiguitos de María Niña” (the friends of Infant Mary). In this group, children ages 6-11 gather to learn about Mary and to pray for priests and vocations. A children’s choir was formed from this group and they started singing at the 2 p.m. Sunday Mass.
María Niña, or Divina Infantita (Divine Infant), is an invocation of the childhood of Virgin Mary that has origins of devotion in 19th century Mexico. Her main feast is Sept. 8, when the church celebrates the nativity of Virgin Mary. Mexico’s main shrines to the Divina Infantita are in Mexico City, the city of Puebla and in Zapopan, Jalisco.
The new priest reflected on the early days of belonging to St. Thomas the Apostle Church, when his parents had just married in the church. The family started attending Mass regularly, and he began to receive preparation for sacraments.
“Seeing all these kids my age singing and playing instruments at Mass caught my attention. I was around 11 years old back then, and I wanted to be part of that group … also, there was a girl there that I had a small crush on back then,” said Father Padrón-Pérez, laughing.
“I started making friends in that group, some of them are still very good friends of mine. I learned to play the guitar there, and then when I was 14, I was invited to be part of the evangelization choir that sings at the parish retreats. I also went to retreats where I experienced a close and personal encounter with Christ,” he recalled. “It was then when I started to feel closer to him. I spent all my teen years serving in the choir in my parish. When I graduated high school, I started to seriously consider the call to become a priest.”
Father Padrón-Pérez knew he wanted to study something related to music.
“I wanted to be a music teacher and continue to work with the children’s choir in my parish. But God had other plans for me. Father Jaime asked me once if I would consider joining the seminary, and I said ‘no,’ because I had other plans back then. Now that I look back at that moment, I feel it was Christ calling me through him,” he said.
After one All Saints Mass, the young man joined Father Jaime for dinner and asked what the seminary was all about.
“And when I got home, I told my mom I was considering going to the seminary and becoming a priest. I then started to read everything I could lay my hands on and researched as much as I could about the priesthood,” he said.
When Ash Wednesday came, Padrón-Pérez decided to go with the parish Respect Life group to pray outside an abortion clinic. While he initially wanted to go for one day, Father Jaime invited him to go with the group all 40 days of Lent.
“This gave me the opportunity to spend more time with him and to start my discernment process. Being part of the María Niña group and to witness how happy Father Jaime is as a priest, helped me decide to become a priest,” he says.
“I always invite young people to consider religious life as an option, but I never pressure them to make a decision—yet, there have been many vocations from this group. When we talk about becoming a priest, I always talk to them about being a diocesan priest or to join a religious order. I give them options,” said Father Jaime. “We also have to talk about their immigration status and the possible consequences of their decision. When Rodrigo told me he wanted to go to seminary, I asked him to consider the fact that he would have to leave his family and go to Mexico, where our seminary is, and if he wasn’t accepted, he might not be able to return to Georgia. And he answered that this wasn’t a problem, that he was ready to say ‘yes’ and leave everything behind and follow Christ. I knew then, he truly wanted to answer Christ’s call and follow him.”
When Father Padrón-Pérez left for seminary with the Missionaries of the Nativity of Mary—Father Molina’s congregation in Mexico—he left not only his parents and siblings behind, but also the parish family he had grown up with. After four years in the seminary, he was able to obtain a visa and come visit his family. He needed the visa as he was never granted Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) immigration status.
“Being away from my family was by far the most difficult part of my decision. But I knew I was following God’s will, and I trusted he will help me reunite with them at some point, because when you do God’s work, he takes care of you and your loved ones,” said Father Padrón-Pérez.
Araceli Murillo has been a St. Thomas the Apostle parishioner for more than 20 years. She has been involved with the María Niña group from its beginning and is one of the leaders. When Padrón-Pérez joined, he was in a group Murillo supervised.
She never imagined he’d become a priest.
“When I heard he was going to seminary, I immediately started to pray for him to persevere in his vocation,” she said.
Murillo becomes very emotional when she thinks of the other young men from this group who have been ordained or are currently in seminary. Another priest has been ordained, and three men from the parish are currently enrolled in seminary.
It makes her realize that all the time given to the young people in the María Niña group has been fruitful.
“I pray that when they hear Christ calling them, they say ‘yes’ and give themselves unconditionally. I’m very proud of them, words cannot explain the joy I feel,” said Murillo.
Miguel Angel Martinez, a native of Michoacán, Mexico, came to Georgia with his family as a child about 25 years ago. He and Father Padrón-Pérez became close friends as teenagers and were part of the María Niña group.
“I don’t cry easily, but I cried when he told me he was going to the seminary right after we were leaving adoration one evening. There were tears of joy,” said Martinez, who coordinated the choir and the musical aspects for his friend’s ordination June 5.
“We know it’s not easy to follow Christ, even he himself had a very difficult time accepting his Father’s will, but in God, everything is possible,” said Martinez. “I want Rodrigo to know that I will always pray for him and that he can always count with me, whatever he needs. It takes a lot of courage to say ‘yes’ to the Lord.”
Maria Irene and Héctor are the new priest’s parents. He is the second of four children.
“I was surprised when I heard he wanted to go to the seminary. He told his mom first. We gave him our blessing when he left, and trusted we will see each other again at some point. We are so proud and happy that he persevered in his vocation and his dream of becoming a priest is now a reality,” said Héctor.
When Father Padrón-Pérez first told his mother about him considering the priesthood, he asked her for prayers. During the year of discernment before seminary, he and his parents had lengthy conversations about him living in a country that was no longer familiar to him.
“My daily prayer is that he will be a good priest,” said his mother.
Father Jaime worked very closely with his congregation and Bishop Bernard E. Shlesinger III, one of Atlanta’s auxiliary bishops, to make it possible for Father Padrón-Pérez to be ordained in Georgia, surrounded not only by his parents and siblings but also his parish family.
“His parents are giving their son to the church and to our community, it was only fair that they were able to be part of his ordination,” said Father Jaime.
On Sunday, June 5, the feast of Pentecost, Father Rodrigo Padrón-Pérez, MNM, was ordained by Msgr. Juan Manuel Gonzalez-Sandoval, MNM, Bishop of the Diocese of Tarahumara (Mexico). The entire parish community volunteered to organize the ordination Mass at the Mable House Barnes Amphitheatre in Mableton. A celebration feast followed to honor the newly ordained Father Rodrigo, or “Father Ro-Ro” as some call him.
He celebrated his first Mass June 12 with his family and the community. Back in Mexico, he will be teaching in the seminary until receiving a parish assignment.
“Do not be afraid to say ‘yes’ to the Lord. It might be scary to think to leave everything behind, but trust God will always take care of you and the people you love. Just trust him,” said Father Padrón-Pérez.