By Celine Klosterman
Anastacio Ponce knew at 17 he was called to be a priest. He just didn’t know where answering that call would take him.
Fifteen years later, the native of Mexico is interning at St. Joseph Parish in DeWitt as he prepares to become a priest for the Davenport Diocese. “I believe God wants me to serve him here,” said Ponce, 32, now in his second year of theology at Mundelein Seminary at the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Ill.
“…I have a strong desire to serve his people in the Diocese of Davenport.”
He said that desire sprung from a realization of the diocese’s need for priests, including those who understand Mexican culture and speak Spanish fluently. But growing up in the southeast Mexican state of Veracruz, he wanted simply to share his faith with others as his mother had encouraged.
When he was a teenager, a chaperone for his parish youth group invited him to a “Come and See” week at a local high school seminary. Though short, the experience “filled me with joy,” Ponce said. So he decided to pursue the priesthood, and eventually earned a degree in philosophy from the college seminary San Andres Apostol in Veracruz.
Later, he completed a year of theology in the major seminary in the city of Catemaco, and then began an internship teaching Latin, logic and Spanish in Morelia at a high school seminary geared toward future missionaries.
There, a meeting with Msgr. Robert Gruss, then the Davenport Diocese’s director of vocations, changed his life’s direction. Msgr. Gruss was in Morelia to visit a man who was then a diocesan seminarian and to recruit other men willing to become priests in the United States.
“I was impressed with Anastacio, and after some conversation, I inquired about his interest in coming to the diocese and becoming a seminarian for us,” Msgr. Gruss said.
Ponce said he felt the invitation was a message from God. So in 2006, he spent a month in southeast Iowa with priests who serve Hispanic communities.
“I saw a greater need for priests here than in my home diocese,” which has many seminarians, Ponce said. So after he returned to Mexico, he began working to get documentation to study for the priesthood in the United States.
His three brothers were surprised at his decision, but supportive. His mother initially felt Iowa was too far from home, but after prayer and reflection, told Ponce she understood his plans were God’s will.
“It was hard to leave home, but at the same time I was happy because I had an opportunity to share my faith with people in another country,” Ponce said.
In September 2007, he began studying English at Conception Seminary College in Missouri before moving on to Mundelein Seminary.
On May 28, he’ll wrap up his three-month internship in DeWitt, where he has taught fourth- and fifth-grade religion classes at St. Joseph Catholic School, visited sick and homebound Catholics and learned about the daily life of a pastor.
Ponce’s visits to sick and homebound residents highlight his strengths, said Father Paul Connolly, pastor of St. Joseph Parish. “The people have truly recognized his kindness and caring manner. He also has a good sense of humor, which will serve him well. He meets people well and is able to engage them in conversation,” Fr. Connolly said.
“It has also been a blessing for our students in both St. Joseph School and our religious education program to have contact with a person from another culture.”
Bringing cultures together is one of Ponce’s goals for future ministry. “I love the idea of working in a bilingual parish and supporting two cultures as best I can.”
His own adjustment to U.S. culture continues: Many Iowans require more personal space than Mexicans do, he observed, and offering spiritual reflections in English sometimes proves daunting.
But he said he looks forward to the “joy and privilege” priests everywhere have of being with people at meaningful times. “I firmly believe that this is where God wants me to be.”