By Peter Finney Jr.
He grew up in Venezuela and speaks Spanish. He dreams mostly in Italian. Ten years ago, when he lived and studied in Ireland for six months, he preached in English.
And now, in the Archdiocese of New Orleans, Dominican Father Manuel Eduardo Solorzano Zerpa, 47, is working full time in ministry with the Hispanic Apostolate on a one-year religious visa while trying to make sense of the strange inflections of Who Dat syntax, which might require a miracle greater than the Rosetta Stone to decipher.
But, he’s got time – he won’t leave for Rome to begin doctoral studies in liturgy (in Italian and French) until next July.
“Poquito – very little,” Father Manuel said, grading himself sternly on his knowledge of English.
In his spare time away from the Hispanic Apostolate, with the help of English as a Second Language classes at Notre Dame Seminary, a French tutor and a fellow Dominican priest, Father David Caron, Father Manuel has been a quick study in all things y’at.
Service to youth, young adults
His religious visa requires him to work 40 hours a week, and he is serving as an associate at the archdiocesan Hispanic Apostolate, establishing programs for Latino youth and young adults with a three-pronged goal of formation, recreation and service. On Thursday nights, he meets with young adults, and on Saturdays at 10 a.m., he directs a youth group gathering.
Those meetings are tied to deeper formation in the Catholic faith, a need identified by the Hispanic Apostolate, said Dominican Father Sergio Serrano, director.
“He is working with youth and young adults and helping them to grow spiritually,” Father Serrano said. “I asked him to teach about the different sacraments. He’s been very engaging with people. His preaching is very good. He has a sense of the universal church and the multicultural community because he has been ministering in so many different places.”
Immersion works best
On weekends, Father Manuel usually accompanies Father Caron to different parishes, including Transfiguration of the Lord in Gentilly, where he will concelebrate Mass and greet people before and after Mass, all part of the English immersion process.
A few weeks ago, he read part of the Eucharistic Prayer during Mass at Transfiguration, and his goal will be to recite the entire prayer in English in the near future.
“When I come to the point of reading well, then I can do the homily,” Father Manuel said. “In Ireland, I preached from a text.”
Father Manuel grew up in a family of five children on a farm in San Fernando, Venezuela, about five hours from Caracas. His father, an attorney, tended a family farm with cows, chickens and horses.
After attending a Dominican sisters’ high school – and before he enrolled in the University of Venezuela to study mathematics and engineering – he served as a teacher’s assistant in the elementary school the nuns ran.
Felt a vocational tug
“That’s when I started to think about a vocation for the first time,” Father Manuel said. “I participated in a retreat for Holy Week, and a Dominican priest from Spain led it. We walked with him, evangelizing and knocking on doors. It was an interesting experience for me. I remember at the Easter Vigil, the priest asked everybody about a vocation: ‘The Lord is calling. Who wants to hear his call?’ This impacted me.”
When he went on to college, he lived with two aunts near the campus, but every day he would join the Dominican priests and brothers to experience their prayer and community life. He entered the pre-novitiate in 1990, took solemn vows in 1998 and was ordained in 1999, ministering in parishes in Venezuela.
Because of his academic abilities, the Dominicans sent him to Rome in 2006 to earn a licentiate in liturgy, and in 2011, he returned to Venezuela to become pastor of Santa Rose de Lima Parish in Caracas, where he experienced the separateness of the Venezuelan and Peruvian Catholic communities and labored diligently to unite them.
“It was a wonderful experience because as a pastor I can accompany people in their faith, and they can be a companion to me,” Father Manuel said. “Also, I can hear their sufferings, and I can bring this suffering to God and pray for them.”
The Peruvians and Venezuelans speak a common language, but they have different devotions and different feast days, especially related to the Blessed Mother (Our Lady of Coromoto, Sept. 11, in Venezuela and Our Lady of Chapi, May 1, in Peru).
A common heritage in Christ
“The cultures are completely different,” he said. “It was very interesting to help them walk together as a community – not as different groups, Peruvians and Venezuelans – but as a Christian community. I liked that. I tried to help the Peruvians value their own culture, but from another way. First it is faith, then culture. I wanted them also to value the Venezuelan culture and recognize each other as children of God.
“When I arrived in this parish, I found different private groups – Peruvians A, B and C; Venezuelans A, B and C,” he said. “But everybody didn’t know each other even though they celebrated Mass in the same place.”
Eventually, the walls began to fall.
“Yes, after six years,” Father Manuel said, smiling. “Now, they recognize it is important to walk together as a community.”
When Father Manuel leaves for Rome next July to begin his doctoral studies, he does not know what his next assignment will be. He might teach in Rome, Venezuela or the U.S. Another possibility is going to China to teach in the Dominican seminary there.
His family back in Venezuela, meanwhile, has accepted the hardship of having him on the other side of the globe.
“They are happy because they are starting to understand my life,” Father Manuel said. “My mother tells me, ‘This is your life, and if you are happy, I am happy.’”
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.