Consecrated layman guides Hispanic youth at Stabat Mater

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"Silence is a vehicle for finding God," said Antonio Pérez-Alcalá in Spanish. "It's not the only path, but people cannot mature in their faith without silence. It is a profound part of spiritual life."

But he didn't always think so. By his own admission, there once was a time in his life when he gave little thought to his faith at all.

Today, Pérez-Alcalá is a consecrated layman at McLean's Stabat Mater, a secular Marian institute founded by Father Tomás Morales Pérez in Madrid. But once he was an engineering student who was completely unaware that his life was about to change on an otherwise ordinary day walking down the streets of Madrid.

Pérez-Alcalá said it was the early 1960s when he was 19 or 20 and a man stopped him to ask if he was Catholic. He said, "Yes," but today he says it was simply because "everyone in Spain was Catholic." Though he had attended Catholic school and went to weekly Mass with his parents, he described himself and his family as "good people" but "weekly Catholics" who were not very involved in the church. So when this stranger invited Pérez-Alcalá to join the Crusaders of St. Mary for a youth retreat in the mountains, he accepted mostly out of curiosity.

"We camped there and I saw the stars, and I had a religious experience," he said. "It was shocking. It was something special."

It was there in the mountains that he appreciated the value of silence, which is a key component of Stabat Mater's spirituality, along with an emphasis on spending time in nature with God's creation.

Soon Pérez-Alcalá was joining the group regularly.

"Every weekend, we went back to the mountains," he said. "It was summer and beautiful out, but this was not a matter of sports. The trip was always spiritual."

Soon Pérez-Alcalá became more and more involved in the Catholic Church. A year after that first mountain retreat, he told his parents that he was moving to the Stabat Mater residence. Until that point, he had lived at home and commuted to college, so the announcement displeased and confused them. Since the residence was only one mile from the family home, they thought the move was impractical.

"(Laymen) usually don't live together in a community, but we did," Pérez-Alcalá said. "It took several years for my parents to understand and for us to renew our relationship, but I had a clear idea of what I wanted."

He began commuting from the residence to college and continued to do well in his engineering program. Following a discernment period, he took his lay consecrated vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Eventually, his parents' confidence in his decision grew. After Pérez-Alcalá graduated, he began his career as an engineer while continuing to live in the community.

Pérez-Alcalá went on to live in Stabat Mater communities in Salamanca, Burgos and Zaragoza before he was assigned to the Washington area in 1993. After he left Madrid, he no longer worked as an engineer, instead dedicating himself fully to Stabat Mater as a leader of spiritual exercises for young people.

He jokes that leaving the engineering field makes him less than the "genuine article" as a member of the institute. Per the institute's mission, members must "aspire to reach holiness in the world, without leaving the temporal realities and professions in which we live." Typically, members stay in their chosen profession and evangelize co-workers and anyone else with whom they are in contact. Yet after Pérez-Alcalá had worked as an engineer for five years, the institute needed a youth spirituality director, and he felt called to service.

"It's a vocation because not everyone can do it," he said. "It's hard to work with young people, especially teenagers."

Despite the challenges, he says he reaps a great reward.

"There is joy in watching (youths) grow in their Christian life," he said, adding that it makes him happy to watch them develop a relationship with Christ. In them, he sees the future of the church.

The silent retreat is one of his favorite spiritual exercises. During half-day and full-day retreats, participants must remain completely silent and spend their time thinking, praying or reading spiritual texts. The aim is to foster contemplation.

"There's this misconception that young people are all about noise and music and chatter, but the truth is that they really like the silent retreats," Pérez-Alcalá said. "They have to prepare for them, but they like them."

While the Stabat Mater Institute was not founded on encouraging religious vocations, Pérez-Alcalá said many of the boys and girls he has worked with have entered the priesthood or consecrated life.

"We try to direct everybody according to what God wants for them," he said.

Today there are four men in residence at Stabat Mater in McLean, all of whom are Hispanic and native Spanish speakers. As a result, the youths they serve are all Hispanic, though they speak varying degrees of Spanish since many were raised in the United States. Pérez-Alcalá said he is especially called to serve youths whose families have been "fractured" by immigration and the stresses of making a life in a new country.

"Our founder's idea was that first we would serve Spain and Hispanic America," said Pérez-Alcalá. "Second would come the rest of the world. Since we are young as an institute, we are still working on that second part." He added that though he wishes people from more diverse backgrounds were involved with Stabat Mater, the community is "so busy with Hispanics," that there has been little opportunity to extend outreach to other cultures.

But he finds working with fellow Hispanics - whether in retreats or pilgrimages - very fulfilling, describing Hispanics on the whole as "very religious" and "heart-warming" people. He does not view the differences among the Hispanic cultures - whether Spanish or Salvadoran - as barriers.

"We are not Hispanic Catholic. We are Catholic Hispanic. The most important (part of our identity) is our faith, (not our country of origin)," he said.

Stoddard is a freelance writer in Arlington.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016